At last we’ve reached the final post of Testosterone Week and based on the comments from you all, this is the post you’ve been most looking forward to. Today I’m going to share what I did during my 90-day experiment in order to double my total and free testosterone levels.
I’m afraid I have no super cool “secrets” to share and there are no easy shortcuts to increasing your T. If you were expecting some magical potion or supplement or weird body hack that will instantly and naturally increase your T levels, what follows is bound to disappoint. Despite what some companies or websites might tell you, there’s no single thing that will boost your testosterone naturally for the long term.
The unsexy truth is that increasing testosterone naturally simply comes down to making some long-term changes in your diet and lifestyle. As you’ll see, what I did to increase T largely boils down to eating better, exercising smarter, and getting more sleep. That’s pretty much it. But as with most things in life, the devil is in the details, so I’ll share with you exactly what I did and provide research that explains why the things I did helped boost my testosterone.
The good news here is that while the things I recommend below will boost your T, their effect is hardly limited to testosterone. They’ll greatly increase your overall health and well-being at the same time.
Ready to get started?
The Obligatory Disclaimer
While I do have a pretty manly mustache, I’m not a doctor or a medical expert. I’m a guy with a law degree he’s never used who blogs about manliness. What I’m about to share shouldn’t be taken as a substitute for qualified medical expertise. It’s simply my experience and views on the subject. Before you make any changes in lifestyle or diet, talk to your doctor or healthcare provider. Be smart.
My 90-Day Testosterone Experiment
Let’s do a quick review of what I shared in the introduction to this series. August of last year was a tough month for me, primarily because of a huge and grueling project we were in the midst of here on the site. I was stressed out and my sleeping, healthy eating habits, and workout regimen all suffered. At the end of the month I got my testosterone levels tested and found that my total T was 383 ng/dL and my free T was 7.2 pg/mL – close to the average for an 85-100-year-old man.
I then began a 90-day experiment to see how diet and lifestyle changes could boost that number.
The reason I started the experiment at that point is because I know a lot of guys who live my last-August lifestyle all the time, and I wanted to see what would happen to an “average” guy who turned things around. At the same time, there was no “normal” time in my life which would have been better for me to start the experiment. My stress level and diet fluctuates throughout the year anyway, so at any point, factors in my current lifestyle would have influenced the results. I wanted to begin at “ground zero.”
After 90 days, I had my testosterone tested again. My total T had gone up to 778 ng/dL and my free T had risen to 14.4 pg/mL. I had doubled my testosterone.
I know the experiment didn’t simply bring me back to my pre-August levels because of the fact that when I learned that the original test I took can sometimes overestimate your T levels, I took a more accurate test around four months after the start of the experiment (I’ve continued the lifestyle changes made during the experiment) and my total T had gone up again to 826.9 ng/dL.
If you’re already healthy, making the changes I list below will probably not double your T levels. But if you’re starting at ground zero, then you should see pretty dramatic results.
Alright, with that all out of the way, let’s talk about exactly what I did to double my T levels in 90 days.
Our diet plays a huge role in our testosterone production. Our glands need certain minerals — like zinc and magnesium — to get testosterone production started and our Leydig cells need cholesterol to make testosterone. Some foods — like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage — can help boost T levels by removing estrogens in our body that lower our T.
The biggest change I made to my diet was increasing my fat and cholesterol intake. There’s a reason why old school strong men would drink raw eggs — studies have suggested that higher fat and cholesterol consumption results in increased levels of total T; men eating low-fat diets typically have decreased testosterone levels. The emphasis on increasing fat and cholesterol consumption meant I got to eat like Ron Swanson for three months — bacon and eggs and steak was pretty much the staple of my diet.
But you might be asking, “Isn’t cholesterol bad for you? Doesn’t it cause heart disease?”
Answer: It’s complicated.
I don’t have enough time or space to cover the ins and outs of cholesterol in this post, but overall, research is showing that popular beliefs about cholesterol aren’t completely correct and the public shouldn’t be as afraid of this molecule as it is.
If you’re interested in learning more about the myths and benefits of cholesterol, I highly recommend reading these in-depth, well-written, and well-researched articles at Mark’s Daily Apple:
- The Definitive Guide to Cholesterol
- The Straight Dope on Cholesterol Part 1
- The Straight Dope on Cholesterol Part 2
For those interested, at the end of this section, I share my cholesterol and triglyceride levels after more than four months of eating copious amounts of bacon, eggs, meat, and nuts.
Now here’s a breakdown of what I ate at each meal:
Breakfast – “Give Me All the Bacon and Eggs You Have”
During the weekdays, I ate what I called the “Ron Swanson Special” — three slices of bacon and three whole eggs. Aside from being delicious, it also provided the fats and cholesterol my body needed to make testosterone. Nitrates freak me out, so I used nitrate-free bacon.
On Saturday mornings, Gus and I went to Braum’s — pancakes for Gus; breakfast burrito for me. That’s one of our father/son traditions.
Sundays I typically skipped breakfast – I usually just wasn’t hungry.
Lunch – The Man Salad
I know Swanson wouldn’t approve, but for lunch each weekday (and sometimes on Saturday) I ate a salad. But it wasn’t just any salad, it was a Man Salad damnit! I packed as many T-boosting foods as I could into this thing.
- Spinach/Spring Salad Mix. This was the base of my salad. I used Organic Girl Greens from Whole Foods. Yeah, I know. The base of my Man Salad came from a company called Organic Girl. Spinach and other leafy green vegetables contain minerals like magnesium and zinc, which have been shown to aid in testosterone production (study on magnesium, and another; study on zinc)
- Meat. Meat, particularly beef, provides our bodies with the protein it needs to create muscle (more muscle = more T) and the fats and cholesterol to make testosterone. My meat topping of choice was sliced up chuck steak. I grilled two of them on Monday and it lasted me until the next Monday. Every now and then I’d slow-cook some ribs or brisket to use as my meat topping. My philosophy was the fattier, the better.
- Nuts. Usually a handful of Brazil nuts or walnuts. Nuts are little fat bombs that provide the cholesterol that Leydig cells need for T production. One study suggest that the selenium in Brazil nuts boosts testosterone. Just don’t go crazy with them. Too much selenium is no bueno.
- Avocado/Olives. Avocados and olives are a great source of the good fats we need for healthy testosterone production.
- Broccoli. Every now and then I’d throw some broccoli into the salad. Broccoli contains high levels of indoles, a food compound that has been shown to reduce the bad estrogen in our bodies that sap testosterone levels.
- Olive Oil. I topped my Man Salad off with lots of olive oil. Research suggests that olive oil helps your Leydig cells (which produce testosterone) absorb cholesterol better. And as I’ve mentioned a few times, our Leydig cells need cholesterol to make T. More cholesterol absorption = more testosterone.
- Balsamic Vinegar. Mostly for taste. It’s also supposed to help keep your insulin in check.
I bought most of the ingredients for my Testosterone Salad at Whole Foods. For those curious, I added up all the ingredients and divided by six (I typically ate six of these salads in a week). The cost per salad was roughly $5. That’s about the price many folks pay every day for a crappy fast food meal. If you’re on a budget, I’m sure you could get the ingredients at Walmart and bring the cost per salad down even more.
This is what I ate for breakfast and lunch almost every single weekday during my 90-day experiment, and it’s what I continue to eat every weekday more than four months after my experiment began. And I don’t mind at all. I guess I am a pretty boring dude.
During the day I tried to snack on testosterone-healthy foods like nuts, pumpkin seeds, and broccoli. I’d throw in some dark chocolate every now and then too.
An added testosterone benefit of my high fat and balanced protein and carb diet was that it probably helped me lose some body fat (I went from 18% to 12% body fat). Studies show that high fat diets actually contribute to increased body fat loss. And as we discussed earlier, as you lose body fat, your T production ramps up. Virtuous cycle for the win!
Dinner – Whatever (in moderation)
I just ate what the family was having: chili, chicken and rice, enchiladas. Whatever. I wasn’t worried too much about carbs. I just watched my portions and tried to stop eating as soon I was full.
With the exception of increasing my fat and cholesterol intake, my diet wasn’t that unconventional. I didn’t follow a strictly low-carb or Paleo diet because recent research has suggested that a diet high in protein and low in carbs actually causes T levels to decrease. With that said, I was judicious with the carbs. I tried to get most of my carbs from veggies and fruit, but I didn’t freak out if my wife made us spaghetti for dinner.
I tried to be really strict with my diet during the week and relaxed it on the weekends. Life’s short. I want to be able enjoy a Triple Stack Sandwich or taquito from QuikTrip every now and then.
I’m a lifelong teetotaler, so alcohol wasn’t on the menu. Some studies have shown that beer can lower your T levels in a few ways, but I imagine it would be fine as a weekend indulgence.
Obviously, you don’t have to follow my exact meal plan. The goal is simply to eat more high-fat foods.
Egads! What did all that eggs and steak do to your cholesterol levels?
I was curious what my cholesterol levels would be after following a diet high in cholesterol and saturated fat, so I got a full lipid screening a little more than four months after I began my experiment. Here are the results:
- Total Cholesterol: 202 mg/dL (Just barely out of the desirable range of < 200 mg/dL.)
- HDL Cholesterol (“Good” Cholesterol): 77 mg/dL (Optimal range is > 60 mg/dL — my HDL levels were great!)
- LDL Cholesterol (“Bad” Cholesterol): 112 mg/dL (This put me in the near or above optimal range of 100-129 mg/dL.)
- Triglycerides: 65 mg/dL (< 150 mg/dL is considered normal; < 100 mg/dL is optimal — mine were downright stellar.)
Looking at the raw numbers, overall my lipid screening was pretty dang awesome.
Total cholesterol was a bit high, but most doctors agree that total cholesterol isn’t a good indicator of heart disease risk.
Things get more interesting when you look at the ratios that doctors use to determine a patient’s risk for heart disease.
- Total cholesterol/HDL Ratio: 2.6:1 (Normal is < 5:1; optimal is < 3.5:1. Mine was optimal.)
- LDL/HDL Ratio: .68:1 (Normal is > .3:1; optimal > .4:1. Mine was optimal.)
- Triglycerides/HDL Ratio: .84:1 (Optimal is < 2:1. Mine was optimal.)
So despite pounding back bacon, eggs, whole milk, and steak for four months, I still had healthy cholesterol levels.
Sadly, many guys think they can just pop a few “natural enhancers” and their T levels will magically increase. If you’re eating garbage, not exercising, and not getting enough sleep, no amount of supplements is going to help your testosterone levels reach optimal levels.
With that said, I did include some nutritional supplementation in my experiment. Here’s what I used:
- Vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 actually isn’t a vitamin, it’s a hormone — a really important hormone that provides a whole host of health benefits. Our bodies can naturally make vitamin D from the sun, but recent studies have shown that many Westerners are vitamin D3 deprived because we’re spending less and less time outdoors. When we do decide to venture outside, we slather our bodies with sunscreen, which prevents the sun reaching our skin to kick-off vitamin D3 production. If you’re not getting enough sun, you may have a vitamin D3 deficiency, which may contribute to low T levels. If you think you need more vitamin D3, supplement it with a pill. Studies have shown that men who take this supplement see a boost in their testosterone levels. Because I have a darker complexion — which makes me prone to Vitamin D3 deficiency — I took 4,000 IU of vitamin D3 in the morning.
- Omega-3 Fish Oil. Fish oil has been shown to lower SHBG and increase production of Luteinizing Hormone (the hormone responsible for triggering the testes to produce T). Because of the increased amounts of saturated fats and cholesterol I was consuming, I wanted to make sure I had enough of the “good” fats to clear the gunk out of my blood.
- Whey Protein + Creatine shake. Before my weightlifting workouts I’d mix a scoop of whey protein (I use Jay Robb because it’s all-natural) and a scoop of creatine into unsweetened coconut milk. Just trying to feed my muscles the stuff it needs to rebuild itself after my workout.
- Caffeine. Use caffeine moderately. Too much of the jittery juice increases cortisol, which decreases testosterone. Moreover, consuming caffeine late in the day hurts sleep, which lowers testosterone production. But one recent study indicates that caffeine consumed before working out may boost testosterone levels and help you exercise more efficiently. During my experiment I popped a piece of caffeinated gum five minutes before my workouts. Each piece had 100 mg of caffeine, about the same amount in a cup of coffee. That was usually it for my caffeine intake that day.
- Vitamin C (unnecessary). I don’t know where I first heard about vitamin C’s supposed T-boosting benefits, but it’s one of those things you see all over the internet when you Google “how to increase testosterone.” Without trying to find the research that backs up that claim, I took a vitamin C supplement during my experiment. I later found some research that suggests that vitamin C does increase testosterone levels in diabetic mice, but because I wasn’t diabetic (nor a mouse), I’m not sure how much the vitamin C helped. I’ve actually stopped taking vitamin C supplements. I’m likely getting more than enough with my diet. Unless you have diabetes, you probably won’t see much benefit from this supplement. Don’t waste your money.
- ZMA (unnecessary). So when I researched how to increase testosterone, a supplement called ZMA kept popping up. It’s a blend of zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B6. The purported benefits of ZMA include better and deeper sleep which indirectly is supposed to increase testosterone. Zinc and magnesium are necessary minerals in testosterone production, so a mega-dose should be useful, right? Well, no. I bought some and took it during the duration of experiment. I should have done some more research before I made the purchase. While one study in 1998 showed increased strength among athletes taking ZMA, two recent studies (study 1, study 2) have shown that it has absolutely no effect on total or free testosterone levels. Crap. My advice, unless you have a zinc and magnesium deficiency, no need to waste your money on this.
What about Tribulus and Stinging Nettle?
There are several supplements on the market claiming to be natural testosterone boosters. I get these sorts of things in the mail all time. The companies that produce these products claim that the herbs (typically stinging nettle and tribulus) in their pills increase free testosterone by reducing SHBG. They also throw in some B vitamins for “increased energy and vitality.”
If you read online forums about boosting testosterone, many guys swear by the effectiveness of natural testosterone boosters. The evidence is mixed. A study found that stinging nettle did indeed increase free T in mice, but another study showed no increase in humans. You see the same sort of results with tribulus — works in mice, but not humans.
With the exception of ZMA, I didn’t take any other purported testosterone boosters.
Exercise boosts testosterone in two important ways. First, specific types of exercise actually cause our body to produce more testosterone. We’ll talk more about those in a bit. Second, exercise helps to increase muscle mass and decrease body fat. As we’ve discussed previously, adipose tissue converts testosterone into estrogen. The less fat we get, the more T we have.
If you want to increase testosterone, you’ve got to start lifting – and lifting heavy. No, doing a short circuit with the weight machines won’t cut it.
Here’s what the research says on how to craft your weightlifting routine to maximize testosterone production:
- Use compound lifts. Squats, bench press, deadlift, and shoulder press should be your main lifts. Exercises that work large muscle groups are associated with higher increases in testosterone.
- Go for high volume. Workout volume is determined by the following formula: sets x reps x weight. Studies suggest that higher volume workouts result in higher T production.
- Don’t take each set to failure. It’s okay to push yourself to failure on the very last set, just don’t do it for all your sets.
- Rest for more than a minute and less than two minutes between each set.
Two workout plans that I used that meet most of these criteria were the StrongLifts 5×5 and 5/3/1. I primarily used Strong Lifts during the 90-day experiment. I’ve been a fan of the program for years. I recently discovered 5/3/1 and have been pleased with the results I’ve seen with it. I definitely recommend picking up a copy of the book that lays out the program.
In addition to weightlifting, studies have shown that HIIT workouts can also help boost testosterone levels. For those of you who don’t know, HIIT stands for high-intensity interval training. It calls for short, intense bursts of exercise, followed by a less-intense recovery period. You repeat with the intense/less-intense cycle several times throughout the workout. In addition to increasing T, HIIT has been shown to improve athletic conditioning and fat metabolism, as well as increase muscle strength.
You can find a whole bunch of HIIT workouts online, but the one I used during my 90-day experiment was a simple wind sprint routine. On Tuesdays I went to the football field near my house, marked off 40 yards with some cones, and sprinted as fast as I could. I’d slowly walk back to the starting line, giving my body about a minute to rest, and then I’d sprint again. I typically did 40 sets of 40-yard sprints in a workout. I love sprints.
It seems like today it’s a badge of honor to train every day until exhaustion. The ethos is to push yourself harder and harder every day. If that’s your philosophy towards exercise, you might be sabotaging your testosterone levels (as well as your 20 Mile March). Studies have shown that overtraining can reduce testosterone levels significantly. Yes, it’s important to exercise hard, but it’s even more important to give your body rest so it can recuperate from the damage you inflicted upon it.
Give yourself at least two days during the week when you don’t do any intense exercise at all. Depending on your workouts, more days off might be in order. I typically took the weekends off from intense exercising. I’d go on a light walk or hike, but that was about it.
Just move more. I tried to be more active throughout the work day. I took breaks every 30 minutes or so to take a walk. I also used a standing desk more often than I usually do.
Get More and Better Sleep
Most Americans today are sleep deprived, which may be a contributing factor to declining testosterone levels in men. See, our body makes nearly all the testosterone it needs for the day while we’re sleeping. That increased level of T that we experience at night is one of the reasons we wake up with “Morning Wood.” (If you don’t have Morning Wood on a consistent basis, you might have low T).
But if you’re not getting enough quality sleep, your body can’t produce testosterone as efficiently or effectively. In one study, researchers at the University of Chicago found that young men who slept less than five hours a night for one week had lower testosterone levels than when they were fully rested. The drop was typically 10-15%.
Not only does sleep boost T, but it also helps manage cortisol, a stress hormone that has been shown to wreak havoc on testosterone levels when present in high amounts.
During the month before my experiment, I was definitely sleep deprived. Some nights I was only getting 4 to 5 hours. Testosterone killer! During my experiment I tried to get 8 to 9 hours of sleep at night as consistently as possible. I had to go to bed earlier, but I was only cutting into time that I would have been using to mindlessly surf the net anyway.
I also took measures to improve the quality of sleep I got. For example, I reduced my exposure to blue light in the evening, reduced my consumption of caffeine in the evenings, and took warm showers before bed. In a future post, I’ll go into more detail about some of the more crazy things I did to improve how well I slept. It was fun.
When we face stress, our adrenal glands secrete cortisol to prepare our bodies and minds to handle the stressful situation — the primal fight-or-flight response. In small dosages, cortisol is fine and even useful, but elevated cortisol levels for prolonged periods can do some serious damage to our bodies and minds. One area that seems to take a hit when cortisol is high is our testosterone levels. Several studies have shown a link between cortisol and testosterone. When cortisol levels are high, testosterone levels are low; and when testosterone levels are high, cortisol levels are low.
My stress-filled August was likely another factor leading to my low T levels. Knowing about the connection between cortisol and testosterone, I took the following measures to improve my stress management:
- I mediated for 20 minutes a day.
- When I started to feel stressed, I got up and went for a walk.
- I practiced deep breathing exercises.
- I focused on being more resilient in the face of stress.
Avoid Xenoestrogens and Other T-Lowering Chemicals
Many endocrinologists are sounding the alarm about the damaging effects that come with exposure to common household chemicals. Called “endocrine disruptors,” these chemicals interfere with our body’s hormone system and cause problems like weight gain and learning disabilities. One type of endocrine disruptor is particularly bad news for our testosterone levels.
Xenoestrogen is a chemical that imitates estrogen in the human body. When men are exposed to too much of this estrogen-imitating chemical, T levels drop significantly. The problem is xenoestrogen is freaking everywhere — plastics, shampoos, gasoline, cows, toothpaste. You name it and chances are there are xenoestrogen in it. The ubiquitous nature of this chemical in our modern world is one reason some endocrinologists believe that testosterone levels are lower in men today than in decades past. It’s also a reason doctors say the number of boys born with hypospadias — a birth defect in which the opening of the urethra is on the underside of the penis and not at the tip — has doubled. Note to expecting parents: make sure mom stays away from xenoestrogens during the pregnancy.
Despite the stacked deck, I did my best to avoid products that contained xenoestrogens during my 90-day experiment. Here’s what I did:
- Stored food in glassware and never, ever, ever heated food in plastic containers. Most modern plastics contain phthalates. Phthalates are what give plastic their flexibility, durability, and longevity. But they also screw with hormones by imitating estrogen. Because I didn’t want any of those T-draining molecules in my food, I kept all my food in glassware. I also made sure to never heat food in plastic containers, as heat increases the transfer of phthalates into food.
- Avoided exposure to pesticides and gasoline. Sure the smell of gas is manly, but it contains xenoestrogen. Same goes for pesticides. Limit your exposure to these products. If you do come in contact with them, make sure to wash your hands thoroughly.
- Eat organic when possible. Pesticides and hormones that are used in our food can imitate estrogens in our body. When possible, eat organic. If budget doesn’t allow, at least make sure to wash your fruits and veggies before eating and find meat and milk that comes from cows that haven’t been treated with hormones.
- Use natural grooming products. Most grooming products these days contain parabens, another type of xenoestrogen. And by most, I mean more than 75% of all products. To reduce my exposure as much as possible, I became a hippy during my experiment and started using all natural, paraben-free grooming products. You can find most of these items at most health food stores:
- Jason Shampoo
- Grandpa’s Pine Tar Soap
- Tom’s of Maine Toothpaste
- Crystal Rock Deodorant (This deodorant smells good and works pretty well. But by the end of the day you’re going to be kind of stinky. And if you work out the following morning, you’re going to be really stinky. I eventually made the switch back to regular deodorant/antiperspirant post-experiment. Everybody makes trade-offs.)
- Avoid BPA. Studies suggest that BPA, a chemical that lines food cans and thermal printer paper, may reduce testosterone. I reduced my exposure to BPA as much as I could.
Testosterone is the fuel that propels our sex drive, but did you know that actually having sex puts fuel in our testosterone tank? That’s right. More sex = more testosterone. So, yeah. Have more sex.
No, I’m not going to share my experience with this part of the experiment.
Twice a week during my three-month experiment, I took a 15-minute cold bath after my really hard workouts. I did it for a few reasons. I wanted to help with recovery and I was trying to prep myself for the GORUCK Challenge. Another reason was that I thought it could help increase testosterone levels.
The basis for my thinking that T levels could be boosted by cold baths came from a post I wrote a few years ago on the benefits of cold showers. One benefit I found in my research was that they could increase testosterone levels. I mentioned a 1993 study done by the Thrombosis Research Institute in England that found increased T levels after taking a cold shower. Here’s the thing. I can’t find a link to the original source and I can’t find any other studies that support this claim! So without supporting research, I’m unsure of the effects of cold showers on testosterone.
I still found the practice beneficial, invigorating, and helpful in building my self-discipline.
So that’s what I did to double my testosterone levels in three months. No artificial gels, creams, or injections. Nothing top secret or cool. Just discipline and good livin’. I’m still at pretty much this whole regimen five months later, and I don’t see any reason for stopping.
Now a few last caveats and comments:
First, it’s important to note that these tactics and practices to boost testosterone naturally probably won’t work with men who have hypoandrogenism. If the glands and cells responsible for producing testosterone are damaged or defective, no amount of eggs or sleep will help you raise testosterone levels. You’ll likely need to use testosterone replacement therapy to get your T levels to a healthy place.
Next, while testosterone levels do decline with age, this may simply be because the older that men get, the less they take care of themselves – they stop exercising, start putting on weight, and don’t pay as much attention to their diet. A recent study suggests that age-related T decline is not inevitable, and that if you keep living a healthy lifestyle, you can maintain healthy testosterone levels. So if you’re an older guy, try to do all you can as far as lifestyle changes before you get on the prescription T. I don’t mean doing a little cardio a few times a week, using the machines at the gym, and eating “pretty” healthy. Follow the guidelines above, and see what happens first.
Finally, these kinds of posts always bring a deluge of questions, mostly focused on, “Can I make an exception to X?” “Can I sub in A for B?” “What if I can’t do C?”
Tailor the above recommendations to your personal needs and lifestyle. If you’re a vegetarian drop the bacon and steak, but keep the whey protein and eggs. If you have an injury that prevents you from heavy weightlifting, move as much as you can in the way that you can. There are no studies out there which can tell you exactly what will happen if you do X and Y, but not Z. And I certainly can’t tell you either. Don’t be afraid of self-education – that’s how I learned all this – and embrace the idea of conducting your own experiment and being your own test subject. Incorporate as many of the recommendations above as you’re comfortable with, consult your doctor, and track your results.
Testosterone Week Series:
The Declining Virility of Men and the Importance of T
The Benefits of Optimal Testosterone
A Short Primer on How T is Made
What’s a “Normal” Testosterone Level and How to Measure Your T
How I Doubled My Testosterone Levels Naturally and You Can Too