When it comes to testosterone levels, odds are you don’t measure up to your father.
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Studies show that age-specific testosterone levels in men have been in a slow and consistent decline for several decades. Researchers call the changes “alarming” from an evolutionary point of view.
So, why is this happening? And can the trend be reversed? For analysis and answers, we turned to endocrinologist Kevin Pantalone, DO.
What’s considered low testosterone?
Before we get to numbers, let’s start by gaining an understanding of what we’re talking about. Testosterone is an androgen, or sex hormone.
People of all sexes have testosterone in their system. However, levels are naturally higher in men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB), notes Dr. Pantalone. Within this group, testosterone helps maintain and develop:
- Sex organs, genitalia and reproductive function.
- A sense of well-being.
- Muscle mass.
- Bone health.
- Red blood cell count.
Low testosterone, or male hypogonadism, also called low-T, is a condition where your testicles don’t produce enough testosterone. Dr. Pantalone says a low testosterone count (as measured in your blood) for adults is generally considered anything below 250 nanograms per deciliter (ng/dl).
The American Urology Association sets the bar a bit higher at 300 ng/dl.
So, are average testosterone levels now considered low?
It’s normal for testosterone levels to decline as people age. The average drop is about 1% per year after age 30.
But ongoing research shows decreases that are unrelated to aging. These studies compare people of the same age in different years. (For example, a 45-year-old man in 1987, 1995 and 2002.)
“So, we’re consistently seeing testosterone levels lower than we’d expect because of excessive weight and related health conditions — and that is alarming from a long-term perspective,” says Dr. Pantalone.
But while there’s a downward trend in age-specific testosterone levels, averages haven’t fallen to the point where they’re in the “low” range for the overall population.
But they are edging closer year by year.
Why have testosterone levels declined?
As noted, this non-age-related drop in testosterone levels hasn’t occurred in a vacuum. “We’re seeing more people with their overall health status in decline,” notes Dr. Pantalone. “That may be accelerating the loss of testosterone compared to previous generations.”
Let’s look at some factors that can affect testosterone levels.
The downturn in testosterone levels coincides with higher numbers on the bathroom scale for much of the population … and that’s not just a coincidence.
Excessive weight and elevated BMI (body mass index) measurements put added stress on your body, which seems to affect testosterone production and its natural distribution process, says Dr. Pantalone.
If you lift weights, you also may be lifting your testosterone levels. Exercises such as strength training and high-intensity interval training have been shown to boost testosterone numbers immediately.
“They’ve done studies of men pre- and post-exercise that show testosterone levels increase with activity,” says Dr. Pantalone. “So, if you’re not exercising regularly, you’re not getting that bump.”
Cardio activities don’t offer quite the same boost, though, and endurance activities such as long-distance running and cycling have been shown to lower testosterone levels.
It should be noted, too, that physical activity also plays a factor in maintaining a healthy weight.
Eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet puts your body in a position to hum along at optimal levels — and that includes testosterone production. And to make the same point as above, a healthy diet usually leads to a healthy weight, too.
“Increased caloric intake can lead to obesity, and then the cascade effect on your health often starts,” explains Dr. Pantalone.
Several studies indicate that low-fat diets may lead to slightly lower testosterone levels. But researchers note that low-fat diets aren’t associated with overall low testosterone. (So, don’t view the results as a call to eat a high-fat diet, which can contribute to weight gain and other health issues.)
Chronic and excessive drinking ultimately decreases testosterone production, says Dr. Pantalone. (Add it to the list of negatives that come from alcohol abuse.)
Your testosterone levels are typically highest in the morning after your body recharges while sleeping. The process breaks down if your peaceful slumber is disturbed by conditions such as sleep apnea.
“If you disrupt your normal sleep cycle, you’re disrupting your body’s normal rhythm of testosterone production,” says Dr. Pantalone.
Odds are that you’ve come in contact with an endocrine-disrupting chemical, or EDC, at some point today. After all, there are more than 800 EDCs used in plastics and other everyday products that are all around us.
Research on the effect of these “environmental toxins” on hormones such as testosterone is ongoing. There’s no question, though, that exposure to EDCs has increased exponentially over time.
“The environment around us has certainly changed, and those factors may be a contributing cause to declines in testosterone,” notes Dr. Pantalone.
What can you do to boost your testosterone?
There’s no big mystery here: Focus on living healthy.
“It’s normal for a person to experience a drop in testosterone as they age, but we’re seeing that process accelerated in more recent times because of poor overall health,” states Dr. Pantalone. “Actions are compounding the problem.”
The good news? If you’re concerned about your testosterone, making basic lifestyle changes such as exercising more and eating better can improve your numbers. Plus, you’ll be healthier overall.
Talk to your doctor
The truth is, most people don’t know their testosterone level. It’s not a regular screening or health measurement that’s taken. An assessment is typically done if someone has symptoms such as:
- Low sex drive.
- Chronic fatigue.
- Erectile dysfunction.
If you’re experiencing those symptoms, talk to your doctor or healthcare provider to determine a cause. The issue could be linked to low testosterone, but it could also be something else, too.
“Get checked,” says Dr. Pantalone. “It’s important to learn the reason behind symptoms.”