An article in yesterday’s New York Times claims that becoming a father reduces a man’s testosterone levels. Is it true, and should dads be concerned?
Yes, and in most cases, no.
It’s been known for a long time that both long-term relationships and fatherhood are associated with lower testosterone (T) in human males, but the study cited by the New York Times is the first to show that the relationship is causal; becoming a father actually lowers T levels. Furthermore, the more active and involved the dad (playing, cuddling, changing diapers, etc.), the greater the drop in T.
This sounds bad. Most dads don’t want to trade off manliness for fatherhood. Is that what the study implicates?
Let’s take a brief look at the psychological and physical effects of both low and high T levels in men. High T levels are associated with:
- sense of well-being
- sociability & confidence
- higher sperm production
- higher sex drive, possibly higher promiscuity
- physical strength, faster muscle gain in response to resistance training
- increased bone density
- feelings of aggression
- higher risk of enlarged prostate
- higher risk of acne
- suppressed immunity
When T levels drop too low, bad things happen. Low T levels in men are associated with:
- social anxiety
- lower sex drive, longer refractory period
- low sperm count
- higher body fat
- higher risk of cardiovascular disease
- fatigue, low energy
- brain fog, higher risk of dementia
It looks bad! Men definitely don’t want their T to drop too low. Does this mean fatherhood should be avoided at all costs?
I don’t think so. Depending on his physiology, a moderate drop in testosterone might even improve a guy’s quality of life. I became a dad in 2008, and I think I probably have lower T levels now than I did pre-fatherhood. Subjectively, here’s how I would describe how the change feels:
- more patient with children (though this has also been a learning process … it didn’t necessarily “come naturally”)
- less desire to have sex with women other than my wife
- happier with domestic life, less desire to stay out late, don’t feel as “antsy” if I stay at home
- less road rage
- more considerate of others (I think, not completely sure)
I haven’t noticed any negative changes in muscle composition, response to weight training, frequency or quality of sex. In short, I’m probably experiencing the evolutionary adaptive benefits of the “lower T dad,” which include increased relationship stability, being mellow enough to deal with kids, and not going crazy even though I need to stick around the house more.
I had fairly high T levels pre-fatherhood; in my mid-thirties my total T levels were tested around 800 ng/dl. While this may have something to do with why I haven’t experienced any negative effects of relatively lower testosterone (as a result of becoming a dad), I also observe a number of nutritional and lifestyle factors that may help keep my T levels in the “good zone.”
The modern world is a hormonal minefield for men. Here are just a few of the common substances that can muck up your hormones, reducing T levels and/or raising or mimicking estrogen:
- lavender, tea tree oil (phytoestrogens)
- bisophenol-A (reduces T)
- soy (phytoestrogen)
- spearmint (reduces T)
- licorice (reduces T)
Avoiding contact with these substances is step #1 for male hormonal health. BPA is especially pervasive — especially in the plastic linings of canned tomatoes and soups.
Don’t Completely Shut Down 5-Alpha-Reductase
The 5-alpha reductases (5α-R) are enzymes that convert testosterone (T) into the more active hormone dihydrotestosterone (DHT). There are many botanicals that inhibit 5α-R, and to some extent that’s a good thing. Too much DHT leads to male pattern balding and prostate enlargement. However, shutting down 5α-R completely leaves too little circulating DHT, and that can lead to low sex drive and poor sexual performance.
Unfortunately, many “male health” vitamin supplements contain strong 5α-R inhibitors, like saw palmetto, as a matter of course. For older men suffering from enlarged prostate, this might be a good thing. For younger men, inhibiting 5α-R might protect their hairline, but could also lead to problems in bed.
5-alpha reductase inhibitors include:
- finasteride (prescribed for hair loss)
- saw palmetto
- Reishi mushroom
- azelaic acid
- high doses of medium chain fatty acids (coconut and palm oils)
- too much zinc, especially when combined with B6
too much vitamin D (vitamin A may mitigate)(can’t find reference)
- high doses of biotin
- high doses of GLA (evening primrose oil)
Having the right T to DHT ratio is important. A high T to DHT ratio (less 5α-R activity) may protect against enlarged prostate and male pattern baldness, but may increase the risk of aggressive prostate cancer, as well as cause sexual problems.
I think the safe route is to ingest some food-based 5α-R inhibitors, like red wine and coconut oil, in order to keep some of your hair and protect against prostate enlargement, but to avoid strong herbal or pharmaceutical 5α-R inhibitors and high doses of nutritional supplements unless medically needed.
For men who need to take saw palmetto to avoid getting up multiple times in the night to piss, consider cycling on/off. Mechanical measures may also provide some relief; the prostate contains acini which can become clogged, and in some cases a few hundred strong contractions of the pc-sphincter muscles, and/or direct massage of the prostate (!) might improve prostate health and lessen the need for 5α-R inhibition.
Diet & Testosterone
Zinc, vitamin A, and vitamin D are probably the most important nutrients for maintaining healthy testosterone levels.
Zinc is a tricky one — too much supplemental zinc can decrease levels of other minerals (like copper and manganese), as well as as inhibit 5α-R. Acute zinc overdose results in nausea and digestive upsets, while chronic zinc overdose suppresses immunity and causes fatigue. Dietary and/or supplemental zinc can increase T levels in zinc-deficient men, but it’s not a case of “more is better.” Luckily, oysters are very high in zinc, and anyone who eats them regularly is unlikely to be zinc deficient. Beef and pumpkin seeds also have appreciable amounts. Men who rely on supplemental zinc should take a chelated form (like zinc picolinate) and probably limit ingestion to 20mg every other day unless a known deficiency exists.
Phytic acid, on the other hand, binds with zinc (as well as with iron, magnesium, and calcium) and decreases absorption. Phytic acid is especially high in wheat, oats, and soybeans. One reason a paleo diet is oft-reported to be good for hormonal health may be the reduced phytic acid content and increased mineral absorption. Calcium also reduces zinc absorption, so consider eating high calcium and high zinc foods at different meals.
Vitamin D can increase testosterone levels in men, as can vitamin A. These vitamins are important to keep in balance, along with vitamin K2, as I discuss in this post. I think moderate supplementation of non-synthetic pre-formed vitamin A is sensible for most men, especially if they are also supplementing with D3. Nordic Naturals cod-liver oil is a good source — many less expensive brands contain high doses of synthetic vitamin A and it’s possible to get too much.
Low-fat diets are bad for T-levels, as is polyunsaturated fat intake (fats from vegetable and seed oils). Saturated fats (butter, meat) and monounsaturated fats (olive oil, avocado), boost T-levels.
High alcohol intake will make T plummet (in men).
A starvation and/or zero-carb diet will also adversely affect T-levels. If resources are scarce, reproduction becomes a lower physiological priority. For fat loss, the slow and steady approach is better.
Exercise & Testosterone
Lifting heavy things can give T levels a temporary boost. Exercises that recruit more and bigger muscle groups (like squats, pullups, and bardips), will positively affect hormone levels (T, GH, IGF-1) more than exercises that isolate muscle groups (like curls).
Do factors like the number of repetitions, weight lifted, and rest interval matter, in terms of boosting T? Rest interval matters very little, and the number of repetitions and amount of weight lifted may not matter much either (in terms of boosting T).
Most importantly, testosterone drops to baseline within 20 minutes or so, and over-training of any kind will lower T-levels and suppress immunity.
Bottom line — exercise is extremely important for health (including sexual health — via improving vascular response), but nutritional and lifestyle factors (like getting a good night’s sleep) are more important than weight lifting for maintaining healthy T levels. You may be better off going to bed than hitting the gym for a late-night workout.
Quality and Quantity of Sex, T is Only Part of the Picture
Extremely high T levels will widen the subjective lens of “who is sexually attractive.” “Spread the seed wide and far” is the evolutionary signal that high testosterone sends to the brain. For men, falling in love actually lowers T levels, as a kind of focusing, “one partner is enough” effect.
While high T levels may make you want to screw anything that moves, cardiovascular health is more important for mutually satisfying sexual experiences. You need enough T to want to have sex and to become sexually aroused, but you need a responsive vascular system to experience powerful, long-lasting erections. How do you maintain (or regain) a responsive vascular system?
- don’t smoke
- don’t drink too much
- do some strenuous physical activity every day
- maintain or regain insulin sensitivity (if you have a spare tire, stop eating grains and sugars for the most part)
- get enough dietary and/or supplemental Omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, and vitamin C
Behavior & Testosterone Levels
Testosterone influences behavior, but behavior also influences testosterone. Watching mixed martial arts, attending sporting events, going out with the guys, sparring, and fighting all increase T levels in men. And if you stand up to someone who is trying to dominate you, your physiology will respond.
Each guy has to feel this out for himself — how do you want to be in the world, at different times in your life? Sometimes you want to be “on-fire,” willing to take more risks, extremely confident, more selfish, and “playing the field” sexually. Evolution has decided that a different state of mind is more conducive to fatherhood; steadier, gentler, more risk-averse, more empathetic, more monogamous. This is advantageous in most cases, but dads shouldn’t let their testosterone levels drop the point where they start experiencing any of the negative effects listed above.
This is something women in long-term relationships with men need to understand; either consciously or unconsciously, men modulate their own testosterone levels with certain behaviors. They do this in order to feel comfortable in their own skin.
Sometimes this may mean staying home and spending more time with the kids, in order to mellow out and take the edge off. At other times, to raise T, it may mean watching men put other men in headlocks or arm-bars (or doing it themselves). Another approach is driving fast cars and/or chasing beautiful women. Mid-life crisis, anyone? There are easier ways …
The Big Guns
I’ve experimented with a number of different supplements, including supplements that raise testosterone. I’ve never been able to gain much muscle weight (maybe genetics, or maybe because I’m not willing to work out extremely hard or eat massive amounts of protein). One supplement, LJ100 (an extract of tongkat ali, an Indonesian plant) didn’t help me gain muscle weight (possibly because I couldn’t tolerate the recommended dose), but it did help me understand what a strong spike in testosterone feels like.
In short, small doses were nice, resulting in very high sex drive, improved mood and confidence, and more physical energy.
Larger doses (like what was recommended on the side of bottle) made me feel too aggressive, and sexually attracted to too many women (to the point where I felt psychologically compelled to ogle every even-slightly attractive woman within my field of vision, like it was my job or something).
Tongkat ali seems to work by stimulating the testes to produce more testosterone. It may also have anti-cancer benefits as well. If you try it, just make sure to buy it from a reputable source, as some sources of tongkat ali have been found to be contaminated with mercury.
If a man is experiencing negative effects from low T, should he consider taking synthetic testosterone? There are risks, like enlarged prostate and testicular shrinkage. But these risks need to be weighed against the health risks of chronic low testosterone, which are significant (increased body fat, lower bone density, depression, etc.). In most cases, diet and lifestyle choices, and herbal supplements (if needed) can sufficiently increase T. But if those don’t work, synthetic T is an option.
Testosterone’s Bad Reputation
Testosterone is a misunderstood hormone. Unfortunately, it’s more associated with violence and sexual carousing than it is with a sense of well-being, confidence, bone density, and male fertility. Maintaining adequate T levels is an important part of male health, both physical and psychological.
An important point to note is that raising testosterone levels in a man who is not enculturated or otherwise inclined to be violent will not make him violent. It may make him feel like hitting someone (or something) more, but high testosterone does not mean loss of control or decision-making abilities.
Guys, I hope this post has given you some additional tools to help modulate your own testosterone levels. Good health to you!