Testosterone has become a buzzword that some claim as the key to attractiveness, muscle growth, fitness, and even success in the workplace. Illegal substances that mimic the effects of testosterone on the body have become some of the most commonly used illicit drugs in the US, with around 0.5 percent of the US population admitting to anabolic steroid use, while others clamber to find alternatives to boost their natural levels of sex hormones. But what exactly is testosterone, and can we raise it naturally?
What is testosterone?
Testosterone is the primary sex hormone in males and plays a key role in the development of male sex organs, alongside much of the physical changes during male puberty. It is secreted from the testicles in males and ovaries and adrenal glands in females. This hormone drives a host of important developmental characteristics, including muscle growth and bone density, sex drive, facial and pubic hair, and the production of sperm. That isn’t to say females do not have testosterone – much like estrogen is found in males, females do have circulating testosterone, but their bodies naturally produce around 10 or 20 times less than the male body.
Specifically, testosterone is a signaling molecule that binds to androgen receptors. It is carried through the blood to target tissues, where it exhibits both androgenic (development of male characteristics) and anabolic (increase of muscle mass and density, and bone density) effects.
That isn't to say that we should just boost testosterone levels to the Moon, though. Evidence suggests a link between high levels of dihydrotestosterone (a more potent androgen derived from testosterone) and male pattern baldness. There is also some extremely contested science suggesting testosterone may be linked to aggression and criminality, but the evidence remains slim.
Owing to its role in muscle growth and bone density – some of the largest contributing factors in overall strength – increasing testosterone or supplementing with testosterone analogs is a popular method of increasing athletic performance. However, most of these supplements are either illegal or only legally available when medically prescribed. Luckily, testosterone levels vary massively within the body, and there are various ways through lifestyle and diet that can naturally and safely raise these levels.
The treadmill calls
First, let's get the relatively obvious one out of the way. Correlations with exercise and increased serum testosterone and other androgen levels have been shown, but the exact mechanism is currently unknown. Research has suggested that reducing body fat percentage may be a strong driver for increased testosterone, which may be the reason some exercise methods have more of an effect than others.
According to a 2018 study on men with erectile dysfunction, the researchers found the best methods of increasing testosterone were reducing body fat and improving cardiovascular fitness through aerobic activity. A clinical trial in 2017 found similar results, with a 12-week aerobic exercise regime increasing serum testosterone in overweight men.
So, if you’re looking for a simple way to increase your androgen levels, we’re sorry to say it might be time for some cardio.
Time to eat well
Eating a nutritious and balanced diet is the next ticket to high testosterone – and no, that does not mean cutting out carbs or fats. A twin study that analyzed how diet affects testosterone levels found a positive correlation with healthy fat intake, as well as keeping weight low and eating fewer calories. Eating sufficient protein is also correlated with overall testosterone levels, and a controlled intake of carbohydrates to complement the cardio and resistance training also has a beneficial effect.
Essentially, if you are going to exercise to boost testosterone, you’ll also need a strong handle on your nutrition, and don't be skimping on any of the food groups.
An increasing body of evidence shows strong links between vitamin D levels and circulating testosterone. A 2010 study comparing a group taking Vitamin D supplements and a placebo group found a significant correlation with those taking vitamin D and an increase in testosterone, while the placebo group remained the same. Another report found similar results, with supplemental Vitamin D reliably boosting testosterone in men. However, both these pieces of research were in people with low vitamin D concentrations, and the evidence to support increasing vitamin D intake when you already receive adequate amounts is more stretched.
It is therefore incredibly important you receive sufficient vitamin D if you are looking to boost your male sex hormones, either by the best way – simply going outside and enjoying the sunshine – or via supplements.
It’s not all physical
By now, you might be thinking that increasing testosterone is all about generally being a healthy person, and you aren’t far wrong. However, there is one more thing that correlates strongly with testosterone levels – prestige. Prestige is how highly in regard others hold you: Do they respect and admire you? Do they look up to you as a leader? This is an entirely social ranking, but might have an effect on your testosterone levels.
In humans, civilization has now evolved to the point where leadership comes from social characteristics – sorry to say, you cannot simply beat up your boss to become CEO. Testosterone is thought to be a "competition hormone" – so, could testosterone be boosted in people that have higher prestige, and thus a higher social ranking?
The answer, according to a 2018 study, is yes. When researchers took a sample of males and watched as a hierarchy formed, as it usually does, they noticed something interesting. As the "high-ranking" males achieved high levels of prestige, judged by their peers, their testosterone rose. Those that achieved a low ranking in the group saw no change, or in some cases, a decline in testosterone levels. The results suggested that testosterone may actually directly correlate with social standing, propping up those with high prestige.
Therefore, if you are looking for a way to potentially boost testosterone that doesn’t lie within a dreaded treadmill or chicken and rice, maybe you should start working on your social skills.
*Please note: none of these methods should be considered medical advice and are not adequate replacements for clinical interventions. If you are concerned about a sex-hormone deficiency, consult a medical professional.