There is an epidemic out there. We, men, are on the threshold of losing our manhood. Instead of becoming stronger, confident and successful, we are becoming shells of our former selves: softer, fatter, depressed and less virile. Reason: low testosterone is becoming common. So, before we get into what testosterone does, we need to understand what it is.
Testosterone is the key male sex hormone that regulates fertility, muscle mass, fat distribution, and red blood cell production. Despite being a male sex hormone, testosterone also contributes to sex drive, bone density and muscle strength in women.
There are actually three different kinds of testosterone floating around your blood: albumin, sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) and free testosterone. Albumin and SHBG are proteins that bind to testosterone, while free testosterone is not protein-bound.
There are two ways to measure testosterone levels: A total testosterone test, which measures the combined levels of all three types in your blood, or a test that only measures free testosterone.
Healthy Testosterone Levels
The range for what is considered a ‘normal’ level of testosterone is actually quite large. For men, normal levels of total testosterone fall between 300 and 1000 nanograms per deciliter (ng/dl), with normal free testosterone levels falling between 9 and 30 ng/dl.
When it comes to diagnosing low testosterone, a lot of factors come into play. Many people believe testosterone levels naturally decline with age. However, when it comes to low T, age doesn’t always play a factor, according to Dr. Robert Kominiarek of the Alpha Male Medical Institute. “What the majority of doctors do not understand is that there is always a reason for low testosterone levels and one must investigate by laboratory and intensive history to find the potential cause(s),” he says.
It’s also important to note that healthy levels of testosterone vary from person to person. What is fine for one person may be low for someone else. In addition, total testosterone levels may be at an acceptable level, but free testosterone could be low; leading to symptoms of low T. That is why it is important to have both your total and free testosterone levels checked.
Some symptoms of low T include:
- Lack of energy
- Lack of sexual desire or low libido
- Decrease in sexual performance
- Erectile dysfunction
- Sadness or depression
- Decrease in strength, workout, or sport performance
- Decrease in physical endurance
One proposed treatment for low testosterones comes in the form of calorie intake.
Dieting is notorious for its testosterone lowering abilities, and usually, the bigger the calorie deficit, the harder the drop in testosterone. Why it happens is fairly simple: when you don’t eat enough to support your body’s multiple mechanisms, it eventually has to shut/slow down some of them. As the reproductive system is not essential for short-term survival, that is one of the first ones to slow down to spare energy for more vital functions of the body.
The catch-22 here is that if you’re already fat, then being on a slight calorie deficit can actually increase your testosterone levels.
This is because any extra fat mass that you have increases aromatase enzyme activity, which converts testosterone to estrogen. By lowering the activity of this enzyme via burning away the fat mass, more testosterone is left unconverted.
So to sum up the above-
Eating less than your body uses (creating a calorie deficit) is linked to lowered testosterone production, and the reduction in T usually goes hand-in-hand with the magnitude of the deficit. However, as the calorie deficit forces your body to burn away the adipose tissue (fat mass), your testosterone production can improve at the same time, creating a situation where serum testosterone levels usually don’t change that significantly.
But what if you’re already lean, with very little fat mass to burn?
Then it’s an entirely different situation. For example, natural bodybuilding competitors who get down to >5% body fat, usually experience near castrate T levels. This is of course, with a combination of other factors too, not just the extreme calorie deficit (low-fat low-carb high-protein diet + exercise + metabolic slowdown + messed up thyroid function = hormonal disaster).
The good news is that the hormonal damage caused by larger calorie deficits is often completely reversible.
Simply start eating normally with maintenance calories or with a slight surplus after you’ve met your weight loss goals and your testosterone should bounce back up in a matter of few weeks.
What about calorie surplus and/or overfeeding?
It makes sense that if a calorie deficit lowers testosterone levels, a surplus of calories or just eating roughly the amount that your body needs, would be beneficial for testosterone production.
One claim is that in order to boost testosterone levels, you would have to gorge with food and eat a lot more than what your calorie needs of the day would be. This could work well short-term, and the claim is often backed-up with a study which shows how short-term overfeeding increases testosterone levels. However, what is often left unmentioned, is that the study had only women as subjects (gender differences are hugely important when it comes to hormones).
Another problem with the idea of eating a calorie surplus in order to boost testosterone is the fact that you’d slowly get fat, which would increase your aromatase enzyme activity, and therefore boost the conversion from testosterone to estrogen. Getting fat would also reduce testosterone synthesis due to increased oxidative stress.
Even though eating a surplus of calories has been shown to increase testosterone levels short-term in few studies, it’s not a good long-term plan, because you would simply get fat, which would negatively affect T levels in the long run.
So, how much should you eat anyway?
Well that depends on your goals and current body composition. If you’re at above 12% fat, then by all means use a slight calorie deficit in order to get to 8-12% body fat levels and then once you get there, continue with maintenance calories or bounce around between slight deficit and slight surplus (mini cut/bulk cycles, etc).
If you’re already at the optimal body fat range for T production (about 8-12%) then by all means just eat a maintenance amount of calories, or a slight surplus if you intend to build muscle or get a short-term T boost.
In all of its simplicity, just get to 8-12% body fat, and then eat enough to cover your daily needs so that you don’t get fat, but you’re also not eating too little so that your endocrine system functions as it should.