Are you feeling sluggish? Irritable? Finding it hard to focus? If you haven’t been feeling yourself lately, low testosterone could be the culprit. You’re not alone if your testosterone needs a boost .40% of men over age 45 struggle with low testosterone.
Low testosterone can be diagnosed with a simple blood test. However, it may take more than one draw to get an accurate diagnosis due to natural hormonal fluctuations throughout the day. If you already have a diagnosis, or even If you’re worried about your T levels, you’ve probably already looked into foods and supplements to give yourself an increase (vitamin D, anyone?).
Still, it’s equally important to limit foods that kill testosterone. Fortunately, most of the foods that negatively impact testosterone aren’t nutritional powerhouses anyway, so you can optimize your hormone levels and take care of your whole body at the same time, win/win.
Foods That Kill Testosterone
Heavily Processed Food
This one we all know we should be avoiding anyway, right? The term “processed food” is applied to foods that have been altered in some way from their natural state. Washing, canning, freezing, or adding ingredients to a food product falls under this category. Even baking, cooking, or preparing counts as processing.
These highly processed or ultra-processed foods are usually loaded with unhealthy ingredients to enhance their appeal or prolong their shelf life. Salt, sugar, artificial colors, flavorings, and preservatives are some of those ingredients.
According to a study, about 60% of the calories in the American diet come from ultra-processed foods. Processed foods are bad news for our whole body, and your testosterone levels are no exception. If you’re not already shopping the outside aisles of the grocery store and stocking up on whole foods – fruits, vegetables, eggs, nuts, unprocessed animal proteins, and other sources of healthy fat – now is the time to start.
Processed food also makes us eat more – people who eat a diet heavy in processed foods eat about 500 more calories a day than people eating a whole food diet. That could be setting you up to gain as much as a pound of fat every week! Obesity lowers testosterone, possibly by a lot – one study found that each one-point increase in BMI led to a 2% decrease in testosterone for men aged 40 and above.
Low testosterone was even more strongly associated with waist circumference than BMI, and a diet high in processed foods puts you at risk for metabolic syndrome, which increases belly fat. Abdominal obesity is the worst of the worst and can lead to a host of health problems, including plummeting testosterone.
Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs)
Polyunsaturated fatty acids are found in several common vegetable oils, including soybean, corn, and cottonseed oil. Numerous studies suggest that though these fatty acids are usually thought of as a healthy source of dietary fat, they can decrease testosterone levels as well.
Omega-6 is essential in the right amounts, but unfortunately, a modern processed diet contains a ton of it. The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is somewhere around 1:1, but most of us are getting more like 16:1, and that huge imbalance leads to systemic inflammation, which is linked to lower testosterone levels.
Normal testosterone levels have an anti-inflammatory effect, so this can set up a vicious cycle – your testosterone drops because your inflammation is high. Then your inflammation gets worse because your testosterone dropped.
Exercise-induced testosterone fluctuations were examined in a study involving 12 men. Polyunsaturated fat consumption was significantly linked to lower testosterone levels.
The frequent consumption of polyunsaturated fats was associated with significantly lower testosterone levels according to one study in 69 men.
However, it should be noted that the amount of recent research is limited, and most of the studies are observational with limited sample sizes.
Vegetable oils should be examined for their effects on testosterone levels predominantly in general populations through a more sophisticated research program.
Inflammation, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes are all associated with trans fats, a dangerous form of fat. Trans fats, found in processed foods, have been shown to reduce testosterone levels in some studies.
According to one study of 209 men, those who consumed the most trans fats had a 15% lower level of testosterone than those who consumed the least.
The group also had 37% less sperm and a 34% decrease in testicular volume, a factor associated with a decreased reproductive ability.
In animal studies, the consumption of trans fats has also been shown to reduce testosterone levels and compromise reproductive function.
Since the government has imposed restrictions on the use of trans fat, detecting them is more challenging, but reading the labels is still important: Any trans fat exceeding 5 grams per 100 grams of serving size is considered excessive. Regardless of the label’s claim, products that advertise 0 grams of trans fat can contain up to 0.5 grams.
Flaxseeds are a healthy whole food, so this one can come as a big surprise to those of us trying to be health-conscious! Flax seeds are loaded with nutrients and a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, but they’re also one of the richest sources of dietary lignan in the world.
They have 800 times the amount of lignans in most other foods! Lignans aren’t all bad. They may be protective against some cancers and reduce the risk of osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease – but they’re also the main source of phytoestrogens in the Western diet.
Dietary phytoestrogens can attach to estrogen receptors in your cells and may have antiandrogenic properties that reduce the amount of free circulating testosterone in your body. That can be great if you’re a woman with PCOS or you’re trying to treat prostate cancer, but men looking to raise or preserve testosterone levels might want to consider keeping flaxseed consumption to a minimum.
Commonly sold as a dietary supplement, licorice root is an anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, antioxidant, and a remedy for digestive ailments. It’s also an ingredient in some mouthwashes, lozenges, chewing gum, cough syrup, herbal teas, and candies, and whole licorice roots are sometimes sold as a natural remedy to quit smoking.
One study found that 25 men who took 7 grams of licorice root daily had a 26% drop in testosterone after one week. Glycyrrhizin, the active ingredient in licorice root, may limit the body’s ability to produce testosterone normally.
Most licorice-flavored foods in the United States don’t actually use real licorice root at all, relying on anise for its licorice-like flavor. Unfortunately, anise might not be great for testosterone levels either. Anise contains phytoestrogen anethole, and a study on rats showed a significant reduction in testosterone when the rats were given anise oil every day for a month.
In the Western diet, soy isn’t just found in tempeh, tofu, edamame, and soymilk – soy is an additive in many processed foods. It’s often in bread, desserts, sauces, seasonings, cooking sprays, processed meat products like hot dogs, dairy products, drink mixes, soups…we could go on, but the point is that you might be eating a lot more soy than you think. Isoflavones are a phytoestrogen that is abundant in soy products and may mimic estrogen in the body.
Whether or not soy isoflavones reduce testosterone is highly contested, with some studies showing a significant reduction and some studies showing no effect. Adding to the confusion, in one study where testosterone levels were measured in different countries, men in Hong Kong and Japan (where soy is a dietary staple) had testosterone levels 20% higher than American men. Still, with the jury out on soy, men concerned about testosterone may want to think about limiting their soy consumption.
If you decide to continue eating soy products, consider sticking to fermented or sprouted soy products like miso, tempeh, or sprouted tofu which have more protein and fewer anti-nutrients, and eliminate hidden sources of soy in processed foods. Hence, you have an accurate picture of how much soy you’re consuming.
We all know we need to eat less sugar, right? American Heart Association guidelines recommend that men consume no more than 36 grams of sugar per day; however, most of us consume far more than that, with the average American consuming about 77 grams. Excess sugar rots your teeth, puts you at risk for metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, and kills your testosterone production.
Testosterone levels in men decrease dramatically after consuming sugar, with one study showing a 25% drop after consuming 75 grams. Many typical American foods are loaded with sugar – a single 20-ounce bottle of Mt. Dew contains 77 grams! – and it’s added into almost every processed food, even things that don’t taste sweet like pasta sauce or lunch meat.
Processed foods aren’t the only culprit if you truly want to get your sugar consumption under control. You’ll also have to watch your intake of high sugar fruits like mangoes, cherries, and grapes. Fruit sugar, fructose, has been shown to inhibit gene activity that regulates testosterone levels when consumed in large quantities.
Watch out for fruit that’s bred to be especially sweet – cotton candy grapes can contain 28 grams in just a cup, almost twice as much sugar as regular grapes.
Excess sugar consumption also carries the same risks as eating processed food. Sugar is low-nutrient and high in calories, encouraging you to eat more and pack on extra weight, and a diet high in excess sugar is inflammatory.
Consuming high sugar levels regularly can increase your cortisol levels – yep, sugar literally stresses our body out, and high cortisol levels inhibit testosterone production.
Mint is a great home remedy for indigestion, and it’s a great source of vitamin A and antioxidants, but it’s not a good choice for increasing or maintaining testosterone levels. All kinds of mint, including peppermint and spearmint, have significantly decreased testosterone in animal studies. One study showed a significant reduction in testosterone after women with PCOS drank two cups of spearmint tea a day for 30 days.
Mint is consumed as a tea, added to food as a seasoning, and added to many products or foods as a flavoring agent, including gum, mouthwash, toothpaste, and breath mints. While small amounts of mint are unlikely to be harmful, men with low testosterone levels may want to limit their intake of mint teas or mint-heavy dishes like tabbouleh.
Red Reishi Mushrooms
Red Reishi mushrooms aren’t a staple in the Western diet. They’re not a very palatable mushroom, but they’re common in traditional Asian medicine. They can be seen in health food stores as a tea, tincture, and even an ingredient in a chocolate bar! Red Reishi mushrooms are an adaptogen that can boost immune response, lower stress, and improve blood sugar levels, but they’re also a powerful anti-androgen.
Reishi mushrooms reduce levels of 5-alpha reductase, an enzyme that converts circulating testosterone to DHT. We perceive many things as the effects of testosterone only occur once it has been converted to DHT, which is a much more potent androgen than testosterone. About 10% of all testosterone in adults is converted to DHT, and the right balance is crucial for overall wellbeing.
A high level of DHT is associated with male pattern baldness, coronary heart disease, and prostate cancer. Still, it plays a critical role in maintaining muscle and bone mass, fertility, and sexual health. Too little DHT is associated with gynecomastia (man-boobs, for those of us who don’t speak Latin) and particularly aggressive prostate tumors.
While not exactly food alcohol can decrease testosterone levels, so if you’re drinking more than you know, it might be time to cut back. Heavy drinking raises cortisol levels and disrupts your sleep, both of which harm testosterone production. Alcohol can also encourage the conversion of testosterone into estrogen and damage Leydig cells in your testes which produce testosterone.
After long-term heavy drinking, quitting may reverse some of the damage done to your testes, with testosterone levels returning to normal after as little as three weeks of abstinence. It’s unlikely that a glass of wine or a can of beer here and there will have long-term negative effects on testosterone.
Still, you may want to consider sticking to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s guidelines for low-to-moderate risk drinking: no more than 14 drinks a week for men and no more than 7 a week for women. Generally, a single drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.
So, what now?
Knowledge is power, and being conscious of what you put into your body can help you optimize your testosterone levels and overall health. You don’t have to cut out everything on this list, but it’s important to know what impacts the foods we eat have on our body to make informed choices for our wellbeing.
Learning what foods make us look, feel, and perform our best can be a fun and fulfilling process of self-discovery. Embracing a whole foods diet and limiting consumption of anti-androgenic foods can have lifelong benefits for your energy levels, muscle mass, and sex drive, and doesn’t that sound a lot better than overindulging with cupcakes and cheese?
With so many healthy, hormone-friendly options available, we hope you enjoy your journey towards greater health and vitality and enjoy some really delicious, life-giving food. Until next time!