Everyone knows that if you want to get bigger, stronger or faster you have to put in the work in the gym. Aside from the work you put in, hormone levels and genetics can play a huge role in your progress and potential to improve. Although you cannot change your genetics, there are safe and healthy ways to manipulate your natural hormone levels to ensure you get the most out of your work in the gym. Among those hormones, is the one most powerful and responsible for muscle growth and repair….testosterone! Everyone has likely heard of the power of testosterone, but what exactly is it responsible for? Testosterone is responsible for bone density, muscle strength, red blood cell production, mood, energy levels, and sex drive..among other things. In short, testosterone does a lot! One may want to optimize their levels not only to improve quality of life but also performance on the field and in the gym. Fortunately, there are safe, natural, and effective ways to do this… which is what I hope to help you understand in this article.
Testosterone levels naturally peak in your teens and twenties, which is when you see the most drastic physical changes. One’s natural testosterone levels begin to drop likely in the 30’s and into their 40’s by 1-2% per year. But what are normal, healthy testosterone levels? Getting your levels checked is usually done via a blood test called a “serum total testosterone test.” In order to interpret your own testosterone levels, you need to know the difference between the two forms of testosterone in the body. The two forms that are in your bloodstream are the “bound” and “free” forms. More specifically, testosterone is bound to either sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) or albumin. The “free”, unbound form is the active form of testosterone and can readily bind to androgen receptors. Normal total testosterone levels vary greatly, with 270-1070 ng/dL being an acceptable medical range for males. The same is true for free testosterone, with an acceptable range of 9-30 ng/dL. Women, who have naturally lower testosterone levels, have acceptable medical ranges of 15-70 ng/dL and 0.3-1.9 ng/dL, respectively. Because the “free”, unbound form is the active form that is used by the body, it is more beneficial to know your free testosterone levels rather than total. The acceptable ranges will tell you that not everyone has the same natural levels. Although you may fall in the “acceptable” range, you may not be in your optimal range! So lets talk about how to optimize your own testosterone levels in a healthy and scientifically proven way.
1. Heavy, compound resistance training that incorporates multiple, large muscle groups have been shown to have a significantly higher rise in anabolic hormone levels when compared to exercises that incorporate fewer muscle groups. Testosterone and the growth hormone family are elevated for approximately 15-30 minutes. This acute response is actually more favorable to tissue repair and growth than chronic hormonal elevations due to continual heightened sensitivity of androgen receptors. Although there is no increase in resting levels of testosterone, it is to your body’s advantage. By having levels return to baseline shortly after training, the receptors don’t get desensitized, allowing continued sensitivity and response to each training session.
In order to get the full benefit of the anabolic hormone response to training, the right training protocol must be used. Studies have shown that high volume, moderate to high intensity, and short rest intervals elicit the greatest rise in acute hormone secretion. Provided adequate stress is used, time under tension seems to be the greatest predictor of the acute hormone response. Other studies have shown that the hormonal response appears to be more dependent on exercise mode and intensity and not just volume. When a training protocol of 10RM, 1 min rest, and higher volume was used, greater acute rises in hormone levels were seen when compared to a training protocol of 5RM, 3 min rest, and lower total volume. This supports that resistance training combined with moderate to high intensity is the best way to produce an acute rise in hormone levels when compared to other forms of exercise and/or lesser intensity with higher volume.
Provided that training is in line to maximize the hormonal response, both males and females will experience this acute rise in hormones following training. Although it has been shown that males and females with experience this rise to a different degree, it is due to having different baseline levels. Other factors such as overtraining and detraining can affect your hormonal response to exercise. Like everything else, you can train your body to be optimal in its ability to produce endogenous hormones and it can also be detrained. The fine line between work and rest is imperative to maximizing training. Additional factors include circadian rhythm patterns, sleep and nutrition…which we will discuss next.
2. High fat diet’s….. have been shown to increase testosterone levels when compared to lower fat diets. Fats, along with cholesterol are vital to optimal cell functioning and hormone production. Cholesterol is part of every cell’s outer membrane, and is responsible for determining which molecules can enter the cell. It’s also a precursor for the synthesis of many compounds, including testosterone. Your body naturally produces cholesterol in the liver and other organs, but is largely obtained by eating animal-based foods (such as eggs or meat). Although different diet fads may give fat a bad rap, it is an absolute necessity for anyone who wants to keep their hormones in check, especially with high-intensity training. A study investigating the effects of a high-fat (41% of total calories consumed) vs. a low-fat (18.8% of total calories consumed) diet showed that individuals had 13% higher total testosterone levels when compared to the low-fat diet.
When investigating the effects of a high-fat (> 100g) diet vs. the effects of low-fat (< 20g) diet, plasma cholesterol increased while SHBG decreased and plasma cholesterol decreased while SHBG increased, respectively. These findings suggest that a high-fat diet promotes a higher free testosterone level (as indicated by a lower level of SHBG) when compared to a low-fat diet. These data are consistent with the findings of several other studies that have reported a decrease in testosterone in individuals consuming a low-fat diet vs. one’s consuming a high-fat diet (∼40%).
Does the type of fat you consume matter? In short, it appears so. Research that isolated each macronutrient, including types of fats, to make up the highest % of one’s diet show that different fat sources produced different results. The picture below shows that dietary fat, saturated fat, and monounsaturated fat were the best predictors of resting testosterone concentrations. To get these necessary fats, rely on animal products mostly and a variety of nuts. The importance of an adequate to high-fat diet only gets bigger when you factor in an active lifestyle. If your day to day life has high physical demands, athletes especially, you run the risk of low testosterone levels due to overtraining or overworking. Do yourself a favor and up the fat intake a bit to keep your levels high!
3. Get plenty of sleep each night. Your body’s natural hormone production sky rockets when you sleep, including testosterone levels. Muscle growth and repair is peaking during this time. It is recommended that you get >7 hours of sleep per night, while most people feel best when getting 8-9 hours. To put it simply, the more you sleep, the more testosterone your body will produce. This is shown in multiple studies analyzing healthy, adult males who slept different durations during the evenings. A group who had slept for 4 hours had a morning serum testosterone level on average of 200-300 ng/dl (on the lower end of the spectrum) while those who slept 8 hours had, on average, 500-700 ng/dl (mid to high end of the spectrum). An additional study investigating the effects of sleep deprivation (< 5 hours per night) over the course of a week showed that daytime testosterone levels were decreased by 10-15%. The good news for those who are sleep deprived it that testosterone levels do rebound after getting quality sleep. However, if you are one of those who either cannot get enough sleep or prides themselves on being able to function with little-to-no sleep, it may be a good idea to reconsider!
Your circadian rhythm also has a large affect on your body each day. One’s circadian rhythm effects sleeping, eating, and other physiological processes in the body including core body temperature, brain wave activity, hormone production, and cell regeneration. A lack of sleep can disrupt the your body’s natural circadian rhythm causing disruption in hormone release. Your testosterone levels are highest in the morning (and are optimal provided you got sufficient sleep) and slowly fall throughout the day. Many people may choose to exercise first thing in the morning following a good night sleep because of the heightened testosterone levels. However, if you don’t get the required sleep, you will start the day lower than optimal and only decline even more. Think of your circardian rhythm as your body’s natural master clock, one that you want to always run on time.
To ensure you get good sleep it is helpful to sleep in a completely darkened, quiet room. Many times even a little light with keep the CNS going and not allow you to fully relax which means later to bed and less sleep. I can tell you personally that when I don’t sleep well for a couple nights in a row, I can definitely feel the effects. Aside from simply being tired, your body’s hormones are out of whack leading to a recipe for disaster. Everyone loves the inspirational “sleep is for the weak” and “I don’t need sleep” sayings but many of the busiest, most successful, and highest level people do make sleep a priority. Those who wake up at 5 am for a work day soon realize that going to bed at 9 pm is a necessity to optimize production. Value your sleep, not just for testosterone production purposes but for overall increased effectiveness!
4. Vitamin D, Zinc, Magnesium have all been heavily studied nutrients when analyzing the effects on individuals who are deficient in these categories. Proper diet and nutrition will allow you to likely meet these needs, but in certain instances you may fall short. If you find yourself deficient, incorporating foods with these minerals and/or supplementation has been shown to increase testosterone levels.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that only 30% of americans fall in the optimal vitamin D range, showing a necessity for individuals to get their levels check in order to optimize their vitamin D levels. Vitamin D, a steroid hormone, is responsible for over 1,000 gene expressions. The importance of having optimal levels cannot be stressed enough. Knowing that nearly 70% of the United States is below the optimal range of vitamin D, how do you avoid being part of the percentage? The most accurate and best way to know your levels is to get blood work done. Vitamin D not only increases testosterone levels in those individuals who are deficient, but studies have also shown that blood tests in the range of 40-60 ng/ml are associated with the lowest all-cause-mortality. The importance of having adequate vitamin D levels cannot be over stressed.
In addition to a healthy diet, zinc and magnesium are also shown to increase testosterone levels. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for men is 11 milligrams of zinc each day, which is likely an attainable goal without additional supplementation. (North American men have been shown to generally consume about 13 milligrams of zinc daily). Vitamin B6 helps aid in absorption and the converting of free cholesterol to testosterone, which is why you may see it added to supplements containing zinc. Blood work is again the most accurate way to know whether you are deficient in zinc or not. Research has shown that dietary zinc restriction has been associated with a decrease in serum testosterone concentrations after 20 weeks of zinc restriction. On the contrary, zinc supplementation in individuals who were deficient resulted in an increase in serum testosterone levels. The importance of adequate zinc levels for someone looking to increase natural testosterone has been shown time and time again. If you eat a well balanced diet incorporating meet, fish, and nuts you will likely not have an issue.
Magnesium, a cofactor in more than 300 enzyme systems, regulates biochemical reactions in the body, including protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function, blood glucose control, and blood pressure regulation. Magnesium has also been shown to increase free and total testosterone values in sedentary and in athletes. The increases are higher in those who exercise than in sedentary individuals, showing the added benefits of combining proper exercise with diet and/or supplementation. Not only has magnesium been shown to elevate testosterone levels, but it also affects IGF-1 secretion and bioactivity. This supports that magnesium levels are strongly and independently associated with the anabolic hormones testosterone and IGF-1. In order to be sure you are within the optimal blood level range of 1.7 to 2.2 mg/dL, blood work is necessary. It is recommended to get about 300 mg of magnesium daily, but many would benefit from additional amounts. However, as is the case for vitamin D and zinc, consuming a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle will likely put you in the correct range. High magnesium foods include fish, a variety of fruits, and nuts among others. The current daily value (DV) for magnesium is 400mg.
Although this article only mentions 4, there are more ways that have been shown to potentially increase your natural testosterone levels. Many of these can be summed up by training hard, getting rest, and eating quality foods. By choosing the right foods, the necessity for additional supplements become less and less. If you choose to supplement your diet, first get your blood levels checked in order to fall in the optimal ranges for vitamin d, magnesium, zinc, and other minerals shown to increase testosterone levels if you are deficient. In an environment that promotes social media, video games, partying, and the “grinding” lifestyle…many times simply avoiding certain things can allow your body to maintain optimal levels. Put the phone away at night and get some sleep, we know how powerful that can be. Have a drink or two with friends to relax every now and then, rather than nightly partying which temporarily destroys testosterone levels. Be aware of your food choices, train hard and take the time to rest…your body wants to be at it’s optimal level. It is your job to allow that to happen!
Things you should avoid when trying to raise your natural testosterone levels: Excessive alcohol consumption, trans fats, high-sugar diets, overtraining, and sleep deprivation.
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