Eat Like a T-Man

Can diet affect Testosterone and estrogen levels?

I recently went to a bachelor party for a friend of mine, and the topic of conversation, believe it or not, was benching. It sort of seemed weird to me.

I mean, where were the strippers? I caught myself thinking, "I don't care what you bench, bring on the cootchie," but then it hit me. I was there with a bunch of cardiologists and surgeons — people who consider themselves men among men, to borrow a term from the great book, Liar's Poker. Instead of talking about the latest five star restaurant that was part of the drug rep's bribe (oops, I mean, "educational session,") or how endothelial damage is at the core of heart disease, these fine fellows were talking about working out!

I took some time to myself (and with "Heather," the just-arrived entertainment) to reflect upon the surging levels of Testosterone in the room. The doctors were more concerned with how to gain strength and size and lose fat, all while gaining vitality — sounds pretty Testosteronish to me!

I listened to them quietly, and their talk became a game of one-upmanship, reminiscent of high school years, but refreshing in light of whom I was with. The message that I took home from what turned out to be a very wild night (don't worry Mitch, I'll never tell) is that Testosterone is very much alive and desired by all walks of life.

Thinking about this later while chowing down on pan seared tuna with steamed vegetables and a glass of Terre de Tuti (a great wine from Tuscany) gave rise to an epiphany. What if certain foods that are typically included in the diet can affect our Testosterone or estrogen levels? Can Testosterone-like foods even affect our training? This is what's at the core of what was eating me.

It's estimated that 80% of the world's population still relies on natural phytotherapy (foods, plants, herbs, etc.) as a major source of medicine. Through the years, certain foods and herbs have been recognized for their use in treating sex-hormone related conditions. For some, this may manifest itself as menopause, while others are more interested in libido enhancement.

Interestingly enough, many of these phytotherapeutic agents aren't detected by conventional testing methods. Fortunately, scientists have developed methods for identifying the estrogenic content and progestogenic activity of foods, herbs, and other related agents.(1-3)

Now, the effect of these "female hormones" may be of greater importance than the direct effect of foods, herbs and spices on Testosterone levels. Altering the Testosterone-to-estrogen ratio can greatly influence anabolism in man.

The present research available has examined the effects of 150 different foods, herbs and spices on estrogen receptor (ER) and progesterone binding properties. Additionally, these foods were examined for their effects on alkaline phosphatase (a group of isoenzymes which are involved in generating the phosphate used to produce energy, as in ATP, and clinically used to diagnose diseases which impair bile formation, liver disease and certain cancers), as well as their effects on the down regulation of estrogen.(4)

The herbs tested for ER binding activity were also tested for their ability to stimulate cell proliferation in breast cancer cells. Table 1 lists the results regarding ER binding potential. Soy milk and the 11 herbs/spices listed are with the highest activity and are expressed in total estradiol binding equivalents per 200 cc (6 oz.) of soy milk or 2 grams of dried herb.

Micrograms of Estradiol Equivalents/200 cc or 2 gm Dry Herb
Soy milk 8/200cc
Licorice 4/2 gm
Red Clover 3
Mandrake 3
Bloodroot 2
Thyme 2
Yucca 0.5
Tumeric 0.5
Hops 0.5
Verbenna 0.5
Yellow Dock 0.5
Sheep Sorrel 0.5

It's important to understand that just because a food, herb or spice has ER binding capability, it doesn't mean that it inhibits estrogen formation or acts as a natural aromatase inhibitor. In fact, the total opposite is true.

In short, Table 1 indicates that the 12 listed agents have estrogenic activity at low physiological doses. If you take at least 2 grams of any of the herbs daily or drink 6 ounces or more of soy milk, your body is getting in touch with it's feminine side. It is time to start watching Oprah and having long talks on the phone with your friends, pal.

If breast cancer runs in your family, especially estrogenic receptor positive breast cancer, paying attention to what you eat and what supplements you take is of utmost importance. Now, maybe you're saying that this doesn't directly effect you. Perhaps, but since breast cancer effects 1 in 9 females over a lifetime, chances are we all know someone who has it or will have it in our lifetime.

Therefore, it's my belief that we should all share any information we have in our possession. Within the limited scope of this article, the information presented fits into potential supplements and foods or spices to avoid. Table 2 lists the results of the research examining the effects of the herbs on ER (+) breast cancer cells. Any herb or spice with a score above 400 has greater estrogen activity than estradiol.

Effects of ER binding herbs on ER (+) Breast Cancer Cells
Coumestrol 2500
Mandrake 50
Juniper 100
Red Clover 3000
Mistletoe 500
Dong Quai 200
Hops 1000
Black Cohosh 200
Licorice 1600
Bloodroot 0
Nutmeg 20
White Clover 500
Yucca 2600
Damiana 200
Motherwort 1200

Table 2 indicates that coumestrol, red clover, mistletoe, don quai, hops, licorice, white clover, yucca, and motherwort are more estrogenic than estradiol! For people at risk for breast cancer and men who want to remain real T men, avoiding the aforementioned herbs and spices seems prudent.

Typically, when people are trying to gain muscle size via weight training, they're also attempting to eat a clean diet, get adequate rest, and take appropriate supplements. Most of us incorporate a good protein based shake, a multivitamin, creatine and perhaps other supplements which are aimed at bolstering Testosterone levels (i.e. Tribex).

Many people try to naturally enhance gonadotropic hormones (i.e., Testosterone) by stimulating luteinizing hormone (LH). LH, among other things, signals the testes to produce Testosterone. One of the effects of the female hormone progesterone, however, is to inhibit the release of new LH and reduce the circulating levels of LH.(5) Therefore, while progesterone isn't produced in men (well, perhaps in certain off-Broadway actors) certain foods, herbs and spices do have progesterone-like activity. Eating these progesteronic foods in appreciable amounts theoretically may reduce Testosterone levels. Table 3 notes the progesterone-like activity of herbs and spices.

Micrograms of Progesterone Equivalents/2 g Dry Herb
Bloodroot 100
Ocotillo 8
Mandrake 8
Oregano 8
Damiana 6
Pennyroyal 5
Verbena 5
Nutmeg 4
Tumeric 4
Yucca 4
Thyme 4
Calamus Root 3
Red Clover 3
Goldenseal 3
Licorice 3
Mistletoe 3
Cumin 2
Fennel 2
Camomille 2
Cloves 2

According to the researchers, none of the herbs tested are progesterone antagonists (the abortion pill and sometimes used bodybuilding drug, RU486 is a progesterone antagonist). However, red clover, licorice, goldenseal, pennyroyal and nutmeg are progestin (a progesterone-like hormone) agonists. The herb with the greatest progesterone receptor binding activity was bloodroot. Interestingly enough, in alternative medicine, bloodroot, mandrake, pennyroyal, yucca and mistletoe are all used to elicit the onset of menses. They are definitely herbs to be avoided by anyone looking to be a T man.

What about Food and Testosterone?

Unfortunately, there isn't a plethora of well-conducted studies investigating the potential Testosterone raising effects of herbs or spices. To date, there are mixed findings regarding tribulus terristris and avena sativa for effecting Testosterone levels in young men. Some proprietary studies with older men indicate that Avena sativa can enhance free Testosterone levels, while the data for Tribulus appears to be gaining a better foothold. One issue with Tribulus is potency. Substandard products will not yield the same results as the higher quality products.

However, research does indicate that certain things, like licorice definitely lowers Testosterone levels in men. Logically, this makes sense, since it's such a strong phytoestrogen.

It's becoming more and more apparent that men should avoid the foods, herbs or spices that have estrogen or progesterone-like activity (unless indicated by your physician for certain medical conditions, i.e., prostate cancer) when training to gain strength and/or size.

An Herbal Recap

The work of researchers Zava, et al. in the hormonal effects of food, herbs, and spices is unparalleled. This is all the more important as herbal therapies are gaining daily in popularity (it's a multi-billion dollar business). Obviously, making wise choices with supplements and foods is one key towards bodybuilding and athletic success. The following herbs, spices or foods should be avoided in your quest to remain all man: soy, soy milk, soy protein powders, licorice, red clover, dong quai, damiana, black cohosh, verbana, motherwort, thyme, oregano, tumeric, hops, (sorry guys, beer itself lowers Testosterone levels in men, while having the opposite effects in females), bloodroot, mandrake, pennyroyal, yucca and mistletoe.

Granted, a lot of these things don't find their way into the diets of average physique athletes, but my main point is that we need to start thinking about the hidden effects of foods.

About the Author: Douglas S. Kalman MS, RD is the Director of Clinical Research at Peak Wellness, Inc in Greenwich , CT. Doug also is a media spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine and has published over 30 scientific articles related to nutrition, dietary supplements and exercise physiology. Recently, he was spotted causing a ruckus at a NYC restaurant. Word has it someone laced his dinner with soy.


1) Zava DT, Duwe G. Estrogenic and antiproliferative properties of genistein and other flavonoids in human breast cancer cells in vitro. Nutr Cancer 1997;27:31-40.

2) McLachlan JA. Functional toxicology: A new approach to detect biologically active xenobiotics. Environ Health Perspect 1993;101:386-387.

3) Soto AM, Lin T, et al. An "in culture" bioassay to assess the estrogenicity of xenobiotics. In: Colburn T, Clement C, Eds. Chemically induced Alterations in Sexual and Functional Development. Princeton Scientific Publishing Co. 1992:295-309.

4) Zava DT, Dollbaum CM, Blen M. Estrogen and progestin bioactivity of foods, herbs, and spices. Proc Soc Exp Biol Med 1998;217:369-378.

5) Marieb EN. Human Anatomy and Physiology. Benjamin Cummings Publishing Co. Inc. 1989. Chapter 28, pp 914-954.