You’ve probably heard of how the hormone testosterone affects everything from mood, concentration and energy levels, through to bone growth, libido and water retention. It should come as no surprise then that it also has a huge impact on the way we look.
But what exactly is testosterone – where does it come from, what does it do and, most vitally, how much should we have?
Let’s start with the basics, testosterone is a steroid hormone, secreted primarily in the testicles, and responsible for the development of most masculine characteristics. As for how much we should have, well that mostly depends on our age.
Testosterone levels are – unsurprisingly – at their highest during adolescence and early adulthood, with the average testosterone level for an 18 year old clocking in at around 800 ng/dL (nanograms per decilitre).
In healthy males this 800 range should be the norm for about the next ten years or so – until the age of thirty when levels begin to decrease by 1%-3% each year. By the time we reach our forties, this level is usually somewhere in the 500s, and for many can be as low as the mid-200s.
By 50, most of my male clients have levels that are chronically low.
You’ll find differing opinions on hormone levels among different medical professionals, with ranges anywhere from 300-1,200 being considered normal. I find that on the low end that is too low. I like to see my clients be in the upper quadrant (25%) of any lab measuring total testosterone.
Low testosterone is an issue that affects many more men than you might imagine – with a recent study showing a worldwide decline in testosterone levels of almost 20% across a twenty-year period. Our changing (for the worse) lifestyles are taking their toll. In fact, both testosterone and sperm levels are decreasing on average every decade. This might well be related to our increasingly “toxic” world.
While low testosterone levels can have a major impact on our overall health and mood, in this article I take a look at the impact they have on our physical appearance. Let’s now dive in and review what happens – and what we can do about it.
Testosterone and muscle mass
The link between testosterone and muscle mass are well-known to anyone interested in building their physique. But what many don’t know is just how direct a link it is. Muscle growth occurs when small traumas in the muscles, brought about by exercise, are repaired by new protein strands – thus increasing the size and strength of the muscle in question.
Testosterone is a vital part of this process – known as protein synthesis – as it binds to the muscle cells and amplifies the development of new protein strands, while encouraging the release of HGH (human growth hormone) throughout the body. The increase in muscle mass also increases the number of mitochondria (the energy “furnace” of the cell) which increase insulin sensitivity and help decrease visceral fat.
The result of this increase in HGH is an improvement in the rate and extent to which our muscles grow in response to exercise – or to put it bluntly, the more testosterone you have, the faster (and bigger) your muscles tend to grow.
Equally, the lower your testosterone levels, the harder it becomes to start seeing noticeable gains from your workout regime. Many men with low testosterone levels report finding it frustratingly difficult to build muscle mass – with some actually noticing muscle wasting in the arms, legs and chest. Much like the way testosterone binds to muscle cells in order for them to grow, when levels are low, the process reverses. This means that with less testosterone to bind it together, the muscle cannot be maintained and shrinks over time.
Testosterone and weight gain
Low testosterone levels won’t just make your pecs smaller. In fact, if those levels get too low, we often see those dreaded “man boobs” start to develop! Yes, I’m afraid to say that testosterone plays a vital role in metabolism – with studies from the Harvard Medical School showing that men with low testosterone levels have a higher percentage of body fat than those where levels are healthy.
Exercise does not cause weight loss but as mentioned will increase the size of muscles in a synergistic way – so long as testosterone levels are good. When it is the case that testosterone levels are good and you workout regularly, mitochondria is increased and so is insulin sensitivity – resulting in a loss of fat and inches where it counts. Although there may be little weight change overall, it is your shape (waist size) that can change dramatically for the better.
However, one thing that is evident is that unhealthy weight gain also causes a decrease in testosterone levels – meaning for men with low testosterone the resulting increase in body fat only acts to worsen the problem. This is because body fat contains an enzyme which converts testosterone into estrogens – which in turn slows the production of testosterone.
The less testosterone you make, the more fat you accumulate, which decreases testosterone, which leads to more accumulated fat – and so the cycle continues. Essentially, fat speeds up the metabolizing of testosterone, and so the more fat you hold the faster you’ll burn through the already low testosterone levels in the body. This is especially true around the belly area.
And I’m afraid there’s even more bad news. To exacerbate the vicious cycle further still, low testosterone levels also lead to fatigue and a drop in motivation to exercise – which I don’t need to tell you is going to do nothing to halt that downward spiral of weight gain.
Testosterone and hair loss
Some may consider this a surprise inclusion in our list – after all, we’ve all heard about bald heads being a sign of virility haven’t we? The truth is that while testosterone does play a part in male pattern baldness (MPB), it is not an excess of it is that is causing your baldness.
In fact, MPB is largely down to genetics. Those who experience hair loss have usually inherited hair follicles that are oversensitive to the hormone dihydrotestosterone or DHT. When testosterone is converted to DHT, it has the effect of shrinking the hair follicles, leading to finer and shorter hair until it eventually stops growing altogether. It is this role that testosterone plays in the balding process that has led some to believe a shiny dome is a sign of high testosterone.
However, far from MPB caused by excess levels of testosterone, baldness is often an indication that your hormone levels are imbalanced – with many studies suggesting that low testosterone levels are more common among men who have experienced substantial hair loss (it is therefore always good to measure both DHT and estradiol levels as part of your hormone panel).
Boost your testosterone
If you are concerned about testosterone levels, the first thing to do is get your hormone levels measured. I usually carry out these tests as part of my initial health screening for any new client. Should levels be quite low, lifestyle (nutrition, stress, sleep, exercise, etc.) needs a review.
Diet in general plays a huge part in naturally boosting testosterone levels, and certain foods such as tuna (high in vitamin D) and spinach (high in zinc) are a great way to kick-start the body’s hormone replenishment. Equally, certain foods such as the white devil (aka sugar) and grains should be avoided, as too much of these lead to chronic insulin spikes that are proven to lower testosterone levels.
I also encourage the use of bioidentical (never synthetic!) hormone therapy to aid in quickly bringing low and imbalanced hormone levels to their proper place. This treatment can take many forms – including injections, gels and patches – and we usually see a rapid and positive impact on both mental and physical health.
It absolutely needs to be understood that a gradual decline in hormone levels as we age is the norm for most of us, and this will impact how we look and feel. But we are living long nowadays, and so if hormone levels are affecting your well-being at the very young age of 30 or 40, you’ll want to address the situation sooner rather than later. On a personal note, I have been replacing testosterone for nearly 20 years now and would not be without it!