This particular blog does NOT pertain to middle-aged men or older who may require testosterone supplementation due to low blood levels of the hormone. It is well known that natural testosterone levels decrease with age. Rather, I want to focus on the worrisome trend of young men in their twenties and thirties opting for testosterone supplementation. Why should this be of concern? Because in most cases these young men do NOT need testosterone supplementation.
The real issue is the supplement industry marketing test supplement products as anabolic boosters (remnants of "energy" supps come to mind for those who feel they need an energy boost) as the means to build muscle mass. My question is why take any supplemental testosterone when there's no clinical evidence that you're deficient in this hormone. Have you taken a blood test to verify that your testosterone level is low? If not, then why would you consider taking a supplement that has unwanted side effects? It makes no sense to me.
More concerning is the possibility that your natural test levels will be compromised from taking the supps and as a result, testicular shrinkage may occur (your testicles produce most of the testosterone in your body). You might as well inject yourself with steroids while you're at it. Do you see my point? Taking artificial hormones is not something to be trifled with as the side effects can be very undesirable. In other words, the risks will undoubtedly outweigh the benefits. Let me count the ways: infertility due to low sperm count, liver problems, male breast growth, increased male pattern baldness, possible harm to prostate health, increased risk of blood clots, congestive heart failure, and worsening of urinary symptoms (JAMA Internal Medicine, 2013).
There are legitimate reasons for low T. Lifestyle is primarily the reason why many men are low in test. Regular exercise is known to boost test along with having enough saturated fat (i.e., lean red meat, egg yolks, etc.) and certain micronutrients (e.g., zinc, magnesium, etc.) within the diet. Endurance training (e.g., marathon running) can compromise test levels as well as overtraining (i.e., high intensity level, lack of recovery time, etc.). Lack of sleep, daily stress, medication usage, as well as overindulgence in alcohol may also lower testosterone levels.
BOTTOM LINE: Testosterone supplements are being oversold to consumers who, for the most part, should NOT be taking them. Simply exercising will boost your natural testosterone level. So instead of relying on potentially dangerous supplements, you should get adequate exercise, eat healthier foods, reduce medication usage if possible, and lose bodyweight (there is a correlation between obesity and lower testosterone levels in men).
Your lifestyle is the predominant factor affecting your hormone levels. In other words, if you live a mostly sedentary existence, your testosterone level will most likely be lower than someone who exercises regularly. Thus, exercise is a natural way to boost your testosterone level.
Here are some lifestyle-related factors that affect your testosterone level:
- Sleep quality and quantity
If you don't get the needed amount of good, restful sleep that your body needs to function optimally, your testosterone level will dip. Solution:
Get 6 to 8 hours of sleep per night.
If you're gaining bodyweight, your testosterone level will drop. Solution
: Maintain a healthy bodyweight. See elsewhere within this blog for tips.
If you rarely exercise, this will adversely affect your testosterone level. By being sedentary, your body gets the message from your brain (via the pituitary gland) that you don't need as much testosterone to function. Solution
: Become more active by walking briskly at least 20 minutes daily and performing some strength training exercises 2 to 3 days per week.
If you experience persistent stress, your body reacts by releasing a steady stream of cortisol. When this occurs, your testosterone level drops.Solution
: Reduce your work hours to less than 10 hours daily and spend at least 2 hours daily doing something you like (e.g., reading, listening to music, playing games, etc.).
If you take opioid drugs (e.g., oxycontin), glucocorticoid drugs (e.g., prednisone), or anabolic steroids, you may need to check with your doctor to make sure the dosage taken does not adversely affect your testosterone level.
If you take supplements which promote the boosting of testosterone (e.g., DHEA), STOP! Your body will build an adaptation to the hormone-like effects of the supplement to the point where it fails to release testosterone naturally. For the men out there: Can you say, "testicular shrinkage"? Not pretty.
Exercise can indeed enhance your testosterone levels but in order for the effects to have significance, you must workout regularly. This is because the release of testosterone is directly related to the effects of exercise stimulation on the body. In other words, the release of testosterone occurs immediately after a bout of exercise and levels elevate but only for a relatively brief period (i.e., about 15 minutes to an hour post-exercise). So for those who have low testosterone levels, exercise can help to raise your levels.
Factors other than exercise can affect your testosterone levels including age, bodyweight, your fitness level, and when you workout. Because advanced age causes a lessening of testosterone release , older adults need to exercise regularly to ameliorate the leveling off of this hormone. Remember, testosterone is intimately associated with the amount of muscle mass and bone strength in your body. Bodyweight affects testosterone levels because increased body fat causes a decrease in testosterone. Again, exercise can improve your testosterone levels by helping to decrease your body fat. The more fit you are, the more testosterone you have, although those who are less fit and exercise will experience a more significant release of testosterone. Your testosterone levels (like any other hormone) fluctuates throughout the day. Levels are typically highest early in the day and are lowest in the afternoons. Thus, for those who have low testosterone levels, it may be wise to workout in the afternoons to boost the release of this hormone. Any type
of exercise will boost your testosterone level but weight training seems to have the most impact. To get the most boost of testosterone release, here are some tips for your next workout session:
- Perform full-body exercises (e.g., squat, deadlift)
- Lift heavy weights
- Take short rest periods
Just be sure not
to push the intensity too far to avoid the risk of overtraining. Some symptoms of overtraining include excessive soreness, decreased energy level, trouble sleeping, and decreased performance and strength.
Our bodies have adapted to the so-called "fight or flight" response since the days when humans had to either confront or flee wild animals such as lions and tigers in the wilderness. This physiological response mechanism still exists but of course our environment has changed. We now experience the daily stressors of life wrought by the advent of technology. Instead of facing a man-eating tiger, we now must contend with the pressures of slow-running computers, emails, traffic jams, and looming deadlines. Your body still reacts the same way with regard to the "fight or flight" response by releasing hormones such as epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine and cortisol. These are the hormones responsible for elevating your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate in order for your body to confront the threat. But the difference between the threat of a lion versus that of your boss is the lion will go away eventually. The same cannot be said about your boss. The key difference between these two scenarios is that the lion provides an outlet for adrenaline release when it's gone. The looming boss or incessant email traffic does not provide an outlet for adrenaline release since these things never go away. The result is an escalation of adrenaline within the body. The consequence of not releasing adrenaline can become toxic to the body, slowly killing it over time.
How can we cope with the affects of stress on the body? Simple. Exercise. Exercise is the perfect healthy outlet for the buildup of adrenaline. The bonus is that exercise will help you to relax afterwards. This is known as the parasympathetic rebound in which the hormone acetylcholine is released. You've probably heard that living a life of moderation is healthy. Living a sedentary existence is not natural nor healthy for the mind and body. Step away from the ice cream, candy and chips. These foods can only provide temporary comfort from daily stress. Exercise provides a long-term and healthy approach that is unquestionably the best outlet from the daily stressors of life and enables hormonal balance. I highly recommend it.
Studies have established a link between sleep quantity and performance level in any skill-based sport. It is the central nervous system (CNS) and in particular, the brain, that's intimately associated with control of the body and athletic performance. The body and mind need rest to recover from the fatigue brought on by intense training. Sleep provides the opportunity for the body and mind to recharge from hard training.
Cognitive and physiological impairment inevitably results when the CNS is fatigued. Brain scans have indicated that lack of sleep affects blood flow within the brain. The lack of blood within the brain can affect cognitive and physical performance. Cognitive impairment is characterized by an inability to focus, memory loss, increased anxiety, decreased reaction time, decreased motivation, irritability, and emotional instability. Physiological impairment is characterized by physical exhaustion, increased susceptibility to infections, fatigue and decreased speed and power.
Catabolic hormones (e.g., epinephrine, norepinephrine, cortisol) are emitted due to sleep deprivation, inhibiting muscle growth. On the other hand, anabolic hormones (e.g., testosterone, human growth hormone) are released when adequate sleep has occurred, enhancing muscle growth. Performance potential is therefore predicated on sleep quality and quantity.
Here are some tips to get better quality sleep:
- Make sleep a priority
- Strive to get at least seven hours of sleep each night by going to bed at an earlier time (i.e., 15 minutes)
- Keep a regular sleep-wake schedule by going to bed and waking up at about the same time every day including weekends
- Take a brief nap (e.g., less than 20 minutes) during the afternoon (i.e., 2-4pm)
- Avoid stimulants (e.g., caffeine, nicotine) as well as depressants (e.g., alcohol) two hours prior to bedtime
- Exercise regularly but avoid exercising within two hours before bed
- Take a bath before bedtime
- Avoid eating a big meal before bedtime
- Spend less time watching TV and using the computer at night
- Develop a routine conducive to sleep (i.e., light reading, soft music)
- Make your sleep environment comfortable and conducive to sleep (i.e., comfortable bed, dark and quite room, cool ambient temperature)
- Use earplugs or a white-noise machine to block out sounds
Research has shown there is evidence that refined or processed carbohydrates (characterized by large sugar content) seem to create a drug-like effect within the brain, thus causing addictive qualities mimicking alcohol addiction. In essence, food behaves like a drug in terms of how it affects the brain, psychologically as well as physiologically. This is not really news for most of us. We know certain foods have addictive qualities (think potato chips and ice cream). The human body loves fat, sugar and salt. Why? Because fat is a macronutrient which is a slow-burning, long-term source of energy for the body needed for survival when food is scarce. Because sugar is a macronutrient (carbs) which is a fast-burning, short-term source of energy needed by the body. Because salt consists of electrolytes (i.e., sodium and chloride) needed by the body for cellular pH balance.
Excessive sugar intake may be addicting physiologically as well as psychologically. To wit, sugar affects the dopamine receptors within the brain, making us feel good. Sodas are an excellent example of sugar addiction since they are a concentrated source of energy within many people's diets. Many become addicted to soda and need their daily fix or else experience withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, anxiety and depression.
The caffeine within coffee, like sugar, has a drug-like effect within the brain which makes us feel good. We know that caffeine is a drug because it stimulates the dopamine receptors which mediate pleasure. (Now we know why people flock to Starbucks every day--it's to get their drug fix). If their is a down-regulation of dopamine within the brain, one will feel a need to get more
sugar and more
caffeine in order to satisfy the urge to obtain the same pleasure. Indeed, research has indicated that overweight and obese people seem to have this down-regulation of dopamine which lends itself to an increasing need for more sugar. Since sugar contains calories, it makes sense that a chronic sugar addiction may cause one to become overweight or obese.
If sugar, caffeine, fat, and salt have addictive-like effects on the brain, then does that mean all foods having these substances are inherently bad for the body? The answer is no. The natural sugar found within fruits is not nearly as concentrated as the sugar found within refined foods made in the lab (think high-fructose corn syrup). Fats and salts are added to chips to make them more tasty and addictive but potatoes are inherently not unhealthy.
Sugars, fats and salt are added to foods to make them more sweet, have more mouth feel (thicker texture), and more salty because the body and the brain loves these ingredients. It's simple: our brains are hard-wired to eat carb-rich, fat-laden foods because the body needs sugar and fat to survive. Regularly eating foods which have unnatural
concentrations of sugars, fats, and salts (as well as man-made chemicals) may indeed turn us into junkies. Yes, fast-food is addictive because it contains plenty of sugars, fats and salt to satisfy the palate. The regular consumption of fast food may indeed produce long-term neuroadaptations within the brain reward and stress pathways. Restricting fast-food and/or excessive sugar consumption may cause a withdrawal effect within the brain causing depression and anxiety.
If refined carbs behave like a drug within the brain, can psychological therapy resolve one's addiction to chips or ice cream, thus staving off bodyweight gain as a result of fat retention? Theoretically, this may be the case. But there are easier ways to lessen the addiction to chips and/or ice cream:
- Create new habits. Go for a walk when an urge for a candybar occurs. The exercise will lessen the immediate wanting for a quick sugar fix.
- Keep a food journal. Just the act of writing down the foods that you eat will provide a wake-up call to eat healthier foods.
- Reward yourself. Choose a small goal and then reward yourself when you accomplish the goal. Healthy rewards (e.g., a movie, bath, bike ride) make for healthy habits.
What I've found with the majority of my clients is that they're not getting enough sleep. It becomes very apparent when, for instance, a client feels sluggish and yawns during the exercise session (!). Not giving your body and mind the needed recovery time via sleep is a recipe for disaster in terms of losing body weight. In fact, I would go so far to say that the time working out in the gym is virtually wasted if there is a lack of sleep. In essence, sleep is what the body and mind need to recover from the day's events and to feel refreshed and more energized upon waking up.
Getting adequate sleep (e.g., 7 to 8 hours) is just as important as nutrition and exercise in staying healthy and fit. There is a growing body of research that indicates that lack of sleep is a contributing factor for the obesity epidemic that is plaguing our country. Hormones such as leptin, ghrelin and cortisol are affected by sleep quality and quantity. Not surprisingly, all of these hormones are also involved in governing appetite. Thus, there is a correlation between lack of sleep and increased appetite. In other words, inadequate sleep makes you feel more hungry, especially for high-fat, high-calorie foods during the evening.
What can you do to increase the amount of sleep you're getting? Start by watching less television at night and restrict the amount of time spent on the computer.
Need more reasons to get more sleep at night? Here's eight benefits of getting more shut-eye:
- Better health (i.e., lessens the risk of heart disease, hypertension, heart attacks, diabetes, and obesity)
- Better sex life (i.e., increases energy and testosterone levels)
- Less pain (i.e., may increase pain threshold)
- Lower risk of injury (i.e., lessens the risk of auto accidents)
- Better mood (i.e., less likely to be cranky or uptight)
- Clearer thinking (i.e., improves cognition, attention and decision-making skills)
- Better memory (i.e., increases the brain's ability to store memories)
- Stronger immunity (i.e., lack of sleep may make you more susceptible to getting sick)
The answer may surprise you but what you should never do is dramatically reduce your caloric consumption. Your body will react by storing most of whatever calories it gets in the form of bodyfat in order to survive. Cutting down on food intake sends strong signals to the body (via hormones like leptin and ghrelin) to store more calories. This biological mechanism for survival is the human body's adaptation through evolution. When food is scarce the body begins hoarding calories as fat because fat is a slow-burning tissue, allowing the body to survive for long periods of time without food as a natural defense against starvation (think hibernation during the winter months). This is why many people find it difficult to lose bodyfat--they fail to eat enough calories!
It's virtually impossible to quickly lose bodyfat by not eating enough food or not eating at all for long periods of time (i.e., intermittent fasting). Notice, I mentioned losing bodyfat, not body weight. You may lose body weight, but this will most likely be due to a reduction in muscle mass known as catabolism. Your body essentially will feed off of its muscle tissue before it resorts to fat stores. In other words, your body weight will decrease but at the expense of lost muscle mass. Essentially you'll become a skinny fat person with less body weight but more bodyfat. This is what usually happens when people follow weight-reduction diet programs. The human body does not need muscle to survive. In fact, it's not natural to have an inordinate amount of muscle on the body since there's no biological advantage to having lots of muscle from an evolutionary perspective. Remember, the body only needs fat to survive. This is why having less than 3 and 8 percent bodyfat for males and females, respectively, may affect bodily functions (i.e., organ functions) and become life-threatening.
BOTTOM LINE: To lose bodyfat while preserving muscle mass, eat plenty of calories and then gradually reduce caloric consumption by no more than 500 calories per day. Be sure to perform resistance training (i.e., weight training) in conjunction with some form of cardiovascular exercise (e.g., running, swimming, hiking, rowing, biking, etc.).
Nutrient timing refers to eating certain foods at optimal occasions when your body is most able to utilize its nutrients. You need to know what
to eat and when
to eat it to complement your hard work in the gym. The foods you eat affect your hormone levels (e.g., insulin, leptin, ghrelin) which determine nutrient absorption. Muscle and bone growth as well as fat loss are largely dependent on your insulin levels. Insulin is arguably the most significant hormone responsible for driving glucose (carbs), amino acids (protein) and fat into your body cells. This hormone is released from the pancreas into your blood when carbs are eaten.
Here's the strategy for eating wisely around your workout:
- Pre-workout: Eat low-glycemic, complex carbs (e.g., oats, legumes, nuts, whole grains, vegetables, fruit, brown rice, beans, sweet potatoes) to keep insulin levels steady for longer-term energy
- Post-workout: Eat high-glycemic, simple carbs (e.g., white bagel, white pasta, white bread, white rice, white potatoes) to stimulate higher insulin levels for quick, replenishing energy. Higher GI foods allow for increased glucose uptake into your muscle and fat cells when your insulin sensitivity level is increased.
- Consume higher carbs (45-65% of your calories) to fuel your training as well as enough protein (15-25% of your calories) to preserve muscle mass (up to 2g / lb bodyweight) and fat (20-35% of your calories) to maintain hormone levels (e.g., testosterone)
- Good carb foods: pasta, rice, potatoes, oats, fruit
- Good protein foods: turkey, chicken, tuna, whey protein, milk
- Consume lower carbs (since you're resting) but higher protein and fat
- Good carb foods: see above
- Good protein foods: see above
Hormones are the body's chemicals in regulating many of its functions (i.e., muscle repair, growth, recovery). If you decide to try one of the latest extreme diets hyped by the media, your hormones will pay the price. For example, many of the growth-supporting hormones will plummet, causing a loss of muscle mass. This is the insidious part of dieting: you'll lose body weight but most of the weight will most likely be from muscle loss rather than bodyfat. In essence, you'll become a smaller but fatter person! Dieting is generally not a healthy way to lose weight as, in most cases, bodyweight is dropped too quickly, resulting in muscle loss (not fat loss). In addition, thyroid function decreases, testosterone levels drop, the immune system becomes compromised, and leptin levels become reduced. All of these hormonal effects have a negative impact on the body.
The thyroid hormone helps to regulate the amount of calories your body burns daily. It also impacts muscle growth by either speeding up or slowing down protein synthesis. Dieting will cause your thyroid hormone levels to decrease which slows down the calorie-burning process. In essence, your body will become less efficient at burning bodyfat as your metabolic rate decreases due to the reduction in caloric intake.
Testosterone declines when caloric intake decreases. Muscle growth is negatively affected when testosterone levels drop. If you want to hold on to your muscle mass, this is the worst situation to be in. In addition, the fat burning process is also reduced when testosterone levels decrease.
The immune system becomes impaired when over-dieting occurs. A weakened immune system will negatively affect your body's ability to hold on to muscle mass. Cortisol levels will increase due to the stress of a weakened immune system, causing catabolization or the tearing down of muscle tissue. Insulin resistance increases under these circumstances, increasing the likelihood that bodyfat will be stored rather than burned.
Leptin, a hormone which helps to regulate your body weight, declines when dieting occurs. The result: a craving for more food and therefore increased caloric intake and a decrease in metabolic rate, making it more difficult to shed bodyfat.
Instead of extreme dieting, consider the following instead:
- Reduce carbs gradually by no more than 30% of your caloric intake
- Continue to eat simple sugars to help regulate insulin levels
- Eat less carbs on non-training days
- Restrict cardio as too much can negatively affect hormone levels
- Have a cheat meal once per week
Bottom line: Moderate dieting over a longer period of time is a much better approach to losing bodyfat rather than severe dieting over a shorter period of time. Consistency and moderation is the key!