Testosterone is an important natural hormone, and an essential ingredient in the adolescent transition from boy to man¹.
Testosterone is the sex hormone responsible for² developing the penises and testes, strengthening and enlarging muscles and bones, producing sperm, deepening the voice, stimulating the growth of facial and pubic hair, and for maintaining a healthy libido, or sex drive.
With all these important functions on its to-do list, it’s natural to be curious about how you can raise your testosterone.
Should you boost testosterone naturally?
Testosterone is a “natural steroid” says Dr. Eleftherios Diamandis, professor in the department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology at the University of Toronto. He says that while it may be tempting to boost your testosterone in order to increase muscle mass or improve athletic and sexual performance, he doesn’t recommend trying it.
“There are serious side effects to too much testosterone,” he says. “One of the most well known is that it may cause heart problems³. Another risk is liver toxicity and increased prostate cancer risk⁴.” Dr. Diamandis also warns that people who take testosterone-boosting drugs or steroids may end up switching off their natural testosterone production, becoming dependent on synthetic versions⁵.
The only people who should be supplementing their testosterone, says Dr. Diamandis, are those who have been diagnosed as testosterone deficient by their doctor. This is most likely in men who are at risk of decreased muscle mass and bone density, or suffering erectile dysfunction or reduced libido.⁶
Natural testosterone boosters
If you don’t qualify for testosterone replacement therapy, you may wish to explore natural ways to raise testosterone. Unfortunately, proven natural testosterone boosters are few and far between, says Dr. Diamandis, although there are lifestyle practices you can adopt that will bring benefits whether you’re low on testosterone or not.
The following practices are not directly associated with increased testosterone, but they’re all good for you, and are all correlated with better testosterone outcomes:
Pump those muscles
Some studies have shown a correlation between increased exercise and increased testosterone levels, but they are typically too small⁷⁸ or lacking sufficient controls to declare a direct causational link. However, if your reason for wanting to increase testosterone is to increase muscle mass, go ahead and skip to the goal with resistance training such as weight-lifting, the form of exercise most strongly correlated with increased testosterone⁹.
Clock those ZZZs
A good night’s sleep won’t necessarily raise your testosterone, but getting several bad night’s sleep is associated with decreased testosterone¹⁰. Again, studies on sleep and testosterone are not robust enough to show a clear causal link, but good sleep is associated with nearly every positive health measure you can think of, so whether you do it for your general health, for your testosterone levels, or for England, it can only help.
A bad day won’t cause a drastic drop in your testosterone, but according to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress and the higher cortisol load that comes with it is associated with low testosterone¹¹. Whatever you can do to minimize and manage stress is likely to encourage better hormonal balance.
Address substance abuse
Alcohol, nicotine, opioids, cannabis, and amphetamines have all been shown to induce oxidative stress in the testicles to some degree, although not all are associated with lower testosterone¹². Excessive alcohol consumption is most strongly correlated with decreased testosterone, but the exact relationship is not completely understood. Interestingly, one small study of male alcoholics found that alcohol withdrawal symptoms were worse among the men with lower testosterone levels¹³. In any case, while the relationships between various licit and illicit drugs and testosterone levels warrants more study, addressing potentially problematic substance use is generally a good idea for overall physical and mental health.
Plastics and hormones
“There is an increasing amount of evidence¹⁴ pointing to a possible correlation between high accumulation of certain plastic materials (BPA, phthalates) in blood and altered hormonal levels,” says Dr. Ioannis Prassas, a Staff Scientist in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital who frequently collaborates with Dr. Diamandis.
However, beyond the totally unrelated positive environmental impact of avoiding plastics¹⁵, it’s not clear if giving them up would have any significant impact on your testosterone or other hormone levels.
“Most of these data are observational, lacking precise mechanistic evidence at a molecular level,” says Dr. Prassas. “Importantly, there is no proof that these changes are associated with any health effect.” While he looks forward to a coming era of “precision medicine,” when doctors and researchers will be better able to distinguish causative molecular effects of plastics on human hormones, at this time Dr. Prassas notes that more research is warranted.
Testosterone boosting supplements
Although initial studies of some vitamins and dietary supplements have shown promise for boosting testosterone, Dr. Diamandis warns that there simply isn’t enough evidence from randomized controlled trials—the gold standard in medical research—to warrant buying them solely for the purpose of boosting the sex hormone. The most promising supplements include:
Again, these substances show promise, but the studies referenced above all conclude that more research is needed to understand how, and to what degree, they might increase testosterone levels.
Testosterone booster foods
Although a good diet may not increase your testosterone production, a bad diet can disrupt it.²² Don’t pay too much head to fad foods touted as testosterone boosters. According to Dr. Diamandis there is only one food that can definitively boost your testosterone, at least temporarily: animal testicles.
Dr. Diamandis says that consuming testicle-based meat dishes, such as Rocky Mountain oysters (also known as prairie oysters), moose testicles, kakashere porkolt or criadillas, will lead to a brief boost in your own testosterone levels. (Incidentally, eating testicles was an early form of sports doping²³, with ancient Olympians gnawing on raw animal testes to boost their athletic performance.)
However, the brief testosterone boost you may experience from these meals won’t be enough to resolve any medical issues, and since that’s the only physician-recommended reason to boost your testosterone in the first place, there’s not a lot of benefit to be gained, unless you happen to find testes tasty. (We think these deep-fried criadillas look particularly appetizing!)
Prescriptions and medicines
If you’re concerned about your testosterone levels, another factor to consider is medication. According to the International Society for Sexual Medicine, several are known to decrease testosterone, including:
- Some antidepressants
- Some chemotherapy drugs²⁴
However, as Dr. Diamandis warns, it’s often the case that a side effect like decreased testosterone is less serious than the condition you’re treating—if you’re undergoing chemotherapy to save your life, then reduced testosterone may be an unfortunate but necessary cost. Ultimately, your doctor is the best person to help you work through appropriate drugs and doses for your condition, and strategies to minimize or manage side effects.
Balance is balling
Achieving your body’s peak balance is the ultimate health goal. If your testosterone levels are clinically low, then working with your doctor to determine next steps is the recommended path. But if you just want to boost your testosterone to improve your overall health, the key takeaway is that it’s not necessary.
The most up-to-date and clinically-verified health advice is fairly simple: get a good night’s sleep, eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, and avoid stress. These actions may not get your muscles popping like Popeye’s, but they are associated with a range of benefits—including balanced testosterone levels.