Testosterone is the hormone that makes men, men. It stimulates the growth of the penis and scrotum, is vital in the production of sperm, controls fat distribution on the body, increases the growth of facial and body hair, is anabolic to muscles, gives us greater bone density, and gives men the shape and attributes we associate with masculinity.
Testosterone is the main male sex hormone, and it belongs to a group of other male sex hormones known as androgens, which include dihydrotestosterone (DHT) and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). Men and women both produce testosterone and DHEA, but men make about ten times more testosterone than women.
Why Low Testosterone Matters
Low testosterone has a negative impact on just about every major system in the male body, including insulin resistance,1 obesity,2 shorter life,3 and cardiovascular disease.4 Some of the symptoms of low testosterone are: low sex drive, hard time getting and keeping an erection, hair loss, fatigue, trouble with memory, loss of muscle mass and difficulty gaining muscle, decreased bone density, increase in body fat, and difficult time losing it.
The signs and symptoms of low testosterone are not immediate, and can take time to build up. This is why the symptoms of low testosterone can be easily ignored for months, or even years. The sad part is that most men will wait until they have developed some of the severe signs and symptoms, typically associated with libido and erectile dysfunction,5 before taking action to improve testosterone.
Lifting heavy things isn’t the only way to increase testosterone.
Your Testosterone Nutrition Plan
Increasing testosterone naturally requires a full lifestyle overhaul, impacting everything from sleep habits, to stress management, and diet. Today I will focus on nutrition. Nutrition plays a pivotal part in your ability to make testosterone, because it supplies the raw materials your body will use to make the hormone.
Here are some simple nutrition habits you can adopt to naturally increase your testosterone production.
1. Eat More Cruciferous Vegetables
Why: We want to keep testosterone and estrogen in a certain balance. When that balance heavily favors estrogen in men, it is a sign that testosterone is being aromatized (converted) into estrogen, which is not good.
How: Eat cruciferous vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, radishes, kale, watercress, bok choy, broccoli, and cauliflower. When these foods are ingested, they release a phytochemical that helps the body with estrogen metabolism11 and clearance.
2. Consume More Zinc
Why: In one study,12 dietary zinc restriction was associated with a significant decrease in serum testosterone in otherwise healthy men. Zinc is an aromatase inhibitor, which blocks the estrogen receptor site. We are looking to optimize the ratio of testosterone to estrogen and zinc to make sure testosterone isn’t converted to estrogen.
How: Some of the best sources of zinc are oysters, beef, lamb, shellfish, crab, clams, lobster, mussels, pumpkin seeds, squash seeds, spinach, and cashews. Jarrow Formulas and Now Foods both sell high-quality zinc supplements.
3. Consume Selenium-Rich Foods
Why: Aside from being an essential trace mineral that people rarely get in their diet, selenium is essential for male fertility13 and plays a crucial role in the production of testosterone. Both zinc and selenium have been correlated to male fertility and testosterone levels in men.
How: Brazil nuts, liver, crab, and other shellfish are good sources of selenium. Most high-quality multivitamins should contain enough selenium to meet the needs of a man who is looking to increase testosterone through nutrient optimization.
4. Consume Foods Rich in Omega-3s
Why: Inflammation and stress are invariably linked in the body, and make each other worse. In times of chronic inflammation, stress will also be heightened. When the body can’t keep up with the production of the stress hormone cortisol, your body will sacrifice other hormones to support your stress response, known as the pregnenolone steal, and the precursors that would become testosterone and estrogen are used to make cortisol instead.14
Omega-3 fatty acids are a powerful anti-inflammatory, and have shown to lower stress in the body.15 Lower stress and inflammation leads to less pregnenolone steal, and allows for greater testosterone production.
How: Common foods that have omega-3 fatty acids that are easily absorbed are sardines, walnuts, salmon, and mackerel. While there are some foods that contain large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids like flax and chia seeds, their conversion rate into the beneficial EPA and DHA are very poor, around 1-5%,16 where the other sources listed above are more easily digested and used in the body. You can always use a supplemental form of omega-3 fatty acids. I recommend Barleans, Nordic Naturals, or Carlson Labs brands.
5. Optimize Vitamin D3 Levels
Why: Higher vitamin D3 status in men is associated with greater levels of testosterone. When men are deficient in vitamin D3, supplementation has been shown to increase testosterone levels.17 It also works to regulate the aromatase enzyme,18 which converts testosterone to estrogen.
How: Vitamin D3 is the bio-available form that our body can use. Avoid the fortified vitamin D2 in most foods, which doesn’t provide the same benefits as D3. Because the bioavailable form of D3 is difficult to get from foods, I recommend spending as much time in the sunshine as possible, and use a supplement to top levels off.
6. Eat Saturated and Monounsaturated Fats
Why: You want to focus on the monounsaturated, saturated, and polyunsaturated omega-3 fats because polyunsaturated omega-6 fats in large amounts promote inflammation in the body. As we discussed above, inflammation and stress are both killers of your testosterone production.
How: Consume a healthy amount of dietary fat from sources such as organic coconut oil, pastured eggs, pasture-raised meats, avocados, grass-fed butter, wild-caught fish, olive oil, and nuts. These healthy sources of fats are the raw materials for your testosterone.
7. Reduce Alcohol Consumption
Why: Don’t worry, I’m not saying to never drink alcohol again. However, alcohol has the ability to increase estrogen in your body and inhibit testosterone metabolism in the liver.19 Alcohol negatively impacts liver function, in turn the reducing the ability to remove used estrogen from the body. This causes excess estrogen to recirculate and build up in the body, negatively impacting the testosterone-to-estrogen ratio.
How: Trade in a few of your vodka and club sodas for just a club soda and lime. Your friends won’t know the difference. Call me old fashioned, but when you do choose to drink alcohol, cap it at 2-3 drinks for the night, and limit your weekly intake to 1-2 days per week.
8. Avoid Low-Carb or Low-Fat Diets
Why: When someone goes on a low-carbohydrate diet for too long, it can decrease testosterone production.20 Conversely, low-fat diets are detrimental to testosterone production as well.21 Carbohydrates help lower the stress hormone cortisol and support the metabolism and thyroid. Carbohydrates provide glucose and is necessary to convert the inactive thyroid hormone T4 into the active hormone T3 which regulates the metabolism.
How: Include more fats and cholesterol in your diet, since these are the raw material for testosterone are required to transport and absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A,D, E, and K. These healthy fats could come from avocado, salmon, coconut milk or oil, olive oil, or full-fat dairy if you tolerate it. Recommended carbohydrates are spaghetti squash, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, plantains, acorn, squash, beets, parsnips, winter squash, cassava, taro root, yams, white rice, and gluten-free oats. Avoid empty carbs like bread, pasta, cookies, granola bars, and pastries.
Nutrition plays an integral role in male hormones.
9. Eat Enough Calories
Why: Losing body fat does help men raise their testosterone levels, but chronically undereating to lose fat leads to stress that significantly reduces testosterone levels. Prolonged caloric restriction reduces total and free testosterone and increases sex hormone binding globulin, which prevents testosterone from binding to receptors.
How: Plan ahead so that you always have quality food at your fingertips. Snacks like mixed nuts, fruit, quality beef jerky, or homemade trail mix are easy to grab in case of a hunger pang. Pick one day a week for meal prep and cook 2-3 sources of protein like steak, eggs, and salmon. Roast up a ton of veggies and a bake 3-5 sweet potatoes and you should be set for the week. Women should not consume less than 1,800 calories and men 2,200 calories for extended periods of time.
10. Eat Cholesterol-Rich Foods
Why: Cholesterol is made by every cell in your body because of its grave importance to overall health, and the body’s demand for it. Where we had it wrong for so long is the assumption that dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol levels are linked and contribute to heart disease. But this isn’t the case for the majority of the population. We need cholesterol for testosterone production, but also as precursor for other steroid/stress hormones, cell membrane health, and to produce bile so you can breakdown and absorb dietary fats. While there are hyper-responders whose cholesterol levels are raised by consuming it, their elevated LDL is accompanied by a raise in HDL keeping their ratio in balance, and their risk low.
How: Higher levels of HDL are associated with higher levels of testosterone,22 which means eggs and bacon are back on the menu, along with other sources such as beef, chicken and beef liver, butter, shrimp, sardines, and heavy cream.
11. Don’t Overdo the Protein
Why: Consuming adequate protein helps with both losing fat and rebuilding muscle, but if the goal is to increase testosterone, focus on fats and carbohydrates. A study23 that compared how a high-protein versus a high-carbohydrate diet impacted testosterone and estrogen found that the high-protein diet negatively impacted the metabolic pathway for testosterone and increased the pathway for estrogen. Other studies show24 that a higher-carbohydrate diet leads to lower levels of cortisol and an equal reduction in sex hormone binding globulin compared to the high-protein diet. By lowering your cortisol levels, you allow the environment to produce adequate testosterone in the body.
How: Aim to consume .82-1g of protein per pound of bodyweight to not only help with muscle growth and repair, but also to support healthy testosterone levels.
Create New Habits
Don’t try to adopt all these dietary habits at once. That’s a recipe for feeling overwhelmed and giving up too soon. Instead, pick 2-3 of these nutrition strategies and implement them for 3-4 days a week. Once they don’t require a lot of conscious thought, move them to 7 days a week and then adopt another 2-3 habits until you have a nutrition plan focused on maximizing your testosterone. The last step is to enjoy the benefits of increased testosterone, and have an awesome life.
More Information on Testosterone:
- What Male Athletes Need to Know About Testosterone
- Winners Have More Testosterone
- Is Coffee Good or Bad for Your Testosterone?
- New on Breaking Muscle Today
1. Nelly Pitteloud, Megan Hardin, Andrew A. Dwyer, Elena Valassi, Maria Yialamas, Dariush Elahi, and Frances J. Hayes, “Increasing Insulin Resistance Is Associated with a Decrease in Leydig Cell Testosterone Secretion in Men,” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 90 (2005): 2636-641.
2. Michael Zitzmann, “Testosterone Deficiency, Insulin Resistance and the Metabolic Syndrome,” Nature Reviews Endocrinology 5 (2009): 673-81.
3. Gail A. Laughlin, Elizabeth Barrett-Connor, and Jaclyn Bergstrom, “Low Serum Testosterone and Mortality in Older Men,” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 93 (2008): 68-75.
4. Zoë Hyde, Paul E. Norman, Leon Flicker, Graeme J. Hankey, Osvaldo P. Almeida, Kieran A. Mccaul, S. A. Paul Chubb, and Bu B. Yeap, “Low Free Testosterone Predicts Mortality from Cardiovascular Disease But Not Other Causes: The Health in Men Study,” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 97(2012): 179-89.
5. Akira Tsujimura, “The Relationship between Testosterone Deficiency and Men’s Health,” The World Journal of Men’s Health 31(2013): 126.
6. Joanne E. Nettleship, Richard D. Jones, Kevin S. Channer, and T. Hugh Jones, “Testosterone and Coronary Artery Disease,” Frontiers of Hormone Research Advances in the Management of Testosterone Deficiency (2008):91-107.
7. Beauchet, O, “Testosterone and Cognitive Function: Current Clinical Evidence of a Relationship,” European Journal of Endocrinology 155(2006): 773-81.
8. Wang, C., G. Jackson, T. H. Jones, A. M. Matsumoto, A. Nehra, M. A. Perelman, R. S. Swerdloff, A. Traish, M. Zitzmann, and G. Cunningham, “Low Testosterone Associated With Obesity and the Metabolic Syndrome Contributes to Sexual Dysfunction and Cardiovascular Disease Risk in Men With Type 2 Diabetes,” Diabetes Care 34(2011): 1669-675.
9. Farid Saad, “The Role of Testosterone in Type 2 Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome in Men,” Arquivos Brasileiros De Endocrinologia & Metabologia Arq Bras Endocrinol Metab 53(2009): 901-07.
10. Francis, “The Effects of Testosterone on Osteoporosis in Men,” Clinical Endocrinology 50(1999): 411-14.
11. Michael A. Zeligs, “Diet and Estrogen Status: The Cruciferous Connection,” Journal of Medicinal Food 1(2009): 67-82.
12. Prasad, Ananda S., Chris S. Mantzoros, Frances W.j. Beck, Joseph W. Hess, and George J. Brewer, “Zinc Status and Serum Testosterone Levels of Healthy Adults,” Nutrition 12(1996): 344-48.
13. Oluboyo, A. O., R. U. Adijeh, C. C. Onyenekwe, B. O. Oluboyo, T. C. Mbaeri, C. N. Odiegwu, G. O. Chukwuma, and U. F. Onwuasoanya, “Relationship between serum levels of testosterone, zinc and selenium in infertile males attending fertility clinic in Nnewi, south east Nigeria,” African Journal of Medicine and Medical Sciences 41(2012): 51-54.
14. Anderson, D, “Assessment and nutraceutical management of stress-induced adrenal dysfunction,” Integrative Medicine 7, no. 5 (2008): 18-25.
15. Bradbury, Joanne, Stephen P. Myers, and Chris Oliver, “An adaptogenic role for omega-3 fatty acids in stress; a randomised placebo controlled double blind intervention study,” Nutrition Journal 3 (2004):1
16. Anderson, Breanne M., and David Wl Ma, “Are All N-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids Created Equal?” Lipids in Health and Disease 8(2009): 33.
17. Wehr, Elisabeth, Stefan Pilz, Bernhard O. Boehm, W. März, and Barbara Obermayer?Pietsch, “Association of vitamin D status with serum androgen levels in men,” Clinical endocrinology 73 (2010): 243-248.
18. Kinuta, Keiko, Hiroyuki Tanaka, Tadashi Moriwake, Kunihiko Aya, Shigeaki Kato, and Yoshiki Seino, “Vitamin D Is an Important Factor in Estrogen Biosynthesis of Both Female and Male Gonads 1,” Endocrinology 141(2000): 1317-1324.
19. Rubin, Emanuel, Ch S. Lieber, Kurt Altman, Gary G. Gordon, and A. Louis Southren, “Prolonged ethanol consumption increases testosterone metabolism in the liver,” Science 191(1976): 563-564.
20. Anderson, Karl E., William Rosner, M. S. Khan, Maria I. New, Songya Pang, Paul S. Wissel, and Attallah Kappas. “Diet-hormone interactions: protein/carbohydrate ratio alters reciprocally the plasma levels of testosterone and cortisol and their respective binding globulins in man,” Life sciences 40, no. 18 (1987): 1761-1768.
21. Wang, Christina, Don H. Catlin, Borislav Starcevic, David Heber, Christie Ambler, Nancy Berman, Geraldine Lucas et al, “Low-fat high-fiber diet decreased serum and urine androgens in men,” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 90(2005): 3550-3559.
22. Freedman, David S., Thomas R. O’Brien, W. Dana Flanders, Frank DeStefano, and Joseph J. Barboriak, “Relation of serum testosterone levels to high density lipoprotein cholesterol and other characteristics in men,” Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology 11(1991): 307-315.
23. Kappas, Attallah, Karl E. Anderson, Allan H. Conney, Eugene J. Pantuck, Jack Fishman, and H. Leon Bradlow, “Nutrition-endocrine interactions: induction of reciprocal changes in the delta 4-5 alpha-reduction of testosterone and the cytochrome P-450-dependent oxidation of estradiol by dietary macronutrients in man,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 80 (1983): 7646-7649.
24. Anderson, Karl E., William Rosner, M. S. Khan, Maria I. New, Songya Pang, Paul S. Wissel, and Attallah Kappas, “Diet-hormone interactions: protein/carbohydrate ratio alters reciprocally the plasma levels of testosterone and cortisol and their respective binding globulins in man,” Life sciences 40(1987): 1761-1768.
Photo 1 courtesy of Jorge Huerta Photography.