Low testosterone is a common concern for men entering middle age. Advertisements for testosterone testing and supplements are everywhere these days. But what does it mean to low testosterone and how does it affect men?
Testosterone is a hormone produced in the body that is involved in many of our body’s functions including sexual function, secondary sex characteristics like body hair and muscle mass, mood, confidence, and sleep. Men with low testosterone might experience symptoms of lower libido, depressed mood, lack of motivation, low energy, poor sleep, or decreased muscle mass.
Many factors influence testosterone levels. Aging is one of the biggest reasons why testosterone declines. Every year after age 30, levels drop around 1% per year. This may not sound like much, but by middle age, many men feel the effects of lower testosterone levels. The good news is there are many ways to support healthy testosterone levels that don’t involve supplements or medications, even as we age.
Medical conditions like sedentary lifestyle, certain infections, blood sugar dysregulation, and obstructive sleep apnea can all lower testosterone. High stress and depression are also associated with lower levels.
A recent Danish study on 1210 young men found that sedentary lifestyle, specifically time spent watching television, was associated with decreased testosterone and sperm counts. Interestingly, researchers did not see the same association with time spent in front of a computer.
Alcohol has certain health benefits in low or moderate doses, but excess consumption of alcohol has several negative effects on the body. One effect of excessive alcohol consumption is decreased testosterone.
One study found that chronic alcohol abuse in men was associated with decreased testosterone, sperm quality, and sperm motility, as well as increased estradiol. Participants in this study drank quite a bit (180 mL daily) but the results are compelling. Other studies show that alcohol impairs the body’s normal hormonal axes that govern the production and metabolism of testosterone.
Interestingly, a small study in 2003 found that low doses of alcohol raised testosterone levels in men. This was a small study (n=13) so there’s no real cause to go out and have a beer in hopes that it’ll boost your testosterone. As always, the key to alcohol in moderation and having healthy boundaries.
In addition to individual testosterone decreases associated with aging or lifestyle, levels of testosterone have dropped around the world for the past few decades leading to concern and confusion about the causes. Our environment is full of endocrine disruptors in plastics, foods, and personal care products. These products certainly disturb proper hormonal function and may be responsible for the decline in global testosterone.
Exposure to pesticides has been linked to decreased serum testosterone levels in men. One study of Native American men found that higher levels of chlorinated pesticides were associated with lower levels of testosterone. Another small study in Thailand found similar results. Chlorinated pesticides have also been associated with the disruption of proper thyroid and female hormonal function.
Pesticide exposure is unavoidable in our world. For example, DDT, a well-known chlorinated pesticide, has not been used in the US for decades but continues to hang out in the food system. We are also exposed to pesticides every day when we eat non-organic produce.
Everyone cannot afford to eat a 100% organic diet. If you are not able to buy all organic, try to buy organic for the most pesticide heavy products and choose conventional for those that have less pesticide exposure. The Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen are great resources to help choose organic produce.
It is important to remember that correlation does not equal causation. The associations between these factors and lower testosterone do not necessarily mean that these factors are causing the decline. There is no research on the combination of these factors and how those affect hormone functioning.
For me, it is important to avoid potentially harmful substances or practices whenever possible. I use the Environmental Working Group website and app all the time to help make informed choices about which products I use for cleaning and personal care.
When you consider everything acting to decrease testosterone levels, it’s no wonder so many men suffer from symptoms of low T. Lifestyle, including what we eat and how much we move, can have a big impact on overall health and on testosterone levels.
- Priskorn L, Jensen TK, Bang AK, et al. Is Sedentary Lifestyle Associated With Testicular Function? A Cross-Sectional Study of 1,210 Men. Am J Epidemiol. 2016;184(4):284‐294.
- Muthusami KR, Chinnaswamy P. Effect of chronic alcoholism on male fertility hormones and semen quality. Fertil.Steril. 2005;84:919–924.
- Sarkola T, Eriksson CJ. Testosterone increases in men after a low dose of alcohol. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2003;27(4):682‐685.
- Goncharov A, Rej R, Negoita S, et al. Lower serum testosterone associated with elevated polychlorinated biphenyl concentrations in Native American men. Environ Health Perspect. 2009;117(9):1454‐1460.
- Panuwet P, Ladva C, Barr DB, et al. Investigation of associations between exposures to pesticides and testosterone levels in Thai farmers. Arch Environ Occup Health. 2018;73(4):205‐218.