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What Causes Low Testosterone In Men? The Truth About Low T
Many men notice a drop in testosterone as they get older that can cause some unwanted changes in the bedroom and beyond. But what causes low testosterone (also known as Low T)? Here, we’ll break down the truth about testosterone and give you everything you need to know.
Testosterone, sometimes referred to simply as “T”, is often known as the essential male hormone. When testosterone first kicks in at puberty, a young man experiences the physical changes that will go on to set the stage for his adult life. In a way, the sudden rise in T is responsible for a lot of the things that we traditionally think of as marking “manhood” as we know it.
If you’re a guy, you already know this from experience! And, you might also know that your T levels drop with age. What you might not know is that testosterone is responsible for more than just putting hair on your chest - it’s important for everything from sexual health, to healthy bones, and even helping to prevent muscle from “melting” into fat.
Without further ado, here’s the lowdown on Low T with everything you need to know about drops in testosterone.
How A Drop In Testosterone Can Affect Overall Wellness
Before we get into some of the science of what causes low testosterone, it’s important to understand just what a drop in testosterone can mean for a man’s wellness. Most of us are familiar with the fact that a drop in sex drive is one of the most common consequences of Low T, but, according to research published by the Endocrine Society, men depend on T for much more than sex.
Drops in testosterone have also been linked to:
- An increase in fat and decrease in lean muscle
- A jump in cholesterol
- A loss of strength and aerobic capacity
- Decreased bone density
- Increased risk for heart problems1
Scientists writing in The Journals of Gerontology list even more impacts of declining T levels:
- “Brain fog” or mental decline
- Lower energy levels
- Problems with mood2
With all of this and potential problems in the bedroom resulting from a drop in testosterone, it’s important to understand why T levels can wane with age.
The Remarkable Balancing Act Behind Low Testosterone
Most of the testosterone in your body is made in the testes. Tiny cells called Leydig cells pump out T day after day throughout most of a man’s life, but, as you age, you start to lose some of these cells. As you might expect, that means your body makes less testosterone as you get older. But there’s a twist involved. Most of the testosterone your body makes, it can’t really use… here’s where it gets strange.
There are actually a couple of types of testosterone. Most of the T the body makes attaches to a protein that circulates in the blood called sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG). The bond between testosterone and SHBG is very strong, so most tissues in the body that use testosterone can’t break the bond to gain access to the hormone. A majority of the rest of the T the body makes attaches to yet another protein called albumin. This bond is weaker, meaning it’s more accessible for tissues in the body to use. Finally, there’s free testosterone. This is testosterone that circulates throughout your body without being attached to a protein like SHBG or albumin. As a result, it’s the most bioavailable form of T that’s easiest for tissues in the body to access. But, it only adds up to about 2% of your total T.
When your doctor looks at your total T levels, they include all three of these different types: the easily available free testosterone, the somewhat available testosterone bonded to albumin, and the testosterone bonded to SHBG that’s essentially “locked in” and difficult for the body to utilize. That number really doesn’t tell you a lot, because it includes T your body can’t use! And here’s the kicker: while total T only drops about 1% a year, free testosterone drops at twice that rate.
The “Feminization” Problem Making Matters Worse
We’re just about to talk about some of the nutrients that can help support healthy testosterone levels in the face of dropping levels, but there’s one more component at play that’s important to know about. In addition to naturally dropping testosterone levels, there are “feminizing factors” that can further affect T:
- Your levels of SHBG go up as you get older. As a result, this protein actually captures and “locks up” more free testosterone as time goes on.
- An enzyme called aromatase converts T into a form of estrogen. As your T levels drop, you may feel the effects of this conversion more acutely.
- Body fat appears to lower T levels, meaning that little bit of extra weight many of us put on over time can actually drive down available T supplies.3
Body fat also drives up estrogen levels. So, body composition is a key factor in maintaining your “masculinity”, so to speak. But there is another natural piece to the puzzle of Low T that comes in the form of a handful of natural nutrients that can help support strong testosterone levels to combat the problems at play.
The Nutrients You Need to Promote Healthy Levels of T
Zinc has been called “the male mineral” due to the fact that the levels of zinc in the male reproductive system are extremely high. But many men – especially older men – may not be getting all the zinc they need in their diet. This can make a big difference in T levels.
Two separate studies looked at two groups of men: athletes and sedentary adults. In both, zinc made a huge difference in maintaining testosterone levels. To conduct the studies, both groups of volunteers took part in exercise, which served to lower T levels under normal conditions. But, after taking zinc supplements, the volunteers’ T levels remained higher after the exercise.
In the case of the sedentary males from the first study, doctors gave them zinc for 4 weeks. A bout of exercise had previously depressed T levels in these men, but that was no longer the case after they’d been taking the zinc supplement. Even their resting T levels were higher.4 In the second study, fit male wrestlers saw their T levels drop after a bout of exercise, as well. But after taking zinc for 4 weeks, researchers noted yet again that testosterone no longer dropped. Again, their T levels were higher, even while at rest.5
Even though zinc is the star here, there are some other great natural nutrients that can help support the areas of wellness that may be affected by Low T:
- B Vitamins: B Vitamins - especially folate - appear to have a positive impact on bedroom performance. One study found that men experiencing performance issues were deficient in folate relative to their counterparts without performance issues.6
- I3C: A compound called indole-3-carbinol (I3C) found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli can also help. Studies show that it assists in clearing excess estrogen out of the body, especially the potent “C-2” form.7
- Icariin: A compound found in the botanical epimedium, icariin actually mimics some of the activities of testosterone in the body, and has been found in animal studies to support sexual function and available T levels.8
With this knowledge as to what causes low testosterone in men, you can unlock a new understanding of what might be responsible for some of those feelings of “slowing down” in regards to your own wellness. A drop in testosterone can be common for a lot of guys as they age, and a conversation with your doctor is a great first step if you believe you might be struggling with Low T.
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- Harman, S.M., et al, “Longitudinal Effects of Aging on Serum Total and Free Testosterone Levels in Healthy Men,” JCEM. Feb 1, 2001; 86(2): 724-731.
- Matsumoto, A.M., “Andropause: Clinical Implications of the Decline in Serum Testosterone Levels With Aging in Men,” The Journals of Gerontology. Feb 1, 2002; 57(2): M76-M99.
- Vermeulen, A., et al, “Testosterone, body composition and aging,” Jrnl Endo Invest. Jan 1, 1999; 22(5 Suppl): 110-116.
- Kilic, M., “Effect of fatiguing bicycle exercise on thyroid hormone and testosterone levels in sedentary males supplemented with oral zinc,” Neuro Endocrinology Letters. Oct 1, 2007; 28(5): 681-685.
- Kilic, M., et al, “The effect of exhaustion exercise on thyroid hormones and testosterone levels of elite athletes receiving oral zinc,” Neuro Endocrinology Letters. Feb 1, 2006; 27(1-2): 247-252.
- Karabakan, M., et al, “Association between serum folic acid level and erectile dysfunction,” Andrologia. Jun 2016; 48(5): 532-535.
- Michnovicz, J.J., et al, “Changes in levels of urinary estrogen metabolites after oral indole- 3-carbinol treatment in humans,” J Natl Cancer Inst. May 21, 1997; 89(10): 718-723.
- Zhang, Z.B. and Yang, Q.T., “The testosterone mimetic properties of icariin,” Asian Journal of Andrology. Sep 2006: 8(5): 601–605.