Low T Rising

Find renewed vitality through natural hormone restoration.


March 2014

By Karen Tenelli

It can be so subtle at first that you can’t quite put your finger on what’s wrong. For one thing, you’re always a bit tired, like you’re running on empty even when you’re getting to bed early (to sleep; an early bedtime used to definitely mean something more active). You can’t push as hard in the gym.

And those five-mile runs have morphed into quick jogs after dinner followed by evenings in front of the tube, bag of chips in hand. (All of this explains why there’s more of you than there used to be.)

The physical changes are bad enough. But what really bothers you is what’s happening on the inside; you constantly seem a little down, a little blah. The fire of youth may not be out, but it has been reduced to a smolder.

Then you look in the mirror one day and wonder where the guy you were—the guy you knew—has gone.

A lot of things can account for the way you feel, but one of the most common is low testosterone. Fortunately, there are natural ways to get the real you back.

 

Shifting Hormones

A number of factors can lead to reduced testosterone production, such as drug side effects and testicular damage. But those reasons are far outpaced, especially among older men, by what is coming to be known as andropause (also called late-onset hypogonadism), the decline in testosterone that often occurs with age. In one study of 534 men between the ages of 40 and 79, more than a quarter had hormone levels low enough to fit this description (Korean Journal of Urology 9/13).

The term “andropause” is modeled after menopause, the cessation of mentrual periods (and ability to have children) experienced by women at midlife. Men in andropause retain their fertility, although sperm production and quality often decrease.

Another difference is that menopause has been an open topic of discussion for decades, while low testosterone in older men is only starting to come to general attention. “Men are long overdue for their own exploration into this territory because the changes that we experience are just as profound, just as life altering and just as pervasive as those experienced by women,” says Stephen Harrod Buhner, author of numerous books on plant-based medicine including The Natural Testosterone Plan (Healing Arts).

The symptoms associated with andropause are so varied because male hormones play so many roles within the body. “Everyone knows that testosterone makes a man a man,” says Buhner, who explains that this hormone is what turns a fetus into a baby boy and a boy into an adult male with bigger muscles, a deeper voice and increased body and facial hair.

Total testosterone levels, however, can be misleading. Most of the body’s supply is bound to protein, leaving only 1% to 3% as free testosterone; this free version is what declines as men get older. What’s more, all men carry small amounts of estrogen, the primary female hormone, in the form of estradiol (just as all women’s bodies contain some testosterone). “If too much testosterone is converted to estradiol, the androgen/estrogen balance is significantly altered and this can have tremendous impacts on how we feel as men,” Buhner says.

Testosterone’s Enemies

In addition to the hormonal shifts that come with age, the world we live in can be hard on testosterone. For one thing, environmental pollution affects production of both hormones and sperm. That’s because certain plastics compounds, most notably bisphenol A (BPA), and pesticides act as androgen antagonists, chemicals that disrupt male hormone production.

What’s more, female hormones pose a direct danger to men’s bodies. The use of hormonal forms of birth control and hormone replacement among women means that “pharmaceutical-quality steroids are extremely pervasive in world ecosystems,” says Buhner.

Hormonal Help for Women

While public acknowledgement of age-associated testosterone loss is a fairly recent development, healthcare practitioners have long tried to help their female patients overcome the discomforts associated with menopause. That’s because the dropoff in hormone levels experienced by women is a lot steeper than the hormonal decline seen in men. This leads to menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats, in addition to fatigue, emotional upheavals, sleep problems and sexual difficulties.

Proper nutrition can help women achieve greater hormonal balance. “The better nourished our bodies are, the easier transition through menopause,” says Judith Boice, ND, LAc, author of Menopause with Science and Soul (Celestial Arts). In addition to whole, unprocessed foods (“Have you ever seen a danish pastry bush?” she asks), Boice recommends complex carbohydrates to keep blood sugar under control, healthy fats such as those found in fish and olives, and pure water. Fish provides omega-3 fatty acids, which support cardiovascular health and may take the edge off of hot flashes. It also contains protein building blocks known as amino acids. Two of them, arginine and histidine, promote healthy sexual functioning (as do apple and grape polyphenols). Good fats include oil taken from flax seeds; it contains flax lignans, which have been found to support reproductive and breast health.

Herbs have been used around the world for centuries to help women pass through meno­pause with greater comfort and vitality. In China, dong quai appears in traditional remedies formulated to counteract menopausal symptoms and to regulate menstruation. In Central and South America, women have taken damiana and maca to increase energy and libido. In Europe, valerian has long been used to gently encourage sleep and lessen anxiety. And India’s Ayurvedic medicine has supplied a number of female-friendly herbs, including velvet bean, which has been found in studies to promote nervous system health, and an herbal combination called Alanzeebium, which helps maintain hormonal balance while encouraging intimacy.

As much as poisons in the physical environment affect testosterone production, those in the social environment—namely temptations to eat too much and exercise too little—play an equally crucial role.

“The biggest factor by far in testosterone decline is the accumulation of excess abdominal fat, which secretes aromatase, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen,” explains Bernie Noe, ND, of Green Mountain Natural Health in Mont­pelier, Vermont (greenmountainhealth.com), who sees a number of patients with this problem in his practice. “Men with excess abdominal fat tend to have lower testosterone levels.” Noe adds that lower hormone levels “often coexist” with insulin resistance, a type 2 diabetes precursor in which the body cannot use insulin effectively.

Testosterone isn’t the only hormone affected by obesity; so is human growth hormone (HGH). Besides allowing for normal development in children, HGH helps to reduce fat storage and to spur protein creation, a crucial step for building muscle mass. Aging and excessive weight both tend to slow production of HGH.

Encouraging Hormonal Balance

The first step to feeling better is to go for a thorough workup. If reduced levels of testosterone and/or HGT are to blame, dietary changes may help. (Always consult a practitioner before beginning a supplementation program, especially if you have a pre-existing medical condition.)

Noe recommends “anything that can result in the loss of abdominal fat. Because of the connections to insulin resistance, a lot of what I do involves reducing sugars and high-glycemic foods.” White bread, sweets and similar foods “spike blood sugar, which leads to fat accumulation, which in turn leads to low testosterone,” Noe explains. “So the things you would use to treat insulin resistance can eventually raise testosterone.” (These changes also support HGH production.) Eating organic food whenever possible allows you to reduce your exposure to testosterone-trashing pollutants.

Besides cutting back on the junk food, try hitting the weights. In one study of 13 older men, doing weight-based exercises led to increased levels of sex hormones, including free testosterone, in the men’s muscles (FASEB J online 1/17/14). Exercise helps to ease stress and overcome insomnia, both of which can depress testosterone production. What’s more, getting adequate amounts of exercise and sleep tend to boost HGH levels as well.

For centuries, traditional healers have employed herbs to boost male virility and well-being. One of the best-known is tribulus (T. terrestris). Also called “puncture vine” because of its spiny seeds, tribulus has traditionally used in India’s Ayurvedic medicine as an aphrodisiac, a usage supported by animal studies (Journal of Pharmacology & Pharmacotherapeutics 1/12).

Tongkat ali (Eurycoma longifolia) is an herb from Malaysia that has also filtered into Western alternative medicine. Long valued for its ability to increase male potency and drive, the plant’s roots contain substances that stimulate androgen production, and it has shown promise as a testosterone booster (Andrologia 5/12). Researchers have confirmed tongkat ali’s long-established usage as a stress fighter (Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 5/26/13).

In addition to serving as a kitchen spice, fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) contains compounds called steroidal saponins that have shown an ability to increase testosterone levels. In one study, men who took fenugreek reported increases in not only sex drive but also in strength, energy levels and overall well-being (Phytotherapy Research 2/10/11 online). Fenugreek also helps control blood sugar levels, promoting better circulation.

Androgen-promoting herbs are nicely complemented by adaptogens, herbs that help the body adapt to stress. The most famous adaptogen is ginseng (Panax ginseng); Buhner cites studies supporting ginseng’s use “for balancing androgen shifts and for helping with many of the common problems men experience in middle age, especially reproductive problems.” Herbalists recommend another adaptogen, rhodiola (R. rosea), for its ability to reduce fatigue, improve mental and physical stamina, and revive a sagging libido.

Herbal remedies can facilitate HGH production as well. Velvet bean (Mucuna pruriens) promotes the secretion of L-dopa in the brain, which stimulates HGH release, while Cassia nomame inhibits the free fatty acids that slow growth hormone secretion.

Poorly regulated blood sugar can suppress HGH. Chromium helps keep blood sugar under control and two sea vegetable species, Ascophyllum nodosum and Fucus vesiculosus, block starch in the digestive tract from entering the bloodstream too rapidly, which also helps regulate glucose. In addition, the body uses amino acids—especially arginine, glutamine, glycine, lysine and tyrosine—as the building blocks of HGH and enzymes that produce it.

Nutrients play a role in testosterone production, too. Zinc is required by a key enzyme involved in testosterone production, as is calcium. And compounds found in fruits—specifically the polyphenols in grapes and apples—help counteract peroxynitrite, a free radical that reduces testosterone
levels. A proprietary grape/apple polyphenol blend called ViNitrox not only fights free radicals but also enhances nitric oxide, the substance that widens blood vessels for increased blood flow.

Don’t respond to hormonal shifts with an it’s-just-my-age shrug. Changing your lifestyle and employing natural solutions can help you relight your youthful fire.

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