Is it possible to boost testosterone with just macronutrients? If you've read your share of nutrition articles, you know dietary fat and cholesterol get all the attention when it comes to hormone production.
Testosterone, like many of our other hormones, is derived from a hormone called pregnenolone. Pregnenolone relies on a cholesterol precursor to serve as the raw material for our hormonal production. Consume a low-fat diet and you're leaving testosterone on the proverbial table as you deny the body adequate resources and building blocks for this biochemical process,
But what about carbs? Is it possible that one of the most overlooked testosterone-raising strategies on the market is actually in your workout nutrition? The answer is a resounding yes.
Though fat may provide the raw materials for production through cholesterol, carbs can protect your testosterone production by opposing cortisol via the production of insulin.
Why Insulin Is a Friend of Testosterone
Go to the gym, crush a hard workout, and you're likely to begin triggering a cortisol response along with an increase in muscle protein breakdown from training. While some cortisol is good, if it's left unmanaged, we leave our body in a sympathetic state (categorized by heightened alertness and fight or flight), as well as a catabolic state.
When we perpetuate this catabolic state, our body begins to perform what's called the "pregnenolone steal." Remember all those raw materials we just talked about from fat and cholesterol consumption? The perpetuated pregnenolone steal and high circulations of cortisol create a constraint on your body's natural T-production.
This is further exacerbated by the fact that cortisol also inhibits STAR protein (Steroidogenic Acute Regulatory Protein) whose job is to regulate the transfer of cholesterol within your mitochondria. STAR does exactly what it sounds like: it activates the synthesis of steroid hormones in the Leydig cells, which is the rate limiting step in the production of your natural steroid hormones like testosterone.
In other words, less interference with that cholesterol transfer and less inhibition of testosterone production means we're even closer to our goal optimized performance.
We're less likely to continue releasing cortisol to break down energy to create energy if we have adequate carbohydrate and insulin circulating during the time around your training session. By limiting cortisol and preventing it from being chronically elevated, we can allow testosterone (an anabolic hormone) to fully function.
- Elevated cortisol causes us to enter a sympathetic or fight or flight state.
- Cortisol and testosterone are inversely related. They're counter-regulatory hormones. This is partially because cortisol also robs the raw materials that would otherwise be used for testosterone production.
- Insulin is also inversely related to cortisol, and we know that strategically timed carb consumption is one of the best ways to trigger an insulin response to bring cortisol back down.
- Carbohydrates thwart cortisol production via insulin release and puts our body back in a parasympathetic or "rest and digest" mode for recovery and muscle building.
- Managing cortisol through the methods above allows us to preserve the resources (like cholesterol and pregnenolone) responsible for testosterone production.
So, what now?
Here's What To Do
Here are some tangible action steps that you can start doing now:
1 – Use Cyclic Dextrin and Amino Acids
The best ways to control this cortisol response are by using carbohydrates like cyclic dextrin powder and peptides, EAA's (essential amino acids) and/or leucine to halt the overproduction of this hormone. Cortisol in excess robs the raw materials necessary for T production.
Solid food is NOT sufficient for this type of strategy, but when spaced appropriately can be added pre or post-workout to enhance the effects of the recommended supplementation.
2 – Individualize Your Dosing
Essential amino acids and leucine can stimulate mTOR, insulin, and muscle protein synthesis during or post workout. However, there's a limit to the amount of carbohydrate that you need. For the average sized male lifter, start at 25-35 grams of a performance carbohydrate such as cyclic dextrin or isomaltulose and titrate your way up. Females start at 15 grams.
You can individualize your dosing based on bodyweight, the periodization of your programming, and as a percentage of your daily carbohydrate or macronutrient intake. When properly timed around your workout these carbs can enhance performance and hormone optimization.
More training volume means more need for carbohydrate, so be mindful of your total sets, reps, and load during your workout. For larger lifters, it's not uncommon for a 200-plus pound lifter doing a high volume, bodybuilding-style program to consume upwards of 50-75 grams of carbohydrate during this period.
3 – Add Some Leucine
For optimal results, ingest 5-10 grams of leucine in addition to a balanced array of the other essential amino acids. Even with budgetary constraints you'd want an absolute bare minimum of 3 grams.
Hydrolyzed peptides or essential amino acids are your best investment around your workout, as studied by the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Rapidly digested proteins that contain high proportions of essential amino acids (EAAs) and adequate leucine, are most effective in stimulating MPS according to the latest sports nutrition research (Jager et al 2017).
4 – Start Conservatively with Carbs
Too many carbs will cause a decrease in insulin sensitivity and will eventually be mediated by T3 and malic acid, so don't ride this wave so high that you throw a wrench in other areas of hormonal health (i.e. insulin sensitivity, fasted blood glucose, etc.).
Start with a dose around 25 grams and increase your dosage depending on recovery and your total daily macronutrient intake. A caloric excess, even with optimized timing, can still potentially result in some problems. Each 25 gram scoop of added carbohydrate alone is approximately 100 calories, so be mindful of where this fits in your daily nutrient totals. It does pack a punch for the amount of calories ingested, but it's still wise to note this in your overall nutrition strategy.
We've known for years now that workout nutrition has played an important role in exercise recovery and muscle growth – from triggering muscle protein synthesis to making us less sore, the compound effect of well-timed carbohydrates and amino acids is undeniable.
The next time when loading your supplement shopping cart remember the effects of carbohydrate extend beyond simply fueling muscle recovery. Through properly timed nutrient consumption it's possible to manipulate the endocrine system as well and have an additional transformation tactic at our disposal.
Related: Don't Let Exercise Kill Testosterone Levels
Related: What You Don't Know About Workout Supplements
- Volek JS, Kraemer WJ, Bush JA, Incledon T, Boetes M. Testosterone and cortisol in relationship to dietary nutrients and resistance exercise. J Appl Physiol 1997;82:49-54.
- Jäger et al. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (2017) 14:20 DOI 10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
- Sallinen JJ, Pakarinen AA, Ahtiainen JJ, Kraemer WWJ, Volek JJS, Häkkinen KK. Relationship between diet and serum anabolic hormone responses to heavy-resistance exercise in men. International journal of sports medicine 2004;25:627-33.
- Paddon-Jones D, Sheffield-Moore M, Creson DL, et al. Hypercortisolemia alters muscle protein anabolism following ingestion of essential amino acids. American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2003:284:E946-E953. [PubMed]
- Biolo G, Fleming RYD, Wolfe RR. Physiologic hyperinsulinemia stimulates protein synthesis and enhances transport of selected amino acids in human skeletal muscle. J Clin Invest. 1995:95:811-819. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
- Ratamess NA, Kraemer WJ, Volek JS, et al. The effects of amino acid supplementation on muscular performance during resistance training overreaching. J Strength Cond Res. 2003:17:250-258. doi: 10.1519/1533-4287(2003)017.2.0.CO;2. [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
- Biolo G, Fleming RYD, Maggi SP, et al. Inverse regulation of protein turnover and amino acid transport in skeletal muscle of hypercatabolic patients. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2002:87::3378-3384. doi: 10.1210/jc.87.7.3378. [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
- Borsheim E, Tipton KD, Wolf SE, et al. Essential amino acids and muscle protein recovery from resistance exercise. American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2002:283:E648-657. [PubMed]