SUPPLEMENTS | DEIDRE BLOOMQUIST | 07/26/2021
Testosterone has become a taboo topic in the athletic industry due to thinking of testosterone enhancement as its classification as a schedule 1 drug when used without a prescription.
Testosterone is a steroid hormone, and we commonly think of it in its steroid use and form with a negative connotation. However, testosterone is one of the most important hormones for men, and all athletes (including women)when it comes to athletic performance.
The truth is that the benefits of testosterone far outweigh sexual performance, and changes in testosterone can not only affect your performance as an athlete, but also your overall well-being.
This is typically addressed through hormone replacement or “low T pills,” but these are often fruitless attempts due to the fact that dips in testosterone are a sign of much bigger concerns in an athlete's health. By addressing the foundations of health, we can determine the root cause of any dips in testosterone levels and naturally promote the development of this vital hormone.
In order to support healthy testosterone levels, it's important to consider the foundations of health. The following lifestyle and nutrition guidelines are essential in balancing not just testosterone, but all hormones.
A balanced diet full of whole, nutrient-rich foods is the number one factor when it comes to supporting healthy testosterone production. Hormones are complicated and require a variety of vitamins and nutrients for production, but fortunately all of these nutrients are found in natural food sources. While a diet high in processed foods, excessive sugars, and trans fats may taste good, they are simply undercutting testosterone production in the body from the top down. When looking to balance meals, look for a source of the following in every meal:
By keeping the diet rich in natural foods (i.e. those found in the produce section, those that spoil, and those with as few of ingredients as possible) we create a foundation for health to build upon.
If you struggle with getting all the nutrients you need in your diet, then consider adding a multivitamin and other supplements to your daily routine.
Low fatty acid levels are crucial for testosterone development. Testosterone is a steroid hormone, and is therefore derived from cholesterol. Without adequate cholesterol in the diet, testosterone is impossible to produce. This means that in addition to focusing on healthy fats in the diet at each meal to include avocado, nuts, seeds, olives, olive oil, coconut oil, butter, and ghee, getting a daily dose of cholesterol is crucial for testosterone support.
Remember that cholesterol is actually vital for health and will not decrease heart health, especially when within healthy levels. Look for a source of cholesterol through animal meals, dairy products, and egg yolks.
You could have the best diet in the world, but you aren’t what you eat. You are what you actually digest. Digestion is key to overall health and is the primary focus of functional health, including testosterone production, due to the fact that poor digestion will affect every system in the body.
Here’s what we mean by this: If you’re not breaking down your food properly, it may actually be causing you harm. For instance, if your stomach acid levels are low, it means food cannot be chemically broken down in order to be absorbed into the bloodstream and delivered to cells as nutrients. This undigested food may travel throughout the digestive system, but may actually be causing inflammation, gas, bloating, bacterial infections, and new food sensitivities as a result of these undigested food particles making their way through your gastrointestinal tract.
Digestive health is about more than bowel movements! To promote proper digestion, consider digestive enzymes or hydrochloric acid for healthy stomach acid and gastric juice levels for food breakdown, as well as a quality probiotic either in supplement form or through fermented foods eaten regularly. These two things in combination will promote overall gut and digestive health.
Mineral deficiencies are a common result of poor digestion. Inflammation in the mucosal lining of the intestinal tract can make nutrient absorption difficult if not impossible, leading to a variety of nutrient and vitamin deficiencies, but low mineral levels in particular.
Zinc is one of the most important minerals required for healthy testosterone levels, as well as sperm production, and is a common deficiency for both men and women. Zinc is found in animal meats, shellfish, legumes including chickpeas, lentils, and beans, as well as pumpkin and sesame seeds and cashews.
Blood sugar dysregulation is the first sign that something may be going wrong with testosterone levels and is often a precursor to dipping levels. This is because the main hormone player in blood sugar regulation is insulin. When blood sugar levels reach high levels due to an unbalanced diet, insulin comes into the picture to shuttle blood glucose to cells to use.
However, insulin can become excessive when this is regularly happening due to a diet high in poor quality carbohydrates, and cells become resistant to its effects, turning it away and stopping the absorption of sugars. These sugars then need to find a new hormone, and begin to be converted into fat to be stored in adipose tissue. More importantly, however, these high insulin levels begin to reduce testosterone levels in men and are the first step in a complex hormone cascade.
When it comes to testosterone health, we have to think about the entire hormone cascade, versus thinking about only one hormone at a time. The endocrine system is a complex and intricate system that functions as a whole, rather than as parts. This means that when one hormone becomes high or low, the others will all be affected.
In fact, there’s a cascade that hormone dysfunction follows. Blood sugar dysregulation leads to adrenal dysfunction, which leads to thyroid complications and ultimately high or less levels of sex hormones.
It’s important to note that our sex hormones (testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone) are the first hormones to be affected in the body due to this tiered system. As a coping mechanism, our body begins to shut off testosterone production in men (and estrogen and progesterone in women) as a coping mechanism for handling the amount of stress already placed on the body. When our health is in trouble, turning off sex hormones is our body’s way to limiting fertility and reproduction, since this addition may actually be too much to handle and cause global failure.
While this doesn’t mean you’re destined for total hormone failure, we need to address every level of the cascade to provide complete support. For blood sugar regulation, focusing on quality carbohydrates in the diet is key, in addition to pairing healthy fats with carbohydrates to support managed blood sugar spikes and avoiding blood sugar crashes. This will also support the adrenals by avoiding this stress being put on the body (more in next section). Many of the nutrients required by the body for testosterone production are also needed for adrenal and thyroid hormones as well.
Outside of your food choices, stress is one of the leading causes of low testosterone in men due to its global effects on the body. Whether it’s external stress (overtraining, difficult relationships, job loss, isolation, work) or internal stress (under-eating, poor gut health, injury, illness, blood sugar dysregulation) the body perceives all stress the same.
When stress is present, our body releases stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline to maintain homeostasis. This is ultimately a good mechanism for ensuring our safety, but when this happens regularly, it plays a role in triggering the domino effect of the hormone cascade into a downward spiral.
Consider implementing stress relief and management techniques to include things outside of physical exercise, such as:
Hydration affects the body on a global scale and is our most common nutrient deficiency. From promoting healthy digestion to nutrient absorption, water intake is crucial for supporting the systems that ultimately create optimal health for testosterone production.
Aim to get a minimum of half of your body weight in ounces on a daily basis. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds, you need to be getting a minimum of 100 ounces of water daily, which will not include any beverages containing caffeine.
High intensity interval training and CrossFit training are a few of the big culprits when it comes to overtraining, but this doesn’t have to be true for all athletes following these fitness models. Instead, athletes should focus on being intuitive with their workouts and understand that not every workout needs to be an all-out effort. Ideally programming is designed to create high intensity workouts, as well as low intensity (or active recovery) workouts, but this isn’t always the case.
It’s always within your ability to take your overall health as a first priority and scale a workout based on your needs on a given day. Here’s the big question to ask yourself: Are your workouts leaving you feeling invigorated or do they leave you feeling drained? If it’s the latter, then scaling your workout intensity in particular may actually be beneficial for your hormone health so that you can ultimately see better results in terms of both performance and body composition.
After a stressful day, your workout should not be putting more stress on your body, especially if it’s intended to be your “stress relief” for the day.
Functional Nutritionist based in Denver, Colorado. Certified L3 CrossFit Trainer who loves working with athletes on performance and health goals.
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