If you’re an athlete looking to maximize muscle growth and strength performance, optimizing your body’s ability to produce and utilize testosterone is of the utmost importance.
As one of the body’s main anabolic hormones, maintaining and supporting testosterone can ensure that you're reaping the most benefit possible from both your training and nutritional protocol, but also maintaining a high quality of life.
In addition to maintaining a high level of fitness, incorporating evidence-backed supplements and sound lifestyle practices can ensure that your body’s production and use of testosterone is not only maximized but also optimized.
What Testosterone Means For The Body
Testosterone is the body's main anabolic hormone, meaning that it promotes the growth of tissues such as muscle.
Testosterone, as an anabolic hormone, interacts with receptors within cells. When these receptors are activated by testosterone, they interact with the central command center of the cell, known as the nucleus leading to several different events (1).
In particular, this interaction with the nucleus encourages the cell to increase protein synthesis or the generation of new proteins, including the ones that make up muscle cells. As you can imagine, this is the primary reason that many individuals use anabolic steroids derived from testosterone for bodybuilding and athletics (1).
By taking steroids that mimic testosterone, muscle cells are working overtime to accelerate recovery and generate new proteins leading to bigger and stronger muscles.
However, if you're looking to stay natural, ensuring that your body is making and using testosterone as much as possible is very important. By optimizing your body's production of testosterone, you'll reap the most benefit from your training plan and diet.
Additionally, the optimization of testosterone extends further than just promoting muscle growth. Studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that suboptimal levels of testosterone can lead to poor mood, depression, low sex drive, and overall low quality of life (2-6).
Together, it becomes clear that as an athlete, optimizing your body’s production of testosterone is paramount.
Signs Your Testosterone Is Not Optimized
Fortunately, it can be quite easy to recognize the signs of suboptimal testosterone. Mostly, the side effects that appear with low testosterone are some of the same that occurs with long-duration dieting and older age.
Some of the most common signs of low testosterone include:
- Weight gain and loss of muscle mass
- Reduced strength
- Fat gain
- Inability to get stronger or build muscle
- Low libido, sex drive, and sexual performance
- Weak bones
- Depression (2-6)
As you can see, testosterone plays a significant role in muscle mass and strength but also influences factors that determine your quality of life.
Because testosterone's influence is wide-reaching, optimizing the body's natural production of this hormone becomes quite essential for athletic performance but also living a life that you can enjoy.
However, as I’ll touch on momentarily, if you wish to remain natural, your goal should be to optimize the body’s production and use of testosterone, ensuring that these processes are working at full capacity. This practice, however, is different from what would be expected from using anabolic steroids.
Managing Expectations Of Testosterone Optimization
Before jumping into natural supplements and practices that can help optimize your testosterone levels, you must understand what the use of supplements and these practices can and cannot do for you.
As an athlete myself, I understand the allure of naturally boosting testosterone. The idea that you can reap the same benefits as those using steroids through natural practices is indeed attractive.
However, it's essential to manage your expectations. While the supplements and practices we're about to cover do have some evidence for optimizing testosterone levels, you cannot expect them to provide steroid-like results. For that, you need to take steroids!
Steroids exist because they increase levels of anabolic hormones like testosterone to supraphysiological levels, meaning higher than what the body can produce naturally. As a result, steroid users gain enormous amounts of muscle and strength, but also often suffer the consequences of such high levels of testosterone (7, 8, 9).
When reading on, just remember these facts. These practices and supplements are meant to help optimize your body’s natural production so that you’re getting the most out of your exercise and diet, rather than supersede what your body is capable of naturally.
Finally, do understand that very few supplements have been shown to elevate testosterone reliably. Many times, improvements as a result of supplementation only come when individuals are deficient and also do require continued use for maintaining their benefits.
Ashwagandha is an herbal supplement, which is widely considered to be an adaptogen substance. This means that as a supplement, it's meant to help influence stress in several different ways through regulating hormones and how our cells function.
In particular, ashwagandha has been reported to not only improve metrics of well-being but also improve levels of key hormones like testosterone (10).
In one fascinating study, researchers recruited 57 males between the ages of 40 and 70, displaying typical signs of testosterone deficiency. These signs included high levels of fatigue, as well as reductions in libido and virility (10).
After recruitment, these subjects took part in a randomized, placebo-controlled crossover study, lasting sixteen weeks. This means that for the first eight weeks, one-half of the participants used the active ingredient, while the other half used a placebo. At the eight week mark, the subjects then switched protocols, allowing the initial placebo group to use the active ingredient for the remainder of the study.
One of the main challenges of using herbal supplements like ashwagandha is that the effect is not as robust as you might see with a strong pharmaceutical such as synthetic testosterone. Because of its mild effect, positive results are often indistinguishable from a placebo effect.
By using a blinded crossover design, researchers can take hormonal measurements when participants are using the active ingredient as well as when they’re using a placebo. Doing this allows researchers to see how using the active ingredient works, regardless of if the participant thinks they are taking the supplement.
After using ashwagandha daily, the results indicate a positive and significant influence on levels of testosterone and DHEA-S, which is a hormone that converts to DHEA and, ultimately, testosterone (10, 11).
However, the researchers also tested testosterone levels after eight weeks of placebo and found that the elevations weren't maintained. This means that if ashwagandha does improve your testosterone levels, you probably need to continue taking it to see any benefit (10).
Finally, when choosing an ashwagandha supplement, you also need to ensure that you’re taking enough of the active ingredient to see results. The active ingredients found in ashwagandha extracts are known as withanolides and typically only make up a certain percentage of the dose (12).
For instance, in this study, the subjects consumed 21mg of withanolides daily. However, the form of ashwagandha used in this study contained roughly 35% of this ingredient per dose, which is not typical (10).
For ashwagandha supplements that contain an average of 3% withanolides, you would need to consume around 700mg daily to match this study (10).
When you purchase an ashwagandha supplement, you should find one that provides the level of active ingredient contained per dosage. That way, you know exactly how much of the active ingredient you're consuming. Otherwise, you're simply hoping for the best.
Considered to be one of the most excellent sports supplements of all time, creatine might be a potential testosterone optimizer.
Supplemental creatine is mostly used to elevate levels of stored creatine phosphate (CP). CP is a high-energy molecule that donates its phosphate group so that energy can be replenished during high-intensity activities, allowing you to produce high force and power repeatedly (13).
Typically when using creatine, your muscles need to be saturated to gain benefit. This means that taking creatine once probably won't improve performance. As such, many recommend using a loading protocol by ingesting high doses of creatine (such as 20 grams per day) for 5-7 days in an attempt to saturate muscles as quickly as possible.
Interestingly, some studies have indicated that during this loading period, testosterone levels sometimes become elevated.
For example, in one study using resistance-trained males, researchers placed participants on a standard loading protocol of 20 grams per day (4 doses at 5 grams each) for seven days. On the seventh day, the subjects completed a short workout and had blood taken before and immediately after to assess differences in hormonal responses (14).
The study showed that when participants were loaded with creatine, they had higher levels of testosterone post-workout compared to the placebo group. This could mean that creatine improves the body's testosterone and, thus, growth response to exercise, leading to faster and more robust growth (14).
Other studies seem to indicate the same. For instance, one study showed that after ten weeks of supplementing with 10.5 grams of creatine daily, strength and power athletes displayed a significant elevation in testosterone levels (15).
This apparent optimization of testosterone and the proven performance benefits of creatine make it a wise choice for almost any athlete.
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is an anabolic precursor hormone, meaning it converts to testosterone and other anabolic hormones. Interestingly, you can also take DHEA in supplemental form in the hopes of elevating testosterone (16, 17).
In particular, supplemental DHEA seems to be promising for optimizing levels of free testosterone in older individuals. This means the testosterone is unbound and can freely interact with cells to produce growth (16, 18).
For instance, one study provided 50mg of DHEA or placebo to eight middle-aged males and eight younger males as a control, 12 hours before a high-intensity interval training session (16).
The results showed that when the middle-aged men used DHEA, they displayed higher levels of free testosterone compared to those using a placebo. Additionally, the results showed that by using DHEA, the middle-aged participants avoided declines in testosterone as a result of the intense exercise session (16).
Interestingly, when subjects used a placebo, the exercise sessions resulted in a reduction in free testosterone. However, when DHEA was introduced, this decline was avoided, regardless of age. This could mean a more robust response to exercise both during and after the workout is finished (16).
Importantly, however, is the timeline of the study. These researchers tested the response 12 hours after ingesting DHEA. It's relatively unknown if these benefits will remain after prolonged use. Based on these findings, it's recommended to use DHEA sparingly, such as one week on and one week off.
Practices For Optimizing Testosterone
Since naturally optimizing testosterone through supplementation is not always easy, turning towards your habits and daily actions is the easiest, and frankly, the best way to naturally optimize your testosterone.
Unless you have a disorder, which interferes with your body's production of hormones, it's likely your body can produce optimal levels of testosterone. The reality here is that if you're deficient in testosterone production, it's probably due to poor habits such as how you eat, sleep, and remain physically active.
Fortunately, focusing on and optimizing the habits that influence your testosterone levels is the fastest, easiest, and most effective way to maximize the natural production of this anabolic hormone.
Focus On Your Sleep Habits
You’ve undoubtedly heard how important sleep is for optimal health. But have you really considered just how important it is? Most of us see headlines about the importance of sleep but continue forward staying up too late watching our favorite shows. Unfortunately, these actions could be significantly hampering your body’s ability to secrete and utilize testosterone.
Hormones like testosterone function according to a circadian rhythm. This means that certain times of day will produce higher levels of testosterone, while other parts of the day will be accompanied by a dip or lull. Sleep unsurprisingly is the time when we see testosterone levels peak (19, 20, 21).
After falling asleep, testosterone levels rise and continue to rise depending on the duration of sleep. Just prior to waking, we see the body produce the highest amounts of testosterone with a slow and steady decline until sleep the following day (6, 19, 20).
As you can imagine, disrupting this rhythm can have a significant influence on how robustly your body secretes testosterone. If you’re reducing the amount of time you sleep or even change when you initiate sleep, these adjustments can wreak havoc on testosterone production.
For example, in one acute study, researchers showed that just a few days of sleep restriction lead to significant changes in testosterone secretion (6).
In this study, researchers recruited ten healthy young males and observed how reducing sleep negatively affects testosterone. After a week of sleeping for at least eight hours on a schedule, the subjects were required to spend the following eleven days in the lab while having their sleep monitored (6).
For the first three days, each participant slept for a total of ten hours, which is likely longer than most people get each night. After the first three days, the scientists then restricted each participant's sleep to just five hours per night, which is quite common for many young adults (6).
When researchers compared blood samples from during the ten hour sleep period on the second day to blood samples after the seventh day of sleep deprivation, the subjects displayed a drastic reduction in testosterone, both during the night and later during waking hours (6).
Overall, these participants showed between ten and fifteen percent reductions in circulating testosterone after only one week of sleep deprivation. Now, consider the influence that chronic sleep deprivation might have (6).
How To Optimize Sleep For Maximum Test Levels
Fortunately, making changes to your sleep is quite easy, with three main considerations.
1. Sleep Enough
Sure, quality of sleep is the most critical factor, but if that sleep is too short, you might not have optimal test levels. Studies suggest that sleep duration is a significant component in testosterone secretion. As such, shooting for at least 7 hours is a good idea (22).
2. Sleep On a Schedule
Since testosterone functions on a circadian rhythm, attempting to sleep and wake at similar times is the easiest way to optimize this process. A good recommendation is to try to fall asleep and wake within a 30-45 minute window each day if possible (19).
3. Optimize Your Sleep Environment
Finally, optimize your sleep environment for you as an individual. Finding optimal light levels, temperature, and sound levels according to your preferences, is the easiest way to get restful sleep.
Eat Enough Fat (And Calories)
As a steroid hormone, testosterone is derived from cholesterol and fat, and if there aren't enough of these nutrients in your diet, maintaining optimal levels of testosterone can be challenging (23, 24).
For example, in one study, scientists took males consuming an average of 40% of their calories from fat and restricted them to only 25% of calories being derived from fat. Upon doing so, these individuals displayed a significant decline in total testosterone levels after only six weeks (24).
More importantly, was the fact that total calories remained the same for these participants. The only real change was where the calories were derived from. This means that providing the body with adequate fat ensures that the body has the nutrients available to maximize hormone production (24).
Do these findings, therefore, suggest that a diet comprised mostly of fat, such as a ketogenic diet, is the best idea for maximizing testosterone production?
One study on this subject suggests that using a ketogenic diet, or one comprised mostly of fat, does elevate testosterone levels. When young subjects followed a ketogenic diet (75% of calories from fat), for ten weeks, they displayed significantly higher levels of total testosterone compared to those only getting 25% of their calories from fat (25).
However, this doesn't necessarily mean that you need to use a true ketogenic diet, involving fat percentages above 70% of total calories. Instead, you should use a dietary pattern that allows for at least 30-40% of your total calories to come from fat, unless higher amounts work better for your preferences. In that case, a ketogenic diet is a valid option.
Lastly, keep in mind that even more critical than fat intake is merely eating enough calories. Restricting calories almost always reduces levels of androgens like testosterone (23, 26).
To make things worse, one study even suggests that caloric restriction can elevate levels of sex-hormone-binding proteins, which inhibit testosterone from interacting with muscle cells. This means that in addition to lower levels of testosterone, the testosterone available can't be used properly (26).
Essentially, if you want to optimize your body's production of testosterone, you need first to eat enough calories and then ensure that at least 30-40% of those calories are derived from fat (23, 24).
Lastly, if using a ketogenic style of dieting is attractive to you, research suggests that doing so can help optimize testosterone, as long as total calories are adequate. Just keep in mind that a ketogenic diet comes with many guidelines and restrictions, and all must be considered before choosing it as your dieting method.
Abstain From Sex
Amazingly, some evidence suggests that if you avoid having an orgasm for an extended period, your levels of circulating testosterone might increase (27).
Evolutionarily speaking, this makes sense. Testosterone is a major driving force behind sexual gratification. It's a hormone that strongly influences libido and the desire to satisfy that libido. If orgasm doesn't occur, it's entirely plausible to assume that testosterone levels would rise to promote further gratifying this elevation of sexual desire.
As an example, one study observed how three weeks of abstinence influenced testosterone and stress hormones in young participants. As a result of abstaining from orgasm, participants displayed significant elevations in their total testosterone (27).
Additionally, a different study testing the same showed that with a minimum of seven days of abstinence, participants showed a drastic elevation in circulating testosterone (28).
Keep in mind, though, that indefinitely abstaining from orgasm won't mean a drastic elevation of testosterone. Abstaining for too long could have a negative impact. For instance, one study showed that individuals with erectile dysfunction and, thus, an inability to participate in sex, displayed around 37% less testosterone than healthy males of the same age (29).
According to the evidence, abstaining from orgasm for at least seven days might encourage an elevation in testosterone. However, it’s unknown how much benefit this elevation would have for variables like quality of life, athletic performance, or body composition changes.
Testosterone is important with regard to athletic performance and body composition. By using evidence-based supplements and living a healthy lifestyle, you can ensure that your body is producing and using testosterone at its full capacity.
Do keep in mind that these practices are meant to support and optimize your body’s ability to leverage testosterone’s effects rather than produce steroid-like results. When combined with sound training and nutritional practices, this optimization can ensure you’re performing at peak capacity and living your best life.
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