Testosterone levels in men have been declining rapidly worldwide. The average testosterone level of a man has decreased by about 1% per year since the 1980s.1 This is not just affecting middle aged men, either: teenagers are now being diagnosed with levels of testosterone that would normally be seen in an 80-year-old man. Though needed in only a minuscule amount compared to men, low testosterone is becoming a problem for women as well. At this rate, men may literally be disappearing from the planet.
Testosterone can be easily measured with a simple blood test. Total testosterone is the most commonly done test, but since most testosterone in the blood is bound and unavailable, it is good to also test for sex hormone-binding globulin and free testosterone to see what is actually available to be used. The lab range for total testosterone is ridiculously large, ranging from 280- 1150 ng/dL, and needs further interpretation. Testosterone levels naturally decline with aging, and genetic differences in hormone receptors can determine what an optimal level is for an individual. 280 may be normal for an 80-year-old man, while 1150 may be normal for a 20-year-old. Furthermore, men of the same age can have different individual normal levels. Due to individual variations of the sensitivity of hormone receptors, one man could feel great at a level of 600, another man of the same age with that same level could have loss of sex drive, loss of muscle mass, low motivation, or other symptoms associated with low testosterone. It is important to look at the whole clinical picture, not just the number.
Most of the advice in books or online for raising testosterone is centered around diet, exercise, and lifestyle, as anything that the body perceives as a stressor can cause low testosterone. In general, when there is any type of stress—such as lack of food, lack of sleep, or a chronic infection—less important tasks like sex hormone production are put on hold to preserve resources. While these things are important, they are not the main cause of the low testosterone epidemic seen today. Many men follow this advice, only to fail and end up on testosterone replacement therapy. While testosterone replacement does have a place and can be helpful in some situations, it is important to look at the root causes of why testosterone is low in the first place. The vast majority of men with low testosterone do not have what is called “primary hypogonadism,” meaning an inability of the testes to produce testosterone. Most men actually have “secondary hypogonadism,” which is the inability of the pituitary gland to produce the right signaling hormones (mainly luteinizing hormone) that tell the testes to make testosterone.
Environmental toxicity and exposure to electromagnetic radiation are the main disruptors that are causing secondary hypogonadism. When it comes to environmental toxicity, heavy metals are one of the most overlooked causes of low testosterone. Mercury has been shown to decrease luteinizing hormone,2 and lead and other heavy metals have been shown to decrease testosterone as well.3,4 Heavy metals also can have xenoestrogenic (estrogen mimicking) effects on the body.5 Most people are now aware that we are exposed to large amounts of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in our environment from plastics and other man-made sources. Both phthalates6 and bisphenol A7 have been shown to decrease testosterone production. You can try all of the diet and exercise plans out there for raising testosterone, but none of them will work without detoxing these endocrine-disrupting chemicals first. Having a comprehensive detoxification protocol for environmental toxins is critical for achieving optimal testosterone levels.
Exposure to man-made electromagnetic fields is one of the other main factors in testosterone production. However, EMFs don’t necessarily effect testosterone how one might think. While carrying a cellphone right next to your testosterone factory is bad for a lot of reasons, it does not seem to be the main mechanism in terms of how EMFs lower testosterone. EMFs mostly lower testosterone by disrupting the circadian rhythm and decreasing melatonin production. During sleep, melatonin stimulates testosterone production, and also acts as an aromatase inhibitor to prevent the conversion of testosterone to estrogen.8 Exposure to microwave radiation from cellphones, WIFI, and other wireless devices also reduces melatonin levels, as does blue light from screens used after sunset. Blue light is a circadian signal that tells your brain that it is daytime, and that melatonin is not needed. Exposure to artificial blue light before bed stops melatonin production at the very time when it is needed. It is almost certain that the increased use of smartphones, tablets, and computers in the last decade is directly tied to the decreased testosterone levels in younger generations.
While artificial light can lower testosterone, exposure to natural light following our circadian rhythm can increase it. Studies have shown that ultraviolet light exposure to the chest increased testosterone levels by 120%, and exposure to the genitals increased levels by 200%.9 Using a light box (mimicking full spectrum light from the sun) for 30 minutes a day also increased testosterone levels.9 Vitamin D is also important for testosterone production, which is why yearly testosterone levels peak in October when vitamin D stores are highest after summer.
Testosterone replacement clinics are popping up like Starbucks these days and it can be tempting to go straight to replacement. Testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) can be helpful in reducing symptoms if done properly, but is not a long-term solution. The primary focus for increasing testosterone levels should be on detoxification of endocrine-disrupting chemicals and mitigating EMF exposure. When these two factors are addressed, men on TRT will usually find that they need lower doses of testosterone replacement to obtain optimal levels, and younger men may no longer need TRT at all.