There's no one thing that makes you a “real man,” but your testosterone levels certainly play a pretty significant role. You could say it's what separates the men from the boys—literally. But how? What is testosterone, really? Why do some bodybuilders sweat their T levels and inject themselves with hormones or steroids? Is it as important as we've been led to believe? And what happens if you have lower levels than the average man? With all these questions, we thought we should look into the topic. We dialed up some answers and dug into the science … here are the answers to a few simple questions.
What is testosterone?
Put simply, testosterone is a hormone produced primarily in the testicles (and, to a lesser extent, the ovaries of females). It regulates everything from sperm production and sex drive to muscle mass, a deeper voice and all your body hair (whether you want it or not). The hormone also plays a role in your bone density, fat distribution and red blood cell production.
Do we really need it?
Well, yeah. In addition to the primary bodily functions above, T is responsible for pushing us through puberty. So without it, we'd all look (and feel) like kids forever. According to the Journal of Applied Physiology, testosterone also increases our potential for muscle growth, increasing our strength by forcing the body to increase protein synthesis. Post-puberty, a man's body continues to produce testosterone well into adulthood, which ensures he can continue building muscle.
More testosterone means more muscle, right?
Yes and no. An increase in testosterone provides the potential to build more muscle. So boosting your T can be effective for strength training and bodybuilding. But be wary of artificial testosterone supplements or anabolic steroids, which come with serious downsides. Researchers in Denmark found that when you take an artificial T hit, the body slows its natural testosterone production. And if you take too many, that slowdown becomes permanent, hence the warnings of how steroids shrink a bodybuilder's balls.
What causes a drop in testosterone?
Your testosterone will fluctuate naturally. For example, your levels are highest in the morning. Dr. Faysal Yafi, M.D., associate professor of Urology and the director of Men's Health at the University of California, says it’s because the hormone follows our natural circadian rhythm, so it’s highest between 7am and 10am, and lowest in the evening. And we know that what we eat can impact our health, and that includes our hormones. A 2018 study of 20- to 39-year-old males found that those who drank large amounts of sugar-sweetened beverages had a higher chance of low testosterone levels. That same year scientists found that men who consumed high amounts of breads and pastries, and other desserts had low total testosterone levels. Another buzzkill? Researchers confirmed a long-believed theory that men who drink alcohol heavily have lower testosterone levels than those who rarely drink. The key here? Moderation.
What do low levels do to our bodies?
After turning 30, most men begin to experience a gradual decline in testosterone. A decrease in sex drive occasionally accompanies this drop in T, which convinces many men that they're less interested in sex simply because they're getting older. “Some say it's just a part of aging, but that's actually a misconception,” says Jason Hedges, M.D., a urologist at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. Other telltale signs of a drop in testosterone are also linked with male aging: Hair loss, decreased bone mass, increased body fat along with a weaker heart. For men who produce low testosterone naturally, some of these problems can arise much earlier than middle age. In which case, a man can work with his doctor to boost his T levels via injections and lifestyle changes.
Can you raise your levels?
While testosterone replacement therapy via injections can effectively boost your levels, a review of 28 scientific studies on diet and its relation to testosterone levels and sexual health suggests that you might be better restoring your T levels naturally. And if you don't have clinically low levels, but are still looking to increase your testosterone, skip the prescription and focus on your lifestyle and diet.
For instance, try to avoid stress and its accompanying high levels of cortisol—a hormone that can block the production of testosterone. Shoot for at least seven hours of quality sleep and try a 10-15 minute meditation before bed to improve sleep quality and reduce cortisol levels in the body. You can also take multivitamins and supplements—both zinc and saw palmetto have been found to be beneficial for men with low testosterone levels and infertility. The amino acids in milk boost production of anabolic hormones, while chemicals in grapes help raise T-levels and boost sperm motility. Ginger, leafy green vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil and fish all have properties that can help elevate testosterone levels.
* Your T-Boosting Workout: Opt for compound movements, such as squats, rows, and chest presses. These use multiple muscle groups and stimulate testosterone release more than isolation movements.