Testosterone’s effect on muscle growth is well-documented. It’s known to promote strength and muscular hypertrophy in men as part of the body’s natural adaptations to weight training. But there’s also growing research about the link between testosterone and fat loss.
Could this hormone hold the key to why some men gain weight unintentionally? Or find it hard to shift excess pounds? In this article, we look at the role of testosterone in fat storage, weight loss, and lean body mass maintenance.
What does testosterone do?
Testosterone is a male sex hormone that’s involved in many aspects of traditional masculinity. It controls muscle development, the growth of body hair, and bone strength. It can also influence how our brains function as well as controlling other hormones within the body. But it’s most well-known for its role in sex as it influences libido, sperm cell production, and overall fertility.
Hormones are vital to our health. They act like messengers throughout the body, telling other systems when to turn on or shut off. Most hormones have specific roles to play and are produced in our glands. Testosterone is manufactured by the adrenal glands and testes in men, and by the ovaries (in small amounts) in women.
The link between testosterone & fat storage
The processes that control fat storage and weight gain are complex. Although we often simplify it down to ‘calories in versus calories out’, it’s actually a lot more complicated at a cellular level. Testosterone plays a vital role in the development of muscle and is therefore essential to maintaining lean body mass. If levels of this hormone decrease, then your body’s ability to build and maintain muscle is also compromised. Over time, your muscle mass will decrease, even if you’re training and eating correctly.
It’s this decrease in lean mass that’s thought to cause fat storage. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat which means it burns more calories in order to simply exist. If your lean body mass decreases, then the calories that your body naturally burns decreases too. Unless you’re proactive about reducing your food intake, it’s likely that you’ll end up with excess calories because your body no longer needs as much energy to function. Because these calories aren’t burnt off, they end up being stored as body fat. Research has shown that men who are deficient in testosterone tend to gain weight more easily than those who aren’t.
Hormones can also have a particularly interesting indirect effect on our weight. They’re vulnerable to being influenced by our external environment as well as fluctuations caused by internal changes. Stress and anxiety can have an especially potent effect because they result in increased cortisol. This hormone blocks the release of testosterone which further intensifies weight gain issues.
The weight gain spiral
Another interesting aspect of testosterone is that its levels are directly reduced by excess fat. Research shows that body fat stored in the mid-section contains an enzyme called aromatase. This enzyme converts standard testosterone into the female sex hormone, estrogen. When aromatase and estrogen are combined, they start another chain reaction that results in less testosterone being produced. This double-whammy can plummet t-levels and make it even harder to maintain calorie-burning muscle. In short, the more fat you accumulate around your belly, the harder it is to shift.
How to boost your testosterone levels
Symptoms of low testosterone can be hard to spot. They include tiredness, a decrease in muscle mass, low mood, decreased sex drive, and trouble getting or maintaining an erection. If you think that low testosterone may be contributing to your weight, then there are practical steps you can take to rebalance it. Dietary changes, healthy lifestyle habits, and natural testosterone supplements can all help to increase your levels.
Here are some key areas that can boost testosterone:
Resistance training using dumbbells, barbells, or body weight exercises is a great way to increase testosterone. Overloading your muscles triggers a hormonal response so that they can rebuild to become bigger and stronger. This response includes the release of testosterone into your system.
Keep stress to a minimum
Since cortisol blocks the production of testosterone, it’s important to keep stress levels to a minimum. Regular exercise, reading, and meditation can all help you to feel relaxed and keep the hormone balance in check.
Get enough vitamin D
Being deficient in vitamin D has been associated with decreased levels of testosterone. To ensure you’re getting enough, aim to spend 10-15 minutes outside in the sunshine each day. During the winter months (or if you live in a cloudy climate) it’s worth taking a vitamin supplement to keep your levels up where they should be.
Enjoy good quality sleep
Not getting enough sleep can mess with testosterone production and confuse your hormones in general. It’s also linked to weight gain and increased stress, so maintaining a healthy sleep routine is essential. Go to bed at the same time each night and aim for 7-8 hours as a minimum.
High-Intensity Interval Training
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a popular buzzword in fitness circles right now. It’s an incredibly effective way of burning body fat so that your testosterone production isn’t being sabotaged. Alternate intense bursts of exercise for 30-45 seconds with recovery periods of 15-30 seconds - high knees, sprints, and burpees are ideal.
Will testosterone supplements help?
Testosterone supplements are often promoted as a way to boost your body’s production of the hormone. They come in several different forms, but the most common are testosterone boosters and testosterone replacement therapy.
Anabolic steroids also fall into this category but aren’t legal in the US - in fact they’re banned by many sports and athletic organizations globally. This is because they can have serious health implications and raise questionable moral issues about fair play in competitions.
Because of this, it’s best to avoid anabolic steroids completely and stick with safer alternatives.
Let’s look at the effects of different supplements in more detail...
Natural testosterone supplements (Also known as ‘boosters’)
These types of supplement encourage the natural production of testosterone by the body. They don’t actually contain the hormone, but are often made from plant-derivatives that promote its manufacture.
The scientific evidence regarding their effectiveness is mixed and some ingredients appear to have more impact than others. Some of the best ones include:
• Zinc - boosts testosterone, improves sperm quality, and acts as a natural aphrodisiac too
• Fenugreek - the extract from these seeds enhances the libido and increases testosterone
• D-Aspartic Acid - an amino acid regulator that stimulates hormone production
Research shows that these compounds can help to boost testosterone in men who have low levels. So, choosing supplements with active forms of these may be advantageous when used in combination with diet and lifestyle changes.
Hormone replacement therapy is something that’s medically prescribed by health professionals. If you are deficient in testosterone or suffering from a medical condition that affects your levels, then a doctor may recommend this course of treatment. It’s definitely not something that you can undertake on your own and needs to be carefully supervised by someone who’s professionally trained.
The supplement itself can take the form of a tablet, skin patch, injection, or cream. Scientific studies have shown that it’s an effective method of increasing testosterone levels. It can also reduce the symptoms associated with deficiency.
Research shows that hormone replacement therapy decreases tiredness and promotes muscle development in patients. People who undergo this type of therapy often lose body fat as a result, however, it’s thought that this is due to their increased energy levels and greater muscle mass. When combined, this makes them more likely to exercise on a regular basis and avoid excess calorie storage.
Testosterone & fat loss - summary
There is a clear relationship between higher testosterone levels and lower body fat. Testosterone promotes muscular development which leads to your body burning more calories, even at rest. This decreases the likelihood of a calorie excess so that you don’t store fat and gain weight. Carrying a ‘spare tire’ or excess belly fat can also decrease your t-levels due to the enzymes that it contains. This is why gaining weight can further reduce testosterone and lead to a downward spiral if action isn’t taken.
However, the good news is that there are practical steps you can take to address this. Simple lifestyle changes can make a big impact on your hormone levels and help to rebalance them over the long-term. Strength training, HIIT, reducing stress, and maintaining healthy levels of vitamin D can all contribute to testosterone production. These also have wider health benefits for your cardiovascular, skeletal, and mental health. By incorporating these activities into your daily routine, you’ll be giving your overall health a boost as well as your testosterone.
Supplements can also support hormone production, but it’s important to check the evidence behind their ingredients. Not all products use scientifically-proven compounds so it’s worth doing your research before investing. If you have a medically diagnosed condition, then a doctor may prescribe testosterone replacement therapy to address your low levels.