When it comes to fat loss, most person think that all results ultimately boil down to a simple calorie balance equation. Burn more than you take in, and there should be a linear path to success. Of course, calories matter, but there are several other factors that can impact your results and how your body burns calories in the first place. Underlying physiology often dictates the response to your nutrition and exercise (it goes both ways), with one key factor of this underlying physiology being hormone health.
Outside of life stages like puberty, pregnancy and menopause (or andropause for men), hormones are not usually top of mind on a daily basis. However, the way we feel and function day to day is largely governed by hormones such as insulin, cortisol, estrogen, progesterone and, in particular, testosterone. And some of our most successful clients have customized their programming approaches based on keeping a watchful eye on their individual hormone patterns and testosterone trends.
When most person hear “testosterone,” two things typically come to mind: male libido and male muscle development. These are 2 of testosterone’s most well-known areas of influence, yet this steroid hormone has effects that are much broader and can influence both men and women. (Women produce testosterone from the ovaries and adrenal glands, and in quantities much lower than men.) When out of balance, it can trigger issues with body composition, emotion regulation, acne, aggression, fertility, hair growth (usually in unwanted places), hair loss (usually where you would like to keep it) and even cardiovascular health.
That being said, being lean and having an impressive amount of muscle mass does not guarantee nice testosterone levels under the hood. Try asking those who have competed in natural bodybuilding. Most of them (partly due to the often significant calorie and fat deficits) have either had an experience running their own testosterone into the ground or know a fellow competitor who has struggled. In the case of testosterone, there is no judging the book by its cover. But keeping tabs on your levels can arm you with the information you need for a more tailored plan.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
To accurately assess testosterone levels, at least 2 metrics should be considered must-haves: total testosterone and free testosterone. Our bodies have a tight mechanism regulating how much of our total hormone pool is available for use, and the availability of testosterone can vary based on age, estrogen levels, thyroid function, stress and even extreme caloric highs and lows. In the past, I’ve had clients ask me to take a look at their levels only to find that the total testosterone was all that was drawn, providing no visibility to how much was free for the body to use in daily functioning.
For the greatest insight, evaluating testosterone plus related hormones can provide a better picture of the hormonal landscape and help identify the potential root of a suspected imbalance. It could be poor production, binding (making it unavailable for immediate use or, for women, potentially making too much available), changes in how the body processes it when it’s finished using it, or even conversion to something else, such as estrogen. All of these things can ultimately throw off testosterone levels and therefore impact overall health and vitality. And garnering a full understanding of all of these areas is the first step in determining the best path forward with a doctor. After all, if you’re having car trouble, there’s no blanket solution. You would treat the problem of a flat tire very differently from how you would treat a faulty seal in the transmission.
To get a bit more detailed, consider looking not only at free and total testosterone, but also estrogens (such as estrone and estradiol), DHEA (a testosterone-building block) and SHBG (sex hormone binding globulin that can act as a sponge and bind up testosterone). Also, working with a practitioner can help make sense of it all. And because blood sugar regulation can mess with hormone levels, consider including some indicators such as glucose, hemoglobin A1C and C-peptide or insulin to see if these are a factor too.
WHAT TO DO
There are a few non-negotiables to consider if hormone balance is a top priority, not the least of which is sleep. A good night’s sleep supports the morning rise in testosterone and, since testosterone is a pulsed hormone that operates in a circadian rhythm, the entire balance can be thrown off if sleep is not prioritized. As a rule of thumb, aim for 7 to 8 hours every night. For clients that have a history of trouble falling or staying asleep, a few lifestyle habits often make a world of difference:
- Aim to keep a relatively consistent sleep schedule
- Avoid caffeine after noon
- Limit or avoid nightcaps, as they can disrupt sleep later in the night
- Keep a cool, pitch-black bedroom
- Limit use of electronics, TV, phones and tablets within an hour of bedtime, or consider using blue light–blocking glasses
- Consider using magnesium each evening (bonus: it’s also helps with important nerve and muscle function, as well as bowel regularity)
Outside of sleep, caloric sufficiency is key. (Note that caloric excess can be detrimental as well; however, for those that have been watching their nutrition closely, too much of a caloric deficit is a surprisingly common issue.) Think about it. From a survival standpoint, would it be smart to keep reproductive hormones such as testosterone in the optimal (read: fertile) balance if there’s a perceived threat of food scarcity? Of course, not. That would be a very stressful time to reproduce. Even if reproduction is not the goal right now (or even if the goal is to actively avoid a pregnancy), these hormonal shifts from our intelligent internal mechanisms impact way more than potential fertility.
When person are overly calorie restricted, often their nutrition approach is lacking in healthy fat since fat is so calorically dense. Starting a shift to a more appropriate calorie level to support hormone balance should ideally involve inclusion of minimally processed dietary fat. Here are a few favorite sources:
- Pastured egg yolks
- Olive oil
- Nut butters
- Wild-caught salmon
For anyone that has been in a significant calorie restriction for quite a while, connecting with a qualified nutrition coach is recommended to closely monitor the response of titrating calories back up and make tweaks as needed.
Sleep and caloric intake are 2 of the most fundamental aspects of healthy testosterone, in addition to generally healthy eating principles and a balanced exercise routine that includes regular strength training. In a situation where these basics are already in place, the eye-opening insights gleaned from lab testing discussed above can really come to life. The more information available, the more opportunity there is for precision and customization in nutrition, lifestyle and exercise approaches.
At the end of the day, health, body composition and symptomology are influenced by a multitude of factors relating to underlying health: digestive health, nutrients, inflammation, blood sugar and hormones, to name a few. Although a testosterone imbalance can absolutely get in the way, long-term success is rarely found by addressing one biomarker in a silo. Get the basics in place with a diet high in vegetables with plenty of protein and healthy fat, along with a well-rounded exercise program, and utilize additional assessments to give you the information needed to further customize your approach.
If you have questions about lab testing and assessments or are interested in learning about how a coach could benefit you, reach out to us anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In health, Samantha McKinney — Life Time Lab Testing Program Manager
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.