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What is testosterone and how can you boost your levels?

Understand what testosterone does, how it’s measured, and how you can keep your levels in check. 

Testosterone is perhaps one of the best-known hormones. It plays a crucial role in men’s health, regulating libido, muscle mass, and energy levels. We explain more about this important hormone and how you can naturally improve your levels through simple lifestyle changes. 

What is testosterone?

Testosterone is a type of sex hormone primarily responsible for development of male characteristics. It’s present in both sexes but concentrations are naturally much higher in men which is why it’s sometimes termed a male hormone. 

In men, testosterone is mainly produced in the testes and in small quantities by the adrenal glands. Two regions of the brain — the hypothalamus and pituitary gland — work a bit like a thermostat to make sure testosterone levels are tightly controlled to stay within a normal range. 

Testosterone is responsible for changes during puberty such as voice deepening, body hair growth, and growth spurts. In adults, it plays an important role in regulating:

  • Sex drive (libido)
  • Muscle growth and development
  • Bone mass
  • Red blood cell production
  • Mood and energy levels

Before understanding what normal testosterone levels look like, first it’s important to appreciate the difference between total and free testosterone measurements.

Total testosterone vs free testosterone

Testosterone is secreted directly into the bloodstream from the testes where most of it binds to two proteins: sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) and albumin.

The remaining testosterone that isn’t attached to proteins is known as free testosterone (FT), the more active form of the hormone. Free testosterone enters the cells and binds to receptors where it triggers changes in growth and metabolism. 

Total testosterone (TT) is a measure of how much testosterone there is in the blood — both free and bound. Therefore, TT will always be higher than FT.

Generally, if a testosterone deficiency is suspected, a TT measurement is taken first. If this is at the low end of the normal range, an FT measurement may be taken too. That’s because it’s possible to have a normal TT with a low FT level.

What is a normal testosterone level?

Both men and women need the right amount of testosterone to develop and function normally. 

Testosterone levels may differ depending on: 

  • Age — From the 30s onwards, testosterone levels decline naturally in men.
  • Underlying medical conditions — Being obese or diabetic is likely to cause a decline in testosterone levels.
  • Medications —Prescription medications like spironolactone (used to treat high blood pressure and heart failure), opioids (painkillers), and statins (lipid-lowering therapy) may cause a decrease in testosterone levels.

Because testosterone levels vary due to several factors, it can make it difficult to quote a normal range that covers everyone. 

However, for a typical man, the normal range is approximately 8.7 – 29 nmol/L for total testosterone [1], and 0.2 – 0.62 nmol/L for free testosterone [2]. Reference ranges will vary between laboratories.

How can I measure my testosterone levels?

You can check your testosterone levels at home with our Testosterone Blood Test. Or, for a more comprehensive check of your hormones, we recommend our Male Hormone Test

A test kit is sent out to you discreetly for you to collect a finger-prick sample. Once you’re done, you post it back to the lab with a pre-paid envelope. Your results will appear on your Medichecks personal dashboard usually after a few days. 

It’s important you take your sample in the morning (ideally 7 – 10 am). This is because testosterone levels are highest in the morning and gradually decline throughout the day. If your result is borderline or abnormal, you may be asked to repeat your test to confirm. 

Raised testosterone levels

Adult men are unlikely to develop raised levels of testosterone naturally. However, in rare circumstances, a testosterone-producing tumour could be the cause. 

Elevated levels of testosterone are more commonly seen in people who take testosterone-boosting supplements, for example, anabolic steroids or testosterone replacement therapy.

Abusing anabolic steroids decreases the amount of testosterone the body naturally produces, as it assumes the body is producing enough. 

Anabolic steroid use can cause side effects such as:

  • Decreased libido
  • Shrinkage of the testicles
  • Erectile dysfunction

Our article describes the effects of steroids on the body in more detail. 

Low testosterone levels

In adult men, it is normal for testosterone levels gradually decline with age. But for some men, the decline can lead to a testosterone deficiency. 

Certain health conditions may also put men at risk of developing a testosterone deficiency, including [3]: 

  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Liver failure

To diagnose a testosterone deficiency, both symptoms and blood results need to be taken into account.

Symptoms suggestive of testosterone deficiency include:

  • Low libido
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty maintaining muscle mass
  • Mood disturbances

Our next article has more information about low testosterone and hypogonadism.

Generally, the best treatment for low testosterone levels is lifestyle changes that can help increase your levels naturally.

How to increase your testosterone levels naturally

Some people with testosterone deficiency may require testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) to help alleviate their symptoms and improve their quality of life. But for most people, simple lifestyle changes are enough to boost levels into a normal range. 

Here are some ways you can naturally increase your testosterone levels if they are low:

1. Exercise

Exercise has been proposed as one of the first-line treatments for mild age-associated testosterone deficiency. Studies have shown that aerobic and high-intensity interval training have the most promising effects on increasing basal testosterone in older men [4, 5]. 

However, overtraining can have a detrimental effect on testosterone levels, so it is important to find the right level of exercise that works for you.

2. Lose weight if you need to

Being overweight is a well-recognised cause of low testosterone levels [6]. Though body mass index (BMI) has its limitations, it’s generally a good start to see if your weight is about right for your height. After calculating your BMI, you can then look at ways to lose weight if you fall into an overweight category. 

The NHS can help you get started — their website has some great tips on how to lose weight. If you’re obese with diabetes or high blood pressure, The NHS Digital Weight Management Programme is a 12-week online programme that can provide you with the support and tools you need.

3. Sleep well 

There is some evidence to show that restricted sleep patterns can decrease testosterone levels [7, 8]. Early awakening and wakefulness during the second part of the night is most likely to reduce morning circulating testosterone levels [9].

Like exercise, sleep also has a goldilocks relationship with testosterone levels. Excessive sleep (greater than nine hours) is also associated with lower total and free testosterone levels [10]. Find out more about how your sleep pattern affects your health.

4. Reduce stress

Stress can increase cortisol levels, which in turn inhibits testosterone production in men, decreasing testosterone levels. 

Some of the best ways to manage stress include: 

For more ideas on how you can lower your stress levels, check out our top ten ways to de-stress.

5. Eat the right foods

There are only a few dietary changes that are proven to raise testosterone levels. 

Vitamin D, which is found in oily fish (tuna, salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, and trout), may help to increase testosterone levels naturally [11]. We tend to get most of our vitamin D from exposure to sunshine. In the UK, most people benefit from taking a vitamin D supplement over winter. Visit our vitamin D health hub for more information. 

Zinc can help to improve testosterone levels in people who are zinc-deficient, but it is unlikely to help people who already have normal levels [12].

Good sources of zinc include: 

  • Oysters
  • Beef
  • Crab
  • Pork
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Baked beans

6. Eat the right foods

Heavy alcohol consumption (over 14 units per week) is associated with reduced levels of testosterone, mainly due to its effects on the liver. Alcohol abuse can also cause testicular shrinkage, decreased libido, and impotence [13]. 

If you think you’re drinking too much, DrinkAware has a guide on how to reduce your drinking which you may find helpful.

Takeaway

Testosterone levels play an integral role in men’s health from the development of male characteristics to regulating metabolism and sex drive. If you’re interested in measuring your levels, you can do so with our Testosterone Blood Test or Male Hormone Blood Test

If you’re concerned your levels are low, or you have symptoms, speak to your GP. For more information about the symptoms and treatment of low testosterone, see our next article on hypogonadism


References

  1. North Bristol NHS Trust. n.d. Testosterone | North Bristol NHS Trust. [online] Available at: <https://www.nbt.nhs.uk/severn-pathology/requesting/test-information/testosterone> [Accessed 4 April 2022].
  2. North Bristol NHS Trust. n.d. Free Testosterone | North Bristol NHS Trust. [online] Available at: <https://www.nbt.nhs.uk/severn-pathology/requesting/test-information/free-testosterone> [Accessed 4 April 2022].
  3. Cleveland Clinic. 2018. Low Testosterone (Low T): Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment. [online] Available at: <https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15603-low-testosterone-male-hypogonadism> [Accessed 4 April 2022].
  4. Yeo, J. K., Cho, S. I., Park, S. G., Jo, S., Ha, J. K., Lee, J. W., Cho, S. Y., & Park, M. G. 2018. Which Exercise Is Better for Increasing Serum Testosterone Levels in Patients with Erectile Dysfunction?. The world journal of men's health, 36(2), 147–152.
  5. Hayes, L. D., Herbert, P., Sculthorpe, N. F., & Grace, F. M. (2017). Exercise training improves free testosterone in lifelong sedentary aging men. Endocrine connections, 6(5), 306–310.
  6. Eriksson, J., Haring, R., Grarup, N., Vandenput, L., Wallaschofski, H., Lorentzen, E., Hansen, T., Mellström, D., Pedersen, O., Nauck, M., Lorentzon, M., NystrupHusemoen, L. L., Völzke, H., Karlsson, M., Baumeister, S. E., Linneberg, A., & Ohlsson, C. (2017). Causal relationship between obesity and serum testosterone status in men: A bi-directional mendelian randomization analysis. PloS one, 12(4), e0176277.
  7. Leproult, R., & Van Cauter, E. (2011). Effect of 1 week of sleep restriction on testosterone levels in young healthy men. JAMA, 305(21), 2173–2174.
  8. Luboshitzky, R., Zabari, Z., Shen-Orr, Z., Herer, P. and Lavie, P., 2001. Disruption of the Nocturnal Testosterone Rhythm by Sleep Fragmentation in Normal Men. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 86(3), pp.1134-1139.
  9. Schmid, S., Hallschmid, M., Jauch-Chara, K., Lehnert, H. and Schultes, B., 2012. Sleep timing may modulate the effect of sleep loss on testosterone. Clinical Endocrinology, 77(5), pp.749-754.
  10. Ruge, M., Skaaby, T., Andersson, A. M., & Linneberg, A. 2019. Cross-sectional analysis of sleep hours and quality with sex hormones in men. Endocrine connections, 8(2), 141–149.
  11. Pilz S, Frisch S, Koertke H, Kuhn J, Dreier J, Obermayer-Pietsch B, Wehr E, Zittermann A. Effect of vitamin D supplementation on testosterone levels in men. HormMetab Res. 2011 Mar;43(3):223-5.
  12. Prasad, A., Mantzoros, C., Beck, F., Hess, J. and Brewer, G., 1996. Zinc status and serum testosterone levels of healthy adults. Nutrition, 12(5), pp.344-348.
  13. Emanuele, M. A., & Emanuele, N. V. (1998). Alcohol's effects on male reproduction. Alcohol health and research world, 22(3), 195–201.