Testosterone is the undisputed heavyweight champion hormone of male sexual function and physique optimization. It’s closely linked with your body’s feel-good hormone, dopamine, and your overall motivation, mental health, cognitive function, and heart health.
But men’s testosterone levels are dropping. Testosterone levels have dropped by 1% per year since the 1980s (1).
Men today can have testosterone levels 20% lower than men the same age from a generation ago. Overall, we’re weaker, fatter, less muscular, less motivated, more flaccid, less fertile, and less healthy than generations before us.
I’m not a doctor, and this does not convey medical advice. The best way to gauge your testosterone levels is to get tested by a doctor and consult with an endocrinologist.
That said, there are numerous proven lifestyle adjustments that may help you optimize your testosterone levels and physique. Here are the strategies to get back on track.
A Quick Primer of Testosterone
Your body makes testosterone in your gonads and, to a lesser extent, your adrenal glands. Cholesterol is crucial for the production of hormones. Once testosterone is synthesized, there are three potential fates:
- Testosterone gets bound by albumin and sex hormone-binding globulin (SHGB).
- Testosterone gets converted into estrogen by aromatase.
- Testosterone stays in your blood as free testosterone to help you get jacked and have world-class boners.
Our goal is to maximize free testosterone. Here’s how.
1. Consume Adequate Cholesterol, Fat, and Calories
Cholesterol is a crucial building block for hormonal health. Without adequate intake of cholesterol, dietary fat, and calories, your T levels suffer.
Researchers have found that eating around 0.8 to 1 gram of fat per kilogram of body weight is adequate for optimal hormone production (2,3).
The types and quality of the fats you consume play a large role in health and hormone function. Omega-3 fatty acids help the stabilization of hormones, the rebuilding of cells, and sexual hormone function. Omega-6 hormones and trans-fats have negative impacts on testosterone and hormone function.
Losing body fat should improve hormone levels over the long haul, but periods of intense dieting and calorie restriction can reduce testosterone levels. The solution is to get and stay lean while adopting a lifestyle to support healthy hormone levels.
What does all this mean?
- Food quality matters. Avoid most refined, fatty foods and as many trans-fats as possible.
- Eat fish and/or supplement with high-quality fish oil like Flameout® to improve omega 3:6 ratios.
- Aim to get at least 20% of your calories each day from fat to provide ample fuel for your hormones.
2. Optimize Sleep
The majority of testosterone release occurs at night. If your sleep is trash, your testosterone production will be next.
Proper sleep reduces inflammation and cortisol. Sex hormone-binding globulin (SHGB), which binds up testosterone in your blood, also decreases with adequate sleep.
How much sleep do you need? Consider this sleep study (4). Researchers first had participants sleep from 10 PM to 8 AM. This was their fully rested condition. In the final week, participants spent eight nights getting only 5 hours of sleep (12:30 AM to 5:30 AM).
The result? In just one week of sleeping 5 hours per night, their testosterone levels plummeted by 10-15%.
Age affects these levels too. Testosterone has been shown to decrease by 1-2% every year after 30 years old. So by sleeping 5 hours per night or less, you’re giving yourself testosterone levels of someone 10-15 years older.
Sleep Apnea: Hidden T Crusher
One out of every 15 Americans suffers from some form of sleep apnea. Most cases (80%) are undiagnosed, and levels are rising across all populations.
Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. It’s correlated with early death and higher occurrences of heart attack and stroke.
One of the culprits of sleep apnea? Poor breathing habits like shallow chest breathing. The more you breathe through your mouth and the more nasal resistance (congestion) you have, the more you’ll struggle with sleep apnea.
How does this tie into testosterone? Getting enough sleep and reducing stress are crucial for T levels. If you’re a shallow-sleeping mouth-breather, you’ll struggle to reach the deep-sleep states needed for optimal recovery and testosterone production.
Consider mouth taping, using Breathe-Right strips or nasal openers at night to improve breathing at night.
To optimize sleep, stick to consistent sleeping and rising times. Reduce blue light exposure before and during sleep hours because too much of it can prevent deep sleep and disrupt dopamine levels. And create rituals to reduce stress around bedtime.
3. Learn to Breathe Better and De-Stress
Stress can undermine your health and testosterone levels. One of the best ways to mitigate stress? Optimize breathing patterns. Breathing well won’t just improve your sleep, it’ll help you combat stress when you’re awake.
Ineffective breathing patterns keep your body in a chronic, low-stress state. Poor breathing impacts everything from your mood and sleep to exercise performance.
How should you be breathing? Through your nose both during non-exercise and exercise activities… with the exception of all-out efforts.
Nasal breathing during exercise releases nitric oxide, which increases carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood. This, in turn, is what releases oxygen. As you become accustomed to breathing through your nose, your cells will get more oxygen, and you’ll reduce fatigue and stress so you can train harder.
After training, diaphragmatic breathing can increase antioxidant defense and decrease cortisol levels to jumpstart recovery. Taking just five minutes to perform diaphragmatic breathing like box breathing can help reduce stress.
To do box breathing, take 4 seconds to inhale, then hold for 4 seconds, then take 4 seconds to exhale and do another 4-second hold. Here’s a demo from Dr. John Rusin:
Effective breathing can improve performance and reduce stress, thereby supporting healthy testosterone levels.
4. Get Some Sun and Vitamin D
Exposure to sunlight early in the day is crucial in setting your circadian rhythms, optimizing sleep, and boosting levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine isn’t just a feel-good neurotransmitter. It interacts with testosterone and other hormones. It influences the secretion of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) from the hypothalamus to the pituitary gland.
This gives a direct signal to the testes to produce more testosterone. This is likely the reason why having higher dopamine results in enhanced libido. This is one way dopamine and testosterone interact; having adequate dopamine levels plays a role in increasing testosterone.
Natural sunlight will also boost vitamin D levels, but if you can’t get adequate exposure, then vitamin D supplementation will also support lean muscle, strength, immune function, and decreased body fat levels.
According to research, men with the lowest levels of vitamin D quintile had lower testosterone concentrations compared with men in the highest quintile (5). Furthermore, another study has shown significant increases in testosterone levels in men who received vitamin D3 (6).
Get out in natural sunlight to improve sleep, dopamine levels, and vitamin D. As nutritional insurance supplement with a high-quality vitamin D3 supplement.
5. Compete to Increase Testosterone
Competition changes levels of testosterone in both men and women. According to research, winners of a competition have higher testosterone levels in their next match (7).
Losers experience falling testosterone immediately afterward and in their next match. Competing increases testosterone, and winning boosts it even more.
Find a way to compete. It’ll bring out your best effort and may enhance testosterone production to boot.
6. Train Wisely
In the shocker of the century, resistance training improves testosterone levels. Optimizing T with training isn’t as simple as throwing on some plates, though.
The best results for improving testosterone levels come from heavy resistance training (70-90% 1RM) but not training to complete decimation. Increases in cortisol levels and decreases in testosterone have been shown in multiple studies when training goes longer than an hour.
You don’t need to limit your workouts to 60 minutes, but there’s a point of diminishing returns with longer, higher volume, train-to-failure workouts.
During training, testosterone levels rise, but soon after the workout, there’s an increase in cortisol. That’s where carbs come in handy. Beyond leveraging post-workout insulin sensitivity to refill glycogen stores and increase muscle growth, consuming carbs post-workout can mitigate the cortisol response and jumpstart recovery.
Consistent, intensive strength training in elite athletes can influence the pituitary and possibly hypothalamic levels, leading to increased serum levels of testosterone (8). The caveat here is elite athletes do a much better job of emphasizing recovery and eating enough to support it.
What does this mean for the average person who benches three times per week with plenty of interval training and chronic dieting? If you want to work out hard and optimize your testosterone levels, your sleep and nutrition have to follow suit.
Where does endurance training fit in? Long duration endurance training (60-plus minutes) has been shown to increase cortisol levels and decrease testosterone levels.
To optimize testosterone levels, do your weight training before your cardio, not after. Or better yet, separate your lifting sessions from your cardio by doing them on different days to mitigate the negative effects cardio may have on testosterone.
7. Get the Right Micronutrients and Supplementation
ZMA: This is a supplement composed of magnesium and zinc designed to attack common nutrient deficiencies, promoting optimal sleep, recovery, and hormone levels.
Magnesium deficiency is the second most common dietary deficiency in the Western world (right behind vitamin D). Magnesium plays a role in over 300 chemical reactions inside the body, including many revolving around sleep, recovery, and stress management, all of which play crucial roles in optimizing testosterone (9).
Zinc is involved with optimizing testicular function and reproductive health as well as brain and immune function (10). Decreases in the mineral content of most foods today, along with heavy exercise, will cause many people to be low in both magnesium and zinc, making supplementation a no-brainer.
Vitamin D: In addition to natural sunlight, supplementation is recommended to improve immune function, mood, and testosterone levels. Vitamin D acts more like a hormone than a vitamin, and the majority of people suffer from alarmingly low levels of it.
Creatine: Evidence is mixed as to whether it directly improves testosterone levels. That said, it’s been proven to help you build and preserve strength, muscle, optimize cognitive function, and boost mitochondrial function. People with low T struggle with all of those maladies, so adding 5 grams of creatine per day will improve gym performance and health, particularly in those with low testosterone.
8. Have Some Sex
Adequate T levels support optimal sexual health, and sexual activity promotes optimal testosterone levels. What does this mean for your sex life?
Researchers studied men who visited sex clubs (11). I’m not sure how you get into these studies, but good for them. Anyway, those who went to sex clubs had a 36% increase in testosterone. Those who were actively participating had a magnitude 72% greater than observers, irrespective of age.
This study shows that participating in sex provides a greater boost than simply self-servicing to PornHub in your bathroom between Zoom meetings.
Further research found negative feedback between men’s testosterone levels, sociosexual psychology, and sexual partner number (12). Specifically, they determined that seeking more sexual partners may lower testosterone levels while hypothesizing that testosterone drives “sexual hunting” in men, but is inhibited when the desires are fulfilled.
So, testosterone promotes sexual intercourse success, which, in turn, down-regulates testosterone production. In other words, having sex is great, but trying to bang everything that moves won’t support optimal T levels.
Putting A Plan of Action Together
The first step in improving your testosterone is getting your levels tested with a qualified endocrinologist. If you’re in your 20s, get a full blood panel and consider testing your levels annually.
It’s impossible to gauge improvement if you don’t do this. And it’s impossible to know whether further intervention may be needed without blood work as a baseline.
Address lifestyle factors like drinking alcohol, drug/opioid use, stress, and sleep that may have tanked your testosterone in the first place. Then, work to optimize your training, nutrition, sun exposure, and sex life to optimize your natural T levels.
Research and Citations
- Travison, Thomas. “A Population-Level Decline in Serum Testosterone Levels in American Men.” PubMed Central, 2007.
- Ouladsahebmadarek et al. 2014.”Hormonal and Metabolic Effects of Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid (Omega-3) on Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Induced Rats under Diet.” PubMed Central, 1 Feb. 2014.
- Lidia Mínguez-Alarcón et al. 2017.”Fatty Acid Intake in Relation to Reproductive Hormones and Testicular Volume among Young Healthy Men.” PubMed Central (PMC), 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5312216.
- “Effect of 1 Week of Sleep Restriction on Testosterone Levels in Young Healthy MenFREE.” PubMed Central (PMC), 1 June 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4445839.
- Wentz, About, et al. “Vitamin D Correlation with Testosterone Concentration in Male US Soldiers and Veterans.” Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health, 2016, jmvh.org/article/vitamin-d-correlation-with-testosterone-concentration-in-male-us-soldiers-and-veterans.
- Pilz S, Frisch S, Koertke H, et al. Effect of vitamin D supplementation on testosterone levels in men. Hormone and Metabolic Research. 2011 Mar;43(3):223-5.
- Booth, A. “Testosterone, and Winning and Losing in Human Competition.” PubMed, 1989, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2606468.
- Hakkinen, K., et al. “Neuromuscular and Hormonal Adaptations in Athletes to Strength Training in Two Years.” Hakkinen, 1988, journals.physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/jappl.19126.96.36.1996.
- Cinar V, Polat Y, Baltaci AK, Mogulkoc R, “Effects of magnesium supplementation on testosterone levels of athletes and sedentary subjects at rest and after exhaustion,” Biol Trace Elem Res. 2011 Apr;140(1):18-23.
- C D Hunt, P E Johnson, J Herbel, L K Mullen, “Effects of dietary zinc depletion on seminal volume and zinc loss, serum testosterone concentrations, and sperm morphology in young men.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 56, Issue 1, July 1992, Pages 148–157.
- Escasa, M.J., J.F. Casey, and P.B. Gray, Salivary testosterone levels in men at a U.S. sex club. Arch Sex Behav, 2011. 40(5): p. 921-6.
- Puts, D.A., et al., Fulfilling desire: evidence for negative feedback between men’s testosterone, sociosexual psychology, and sexual partner number. Horm Behav, 2015. 70: p. 14-21.
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