In this guide we will discuss what testosterone is, its role in the endocrine system and why you may want to consider taking a testosterone boosting supplement.
Table of Contents:
- What Is Testosterone
- The Endocrine System
- Testosterone Supplements Vs. Exogenous Testosterone
- Natural Testosterone Supplements Part I
- Natural Testosterone Supplements Part II
What Is Testosterone
Testosterone is the principal male sex hormone that plays a number of roles in the body including: “regulating sex drive (libido), bone mass, fat distribution, muscle mass and strength, and the production of red blood cells and sperm” (Wein, Harrison Understanding How Testosterone Affects Men).
The majority of testosterone is produced in the Testes of men. Testosterone is also produced in much smaller quantities in the ovaries of women. When referring to testosterone it is typically categorized into three parts:
- Total Testosterone
- Total or serum testosterone levels refers to the total amount of testosterone in your system. In our bodies at any given time, about 98% of testosterone is bound to a protein known as Sex-Hormone Binding Globulin or SHBG for short. Any testosterone molecule that is bound to SHBG is biologically inactive and must be separated from the SHBG in order to enter the cell.
- The normal range for “healthy” serum testosterone levels is between 250- 1,300 ng/dL (nanogram per milliLiter)
- Free Testosterone
- Free or plasma testosterone is the portion of testosterone in your body that is not bound to a protein.
- The normal range for free testosterone is ~ 2 - 20ng/dL
- Bioavailable Testosterone
- Another protein called albumin, which serves as a kind of transporter protein for many hormones also binds to testosterone. But unlike SHBG testosterone that is bound to albumin can still enter the cell and is therefore still biologically active.
We cannot talk about Testosterone without mentioning its big brother hormone dihydrotestosterone or more commonly referred to as DHT. Like testosterone, DHT is also an androgenic hormone and acts in a very similar way to testosterone in the body. DHT is found in much smaller quantities in the body (~14-77ng/DL) and typically exhibits a larger response in the body compared to testosterone. Unlike testosterone, DHT is also unable to be converted into estrogen, but we’ll get to that later.
Read More: 3 Natural Steroid Alternatives
The Endocrine System
The endocrine system is the body’s method of sending and receiving chemical signals or hormones throughout the body. There are a number of organs or glands within the endocrine system each of which produces one or more hormones. These glands release their respective hormones into the bloodstream from which they are distributed throughout the body.
Analogy Time: The endocrine system is like the body's postal service. It’s capable of picking up and delivering packages throughout the town. It is rather slow, but able to produce more long-term changes in the body and communicate much more information compared to the nervous system. The nervous system would be more analogous to phone lines, (ironically both use electricity to create signals) a rapid form of communication that usually results in a fast, but short-lived response.
It’s important to note that there can be large amounts of hormones that are just floating in our blood, or “lost by the postal service”, which are not active in the body. In order for a hormone to induce its effect it must be absorbed by a cell or in our analogy, delivered to your house.
It’s also important to understand that the endocrine system operates in feedback loops. Feedback loops are essential in the body in order to maintain homeostasis. If you’ve ever entered a cold room and gotten the chills and your hair spikes up, this is your body's method of increasing its internal body temperature by producing and conserving heat. The same occurs when you enter a hot room and begin to sweat in order to prevent your body from overheating.
These are both examples of negative feedback loops, in which the body works to counteract the stimulus to return its baseline, in this case body temperature of ~98 degrees. Negative feedback loops are significantly more common than positive feedback loops because they are aimed at returning to the body’s “norm” aka homeostasis.
Positive feedback loops do occur in the body, but are much more rare because they promote a continual increase away from the norm (homeostasis). One of the most well known examples of a positive feedback loop occurs during childbirth. As the child pushes against the cervix, nerves in the area promote the release of oxytocin in order to contract the uterus, pushing the baby out.
This stimulus and then release of oxytocin occurs repeatedly until the baby is finally delivered from the womb. As you can see in a positive feedback loop the stimulus warrants an increased response by, until acted upon by an outside event. While in a negative feedback loop, the stimulus warrants a negative response in which the stimulus is counteracted.
Testosterone Production Pathway
Note - Before I go into testosterone and its role / regulation within the endocrine system, I must note that this is a vastly simplified explanation of how testosterone and our endocrine system functions.
The endocrine system is one of the body’s most complex systems and it is still not fully understood today. As I and we continue to learn more about this system, I will hopefully be able to produce better, more accurate and more comprehensive information about exactly how the system works, but for now I will do my best with the knowledge and resources available to me.
The process of Testosterone production begins in the brain with the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is a region of the brain and is largely responsible for controlling the release of hormones throughout the body. The hypothalamus produces “neurohormones” which signal to other glands/organs within the endocrine system to release their respective hormones.
In reference to testosterone production, the hypothalamus will release Gonado-tropin-releasing hormone or GnRH. GnRH stimulates the production of luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) by the pituitary gland. LH stimulates the gonads (testes and ovaries) to produce testosterone by converting cholesterol into testosterone, while FSH is responsible for regulating sperm production. If testosterone levels become too high, then the hypothalamus will decrease and eventually stop the production of GnRH, lowering the production of LH & FSH in the body and thereby stopping the production of testosterone. This is an example of a negative feedback loop.
Once testosterone is produced and released into the bloodstream by the testes it is often bound to one of two proteins, sex-hormone binding globulin (SHBG) or albumin. Only unbound or free testosterone and albumin-bound testosterone are bioactive. Meaning they are capable of entering into the cell, although it is more difficult for albumin-bound testosterone molecules to enter the cell than free testosterone molecules.
SHBG on the other hand inhibits testosterone from entering the cell and renders it biologically inactive. The testosterone molecule must be released from SHBG in order to become biologically active again. This is very important, as no matter how high our “testosterone levels” are, if our SHBG levels are equally as high, the testosterone will not be able to exert its intended effect, rendering it basically useless.
Read More: 25 Foods That Boost Your Testosterone Levels
Testosterone & Stress Hormones
There are a number of stress hormones that are produced in the body and compete with testosterone in its production pathway. Including: estrogen, cortisol, and aldosterone. These hormones are not “bad”, but are all stressful to the body. Cortisol and aldosterone specifically are catabolic, meaning they are responsible for the breakdown of molecules in the body. In contrast to testosterone and DHT which are anabolic hormones, meaning the building of larger molecules.
The more these stress hormones are produced, the less is cholesterol available for testosterone production. Additionally, these stress hormones typically exert a negative effect on testosterone production, down regulating its production.
Again, I would like to note that these stress hormones are all necessary and play a number of important roles in the body, but when in excess they will exert a negative effect on testosterone production.
Aromatization Of Testosterone
It is also important to recognize that testosterone can be converted into estrogen. This occurs when the aromatase enzyme binds to a testosterone molecule and converts the molecule into estrogen. This is one of the body’s negative feedback loops designed to prevent excess testosterone levels.
It is also important to note that if we increase our testosterone levels, while also increasing the amount of aromatase enzyme, then will also be increasing our estrogen levels. Do you think this is better?
As I mentioned before, I like to view DHT like testosterone’s older brother. DHT has very similar effects to testosterone, but with a few added bonuses
- DHT cannot be converted into estrogen in the body
- DHT has a higher affinity to the androgen receptors than testosterone,
- Meaning it's more likely to be “absorbed” by your cells, and it stays bound to the androgen receptors for up to 5 times longer than testosterone
- DHT is significantly more potent than testosterone
Note - DHT has received a very bad reputation in recent years and has been correlated with male pattern baldness and prostate enlargement. This occurs when high levels of DHT are accompanied by high levels of estrogen in the body. We should note that this is a correlation, not a causation. Logically, it would make sense for the body to convert significant portions of testosterone into DHT if there is excess estrogen in order to prevent the testosterone from being converted into estrogen.
In today’s society the go-to method for boosting testosterone levels has been through introducing testosterone replacement therapy or illegal steroids into the body via direct injections, gels/patches, or pills. While this definitely works to boost your testosterone levels this is not the end of the story…
As we know, the endocrine system is made up of a number of feedback loops designed to keep the body in balance. When we inject large amounts of exogenous (created from outside the body) testosterone into the body, the body begins to increase the production of the aromatase enzyme to remove this excess testosterone by converting it into estrogen.
This will lead to both increased estrogen levels and down regulated testosterone production. When foreign testosterone is introduced to the body, consistently over time, the body’s natural production of testosterone can shut down. This eventually forces your body to rely on this exogenous testosterone.
It’s quite ironic in my opinion how the side effects associated with most forms of testosterone replacement therapy and excess or high estrogen levels almost go hand-in-hand. I mean wouldn’t it make sense for your body to stop producing a hormone if it’s being continually injected into it? Why work harder if you’re doing the work for it? And wouldn’t it also make sense for the testes (and testicles) to shrink (a known and common side effect of testosterone injections) if their main role in the body is to produce testosterone and sperm? This is like the biological equivalent to getting laid off and then sitting on the couch and eating Cheetos all day.
But doesn’t testosterone production decline with age?
Yes and no. Statistically testosterone levels have been shown to decline with age. But testosterone levels have also been shown to decline over time. The average testosterone levels for men have been continually reduced over time and with this and so has the barrier for “low testosterone”. Multiple studies have shown an average decline in testosterone levels by about 1% annually since the 1980s.
This study shows an average decrease of over 25% in total testosterone and 80% for free testosterone in less than 20 years!
While “low T” used to be a condition that was believed to only affect “old men”, it is becoming more and more common in younger men and women. Why?
Maybe testosterone doesn’t decline with age, but rather it declines with stress
Now I am going to make what I hope to be a logically-based argument to this point and rather than cite a number of studies to “prove it” I’ll allow you to make your own decision based on its merit.
I would argue in today’s society, the average person is subject to more stressors than ever before and I don’t just mean in the workplace! In general, as we age we become more and more sedentary, a lot of times sleep less, and eat poorly. Over time this often adds up into weight and fat gain which just contributes to more overall stress being placed on the body. Not to even mention the loads of environmental stressors that we are subject to today.
Have you ever heard of phyto-estrogens?
I’d bet not, but I’d almost guarantee you have heard of the infamous BPA and all of the health problems it can cause. Well, BPA is actually a type of phyto-estrogen, a molecule that mimics estrogen in the body and exhibits a similar response/effect in the body. These estrogen mimics can wreak havoc on your body if consumed in excess, but here’s the thing. It’s almost impossible to not consume them in excess in today’s society.
Do you eat fruits or vegetables?
Well, they were very likely covered in pesticides and/or herbicides that contain very similar phyto-estrogens/ estrogenics. These estrogenics are absorbed into these fruits and vegetables both through being sprayed topically and also through the soil below. And you can’t just wash them off! What about meat? Well, assuming they were eating the same crops covered in these same pesticides and herbicides, they’re going to cause the same effects. Not to mention how many plastics and other chemicals we use on a daily basis, that induce this exact same effect.
And here’s the worst part...
Many of these chemicals are being absorbed into our water sources, which not only means we are drinking them, but so are many animals. This rise in estrogen levels has been correlated with a decreasing population of fish and has even been attributed to causing “reproductive abnormalities'' in some species of frogs in areas with high concentrations of estrogenics. And guess what, estrogen is primarily stored in fat. I mean come on… talk about full circle.
Now I am not saying to completely uproot your entire way of life in response to these “estrogenic” chemicals which you may or may not have just heard of. But I highly recommend becoming more conscious of what you are putting into your body and being aware of the consequences it may have.
And if you are looking for more information on this subject of environmental estrogenics make sure to check out the book, Estrogeneration by Anthony G. Jay. Dr. Jay goes into a much more in-depth and comprehensive explanation of estrogenics, their effects on both humans and animals in modern society and how to avoid them. Or you can always check out our Thermo Diet program inside UMZUfit ;).
So how can we naturally increase our testosterone levels?
There are actually a number of ways in which we can naturally increase our testosterone levels, almost all of which have to do with improving our general health. Here are a few:
- Sleeping consistently for 7+ hours per night
- Proper Nutrition
- Testosterone boosting supplements
- Avoid toxic chemicals
- Lowering your stress levels, both physically and mentally
- Lose that excess body fat!
Natural Testosterone Boosting Supplements
Supplements in general have gotten a bad reputation over the years and probably for good reason. Many of the supplements in the past have contained dangerous chemicals that caused more harm than good or used a number of mystical “herbs” that didn’t actually do squat. But not all supplements are created equal. Any good supplement should be primarily targeted at eliminating any micronutrient deficiencies present in the body.
Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals that we consume in our diet which our body uses to produce various biological compounds including many hormones. If we do not consume these micronutrients at the rate equal to which our body uses them, over time we will become deficient in them, meaning our body will no longer be able to produce these compounds. Micronutrient deficiencies are very prevalent in today’s society and likely play a large role in the average decline of testosterone levels.
In general, it’s best to consume these micronutrients through your diet because your body will absorb better than through supplementation. But supplements offer a convenient and effective way to correct these deficiencies. Without further ado here is a list of some of the vital micronutrients required for testosterone production:
- Vitamin A
- Higher concentrations of Vitamin A in the testes has been correlated with higher testosterone levels and decreased estrogen production
- Vitamin C
- Due to its high antioxidant concentration Vitamin C has been shown to be very effective at preserving testosterone levels and protecting the testes from the effects of excess stress
- Vitamin D3
- D3 has been positively correlated with increases in both total, bioactive and free testosterone levels by up to 25%
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin E deficiencies can result in significant decreases in the production of LH and FSH (the testosterone signaling hormones) which can result in decreased testosterone levels over time.
- B Vitamins
- Vitamin B deficiencies have been associated with increased estrogen and prolactin levels (a precursor to estrogen) and lower testosterone levels.
- Zinc plays an important role in the process of aromatization of testosterone and zinc deficiency has been correlated significantly increased estrogen production. By correcting a zinc deficiency you will decrease the amount of testosterone aromatized into estrogen, and thereby also boost your testosterone levels and decrease your estrogen levels. Make sure that you also balance you zinc supplementation with copper, as each of these minerals can deplete the other. A 10:1 zinc to copper ratio is ideal.
- Magnesium has been shown to significantly boost testosterone levels in magnesium deficient men.
- Manganese supplementation has been shown to increase the amount of GnRH released, stimulating boosting testosterone levels down the line.
- While not considered an essential micronutrient by the NIH, boron has been shown to significantly increase testosterone production and increase free testosterone levels by lowering SHBG. Boron is found in much lower quantities in our food compared to our ancestors due to the degradation of soil in modern farming practices. Boron may be one of the most underrated and effective supplements for boosting your testosterone levels.
*We must note that the majority of these supplements will only be effective at increasing your testosterone levels if you are currently deficient in that micronutrient.
Natural Testosterone Supplements Part II
In the world of endocrinology, micronutrients are the building blocks of these hormones. It’s really difficult to bake a cake without any sugar or flour. If you don’t supply your body with the correct ingredients it will make it nearly impossible for your body to produce these hormones and thereby function optimally.
While the primary objective of testosterone supplements should be to correct any micronutrient deficiencies there are a number of other herbs and amino acids that have also been shown in research to naturally improve testosterone production. Before we go into these compounds let’s briefly address how a supplement could theoretically increase our testosterone production
- Down regulating the production of stress hormones, like cortisol, estrogen, aldosterone, adrenaline and noradrenaline
- Processing/removing excess estrogen from our body
- Down regulating the production of the aromatase enzymes
- Up regulating the production of the precursor hormones (GnRH, LH, FSH)
- Increasing the amount of free/bioavailable testosterone by reducing SHBG levels
- Increasing the conversion of testosterone into DHT
Here are a few awesome supplements that have been shown in research to do many of these exact things:
- Ashwagandha (KSM-66 Ashwaghanda in particular) Has been shown to be very effective at reducing cortisol and estrogen levels while increasing testosterone levels and sperm health parameters.
- Phosphatidylserine has been shown to be very effective at reducing cortisol levels, while increasing cognitive function and may even have a slight effect on boosting testosterone levels.
- Coleus Forskohlii
- Coleus Forskohlii has been shown to boost Testosterone production and may help to increase fat loss & muscle gain.
- Glycine is a very anti-inflammatory amino acid and has also been shown to upregulate GnRH synthesis in the body.
- Betaine HCl and/or Choline
- Both betaine and choline are estrogen methylators. Meaning they are able to donate a methyl group to an estrogen molecule which helps to process and remove estrogen from the body.
Piece of Advice - When it comes to the herbal forms of supplementation always be somewhat of a skeptic. Make sure the supplements are well researched and actually accomplish their intended effect without side effects. My go-to recommendation as far as testosterone boosting supplement is UMZU’s Testro-X. Testro-X is a great option if you are looking for a well-researched, convenient and natural way to increase your body’s testosterone production.
My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across within the supplement industry. I really hope you found this article interesting and useful as a guide to testosterone supplementation. If you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism feel free to reach me on our facebook groups (The Thermo Diet Community Group, The UMZU Community Group) or on Instagram @tylerwoodward__. And please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.
Thanks for reading!
Until next time… be good
B.S. Physiology & Neurobiology