Men are, understandably, unendingly interested in testosterone (“T”). After all, it is the hormone that gives them their libido, strength, and so much more.
Unfortunately, testosterone levels begin to drop after age 30—by about one percent per year, according to the Mayo Clinic. Given that, it’s only natural to worry about keeping testosterone levels up as the years go by.
“Although testosterone is normally associated with sex drive, this hormone impacts many other health aspects including bone density, energy levels, weight, and mood,” says Anthony Puopolo, M.D., family medicine physician and chief medical officer of Rex MD, a telemedicine company that focuses on men’s health.
When testosterone comes up short, it only follows that your sex drive, energy, mood, weight, and muscle mass will suffer. If you want to keep your T up, get honest about the following habits and behaviors, all of which sabotage testosterone.
1. Are You Stressed?
Sadly, stress can trigger a series of events that sabotage testosterone, Puopolo says. And the main event relates to a stress hormone known as cortisol.
In healthy amounts, cortisol helps control your metabolism, blood pressure, blood sugar, and sleep-wake cycle, according to the Cleveland Clinic. When amped up, your body releases higher doses of cortisol to help you handle stress. However, research shows that if you have loads of cortisol flowing through your body—like when you have a stressful day at work—your body de-prioritizes other functions, like reproduction. As a result, testosterone levels dip.
Of course, you can’t avoid stress entirely. Buy you can give your body a much-needed break—and give your T levels a chance to rise again—by making stress-relieving activities like exercise, meditation, sketching, gardening, and journaling part of your routine. Exercise has the added bonus of spiking testosterone in the short-term, in addition to boosting mental health. (Research shows that lifting heavy weights is especially effective.)
2. Are You Sleeping Enough?
Many things go south when you don’t get the sleep you need—testosterone included. You see, sleep is the time when testosterone production reaches its peak. But for that production to happen, you need at least three hours of normal sleep, according to research in the Asian Journal of Andrology.
Cutting your sleep short or breaking it up messes with the regular sleep pattern needed to make testosterone. And it doesn’t take long to see the effects: One small study in the JAMA found that just one week of poor sleep was enough to lower testosterone by 10 to 15 percent in young men.
To add insult to injury, having low testosterone levels (a condition known as male hypogonadism) can actually make it harder to sleep, according to a study in the Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Muscle.
It may sound overly simplistic, but getting the seven to nine hours of sleep per night recommended by the National Sleep Foundation is a must. Sleep quality matters, too, of course, so practice good sleep hygiene. That means trying to stick to the same sleep schedule (even on weekends), disconnect from electronics at least a half-hour before bed, and do relaxing bedtime activities to help you fall asleep faster. (You can also try these tactics to get a decent night’s sleep during times of stress.)
3. How’s Your Diet?
For better or worse, the foods you eat have a profound effect on your hormones—and a poor diet can certainly sabotage testosterone.
Research in the Journal of Urology suggests that pro-inflammatory foods (high in refined carbs and saturated fats) in particular may spell trouble for T. This isn’t too surprising, given that inflammation can reduce testosterone, says Keith Ayoob, Ed.D., R.D., associate clinical professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and owner of Cut To The Chase Nutrition.
Inflammation may fire up immune cells in the testicles, say the authors of a 2018 study in the American Journal of Physiology. When this happens, the cells responsible for creating testosterone (Leydig cells) can’t do their job efficiently.
Plus, when you load up on fried foods and sugary treats, you miss out on essential nutrients that help your body make and use testosterone.
The fix? Include more nutrient-rich foods in your diet. Vitamin D, magnesium, and zinc are especially important for maintaining optimal testosterone levels, Ayoob says. Fatty fish, fortified foods, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and plant foods are all excellent ways to score these nutrients. The antioxidants you’ll find in fruits and vegetables can also help protect T cells from damage, he says.
The Bottom Line
It can never hurt to reduce stress or improve your food and sleep habits. However, these steps may not be enough if you have male hypogonadism or “low T.” In this condition, testosterone is lower than 300 to 1,000 nanograms per deciliter, which is the range recommended for males. “Diet and exercise can be supportive, but they may not be a fix for low testosterone,” Ayoob says.
The only way to know your T status for sure is to see your doctor. They’ll go over your medical history and suggest checking your hormone levels with a blood test, according to the Urology Care Foundation. If it turns out that you have low T, your doctor may suggest specific lifestyle changes and/or medications to help boost levels.