Testosterone and Muscle Building: 7 Natural Ways to Capitalise

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Maintaining healthy testosterone levels enhances your capacity to build muscle mass, strength and performance. Should your levels be low, you can do something about it, without having to resort to testosterone supplements with all their potential drawbacks.

Key Points:

  1. The most convincing evidence that increasing testosterone levels can help in building muscle comes from people who start with low testosterone. If your levels are healthy, increasing them further may not assist you in building muscle. 
  2. There are inherent risks involved in testosterone supplements (let alone ‘roids), so it is worth utilising a number of natural ways of boosting or maintaining your testosterone levels.
  3. Exercise, sleep, stress, diet and alcohol can play significant roles. A number of supplements also have potential, although the jury is still out. 

Maintaining optimal testosterone levels

As we’ve seen in the previous post, healthy testosterone levels enhance protein synthesis within your muscle. Testosterone replacement therapy (i.e. supplements which come in various forms) is a relatively simple way to increase levels and is occasionally prescribed in cases of hypogonadism. A 2016 systematic review of 156 research papers stated that it does increase muscle strength. However, this same systematic review also stated that supplementation is not recommended because it doesn’t have a positive effect on body function in terms of cardiovascular risk, sexual function, mood and behaviour, or cognition.

Supplements can easily increase levels too far, placing you at risk… for example, of salt and water retention, possibly leading to oedema, high blood pressure and heart failure, particularly in older men. Excessive testosterone can also encourage inflammation, platelet aggregation and blood coagulation (hello blood clots), and may exacerbate the condition of those susceptible to sleep-disordered breathing. In a small study of men, 65 years and over, topical application of testosterone gel increased risk of unwanted cardiovascular events, causing the trial to be prematurely terminated. Respiratory and skin complications were also found. Their response as a group may not be representative of the entire population, but it does indicate a need for caution.  

Furthermore, replacement therapy may not always be beneficial in building muscle. At least, a study of testosterone injections given to a sample of older men with suboptimal testosterone levels was not found to be effective, despite appropriate doses being provided for up to 6 weeks. 

Therefore, while supplemental doses may be indicated in certain situations, as determined by medical staff, natural means of increasing testosterone levels are needed and often preferable. 

7 Potential Ways to Increase Testosterone Levels, Naturally

1. Exercise to increase your testosterone

Put simply, men who are active tend to have higher testosterone levels than those who are not. 

More specifically: one of the best ways to increase your testosterone levels is… to do resistance training. Yes, resistance training itself increases testosterone levels, thereby increasing the gain you can get from resistance training. How amazingly logical the design of the human body! Whether you are untrained or a seasoned lifter, testosterone levels have been seen to increase as an acute response to a session. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to strap on the powerlifting belt and hit the bench press- any form of strength training will do. 

It’s not just strength training that works: cardiovascular exercise has also been seen to increase testosterone levels. Small studies suggest that higher intensities (eg: high intensity interval training) may produce greater increases than steady-state aerobic exercise. However, intensity may play a more significant role among trained athletes. It appears that moderate intensity exercise may cause a spike in testosterone in the untrained, but high intensities are required for athletes to achieve similar results. 

2. Get a good night’s sleep

Testosterone levels vary with your circadian rhythm, with most release in men occurs during sleep (meaning levels peak in the morning). If sleep is insufficient, therefore, your testosterone levels may suffer. 

There is not a consensus on what are the most important features of sleep, however. Broken sleep and sleep apnea are associated with low levels. 

Total sleep may also be important. A study has shown testosterone levels increased as sleep duration increased up to 9.9 hours- but any more than that and levels decreased. On the other hand, this same study suggested that a delay in getting to sleep, or insomnia, had no correlation with testosterone levels. Conversely, another small study among young men suggested that either waking up early or having interrupted sleep in the second half of the night could hinder testosterone release. So timing may be important. 

Another thing that is not clear is whether sleep disturbance causes the low testosterone, low testosterone causes the sleep disturbance, or there are other factor/s mediating the relationship entirely. For example, some studies raise the possibility that excess adiposity mediates the association of low testosterone with low quality sleep. And yet others challenge this hypothesis. 

To make it a little more complicated, the relationship between sleep disturbance and testosterone might vary with age. A small study of healthy young men showed sleep restriction had no impact (whereas it was assumed it would for older men), although other studies contradict this. For example,10-15% reductions in daytime testosterone levels were seen in another small (convenience) sample of young healthy men, who weren’t allowed more than 5 hours sleep per night for one week. Differences in study design may contribute to this lack of agreement. 

The overall theme from this area of research is that larger, more robust studies are needed to clarify the details. Since we only have suggestions in the absence of rigour, it is still recommended that 18-64 year olds get 7-9 hours sleep per night, and  65+ year olds get 7-8 hours. This will help with your overall health needs, even if it doesn’t directly keep or nudge this hormone in the right direction. 

3. Manage stress, keep your testosterone level happy

The majority of research suggests that stress-induced elevations in cortisol can reduce testosterone levels. This is particularly the case if cortisol remains high over the long term. Thus any lifestyle modifications that can help manage stress can be beneficial, whether that is keeping active and eating well, having down-time, mindfulness, relaxation techniques, alternate nostril breathing, or whatever works for you. 

4. Eating well for testosterone

Both malnutrition and obesity/excess adiposity are associated with reduced testosterone, so the key is to have a balanced diet.

You want to have adequate, but not excessive protein intake. While inadequate protein reserves are associated with low testosterone in men, it appears high protein diets may also hinder testosterone release. A general rule of thumb is that we require 0.8-1g of protein for each kilogram of our body mass, per day. So, say for example you’re healthy and weigh 80kg, you likely require 64-80g of protein per day. There are a number of situations that can alter your protein metabolism and needs, however, so if in doubt chat to your doctor. 

Consuming adequate fat helps maintain testosterone levels. Conflicting research means there is still some way to go before we understand the effect each type of fat has. Vitamin A and phosphorous intakes may also be linked to testosterone levels, according to a 2020 statistical analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, but more evidence is required. 

5. Limit alcohol: a testosterone killer

Intoxication has been seen to reduce levels in men. So, if this is a regular habit it could cause a chronic problem. 

6. Testosterone and vitamin D

Among the many roles of vitamin D throughtout the body, is its link to testosterone production. There has been a clear association between low Vitamin D and low testosterone levels, and there are vitamin D receptors within the male reproductive system. However, a recent review of studies published between 2011-2019 states that aside from these suggestive observations, the use of vitamin D supplementation to boost levels is unsupported. 

Indeed, randomised controlled studies have revealed that vitamin D supplementation has no impact in men with healthy testosterone levels but vitamin D levels <75nmol/L… or on men with low testosterone and vitamin D  <75nmol/L. The median vitamin D levels of the men in these studies was 52nmol/L and 54nmol, respectively. These may or may not be considered vitamin D deficient, depending on the standard used. On the other hand, in a study of males whose vitamin D levels were <30nmol, vitamin D supplementation did increase testosterone levels. Further, rigorous randomised controlled trials are warranted, to clarify whether there is a certain degree of vitamin D deficiency that can cause hypogonadism, and at what levels is supplementation generally beneficial. 

7. Other nutrients and supplements?

A recent systematic review showed that no whole testosterone supplement available on the market has been studied. However 16 ingredients that are commonly used in these supplements have been. Only ≤19% of these ingredients have positive supportive evidence from 2 or more randomised controlled trials. 

If you are deficient in zinc, there is modest evidence that zinc supplements can increase testosterone levels. 

Animal studies suggest that ginger can increase testosterone production, particularly in conditions marked by oxidative stress. However, limited evidence supports its utility in humans.

A small study of males found that the herb ashwagandha root combined with resistance training increased testosterone, and muscle mass and function more than resistance training alone.  

The Verdict

Increasing testosterone can certainly assist you in building muscle if your current levels are suboptimal. Ensuring the essential pillars of health are covered can go a long way towards attaining or maintaining healthy levels. Regularly exercising (including resistance training but also cardiovascular), doing what you need to get adequate sleep, managing stress, a balanced diet and moderating alcohol intake are key. Supplements of vitamin D, zinc, ginger and ashwagandha root among others may also have value in some circumstances, although more proof is required. 

What lifestyle changes might help you maintain healthy testosterone levels?

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