What’s the biggest secret for a man to know in order for him to keep his testosterone up to maximum levels? We’ve no-doubt seen dozens of articles recommending laundry lists of foods to consume for this purpose as well as those to eschew. We’ve been told that good habits (like engaging in intense bodybuilding workouts) can increase this vital hormone while bad habits such as excessive alcohol consumption can diminish it. They tell us to eat broccoli and oysters and avoid eating licorice and soy. Well, we were first instructed to eat soy, but now in some corners this advice is being retracted. We were told to cut dietary fat back in the 80s and now it’s recommended we don’t dump too much of it because it’s one of the building blocks of testosterone.
“Make sure to eat cruciferous veggies and down twelve ounces of monounsaturated fat each week and you’ll be a raging bull.” Are you confused? Is this all there is to it? Of course not.
The consistent intake of particular foods and the avoidance of certain others can help put the testosterone equation in our favor, but only if a more important factor is first addressed. In fact, this important determinant is so vital to male hormone health that if you’ve unwittingly neglected it, you could possibly double your testosterone level by simply reversing the situation. What could I be referring to? It’s that ubiquitous signifier of and Achilles’ heel of male middle age. It is abdominal fat; the oversized gut.
Just a few pounds of abdominal fat can cut your testosterone levels in half (1). That’s not good. Considering that a healthy testosterone level is needed for everything from energy and assertiveness to a healthy heart and normal sexual functioning, it seems a lousy tradeoff for one to allow his “mojo” to be soaked up by an expanding waistline. I should know; I’ve allowed it to happen to me in the past. And the return of virility and vitality after shedding my nearly 40-inch mid-section surpasses any fleeting pleasure I’d gotten while inadvertently forgoing my ability to look down and see my feet.
In order to understand how abdominal fat can hinder one’s testosterone production, you must have a basic understanding of the ‘loop feedback’ mechanism by which natural testosterone is regulated in the male body. Testosterone is produced by the leydig cells in the testes, but only after a signal has been sent there by the hypothalamus in the brain. That signal is sent via intermediary hormones called LH (luteinizing hormone) and FSH (follicle stimulating hormone). The LH and FSH are sent when the hypothalamus gets a reading that testosterone levels are getting too low. Of course, the hypothalamus reduces its LH and FSH release when testosterone levels reach the upper level limit. This loop feedback system serves the purpose of keeping the body in hormonal homeostasis.
This all seems simple enough until an antagonist is thrown in the mix. That antagonist is the female hormone; estrogen. Yes, men’s bodies are designed to require some estrogen. However, we guys aren’t supposed to have a whole lot of this stuff and it just so happens that we get it from the conversion of some of our own testosterone (2). That’s right – the simple elimination of a molecule here and there from the molecular structure of testosterone and – Surprise… you’ve got the female stuff. It’s okay when the ratio between ‘test’ and ‘estro’ is large. Things go downhill as the ratio shrinks.
So what do we mean by “downhill”? Well, consider this; when the hypothalamus takes its reading to find out whether testosterone is sufficiently high and thus reduce its output of LH and FSH, it can’t always distinguish between estrogen and testosterone in the receptor sites (3). That means I could have a subpar testosterone level yet my hypothalamus might read it as being sufficient or even high due to estrogen that’s occupying the receptor sites in my body. So my libido and overall health could be in dyer need of a testosterone boost, but the signal that would make things happen is being smothered by estrogen. That’s not a pretty sight. (no pun)
And what can cause these high estrogen levels? You guessed it; body fat. A hormone called aromatase is what does the conversion and this stuff increases as body fat levels go up. In addition, testosterone levels tend to be knocked down even further by high insulin levels which are a side-effect of the particular type of fat that accumulates in the abdominal region.(4)
So here’s a typical list of things to do that can increase your natural testosterone production:
• Eat cruciferous vegetables
• Avoid excessive alcohol consumption
• Consume fish oils
• Take a zinc supplement
• Engage in intense exercise (strength training)
• Increase flavenoid intake
Just remember; these steps will probably be extraneous at best if you’ve allowed an “estrogen factory” to begin forming between your ribcage and hips. The biggest key to higher testosterone is to lose the gut. When your waistline is slim, these other steps will have a more powerful and “potent” effect.
(1) Longscope, C. et. Al., Diet and Sex Hormone Binding Globulin. J. Clin Endocrinol Metab 2000 85(1): p.293-6
(2) Shippen, Eugene. Fryer, William The Testosterone Syndrome. M. Evans and Company, New York, NY (1998) pg. 47
(3) Shippen, Eugene. Fryer, William The Testosterone Syndrome. M. Evans and Company, New York, NY (1998) pg. 49
(4) Bjorntorp P., Metabolic Difference between visceral and subcutaneous abdominal fat. Diabetes Metab, 2000. 26(3): pg. 10-12