Stress and testosterone are not the best friends. For your body, testosterone stops being a priority when you’re under stress.
Think about it, and it will make sense. When your life is in danger, your body reacts to flee and survive.
It stops thinking about promoting secondary sexual traits and maintaining a healthy libido. But is this theory as effective as it sounds in the clinical practice?
In this article, we will briefly review how stress affects testosterone levels. There are many ways to measure stress and different types of stress. But one of the most reliable ways to measure this physiologic reaction is through a hormone.
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone, and it follows a circadian rhythm. Thus, we will talk about cortisol and testosterone and how these substances interact with each other.
Still, stress triggers many other changes, not only cortisol increases. That’s why we will cover the topic of stress and low testosterone levels widely.
The Importance Of Testosterone For Men’s Health
Testosterone is beneficial and important for both men and women. However, it is fundamental for the development of secondary male traits and sexual behavior in men. The effects of testosterone are also beneficial to promote and maintain a man’s health.
That’s why patients with low testosterone levels complain of symptoms that include the following (1):
- Low libido and lack of interest in sex
- Mental and physical fatigue
- Difficulty to sleep
- Anxiety and depression
- Low energy levels
Additionally, testosterone is essential to maintain our health and various systems of the body. Thus, a significant reduction may cause the following health problems (1):
Still, if you have these symptoms, it is not always easy to determine if testosterone is the cause. Consider that testosterone levels vary throughout the day. So it happens with the symptoms above.
Moreover, many seniors have low levels of testosterone without developing severe health problems.
Can Stress Affect Testosterone Levels?
We are living in a culture of stress. Everything needs to move fast; we always want immediate results and fast attention. Globalization has made the whole world aware of foreign individuals and institutions.
As a result, we have increasing demands, and little time to complete so many tasks.
Stress can trigger various responses and help us increase our productivity levels. But too much stress for a prolonged time (chronic stress) has a consequence in the body and the mind.
In the mind, stress causes anxiety and depression. In extreme cases, it can even cause burnout syndrome. Symptoms include tiredness, low self-esteem, social isolation, chronic fatigue, and much more. All of this creates a reaction in the body.
The hormone levels and immune system start to change. So it increases the propensity for various health problems.
Being under severe stress can affect testosterone levels, even in young and strong men in the military forces.
We can provide an example in a study performed in military men under survival training. They started with an average testosterone level. When they were exposed to the most intense phase of military training, testosterone levels dropped.
Cortisol, the stress hormone increased at the same time, according to their findings (2). If that happens in young men who are in the military forces, what can we say about seniors? They have a higher propensity to have low levels of testosterone, even without stress. Thus, under stressful conditions, the problem is expected to become worse still.
What Some Research Shows About Stress and Low T
There are many types of stress. Most of us are familiar with emotional or psychological stress. Stressful and emotionally overwhelming situations are common triggers.
On the other hand, physical stress can result from trauma (during and after surgery or in a car crash), and physical strain (strenuous physical activity).
One way to measure the relationship between stress and testosterone is called testosterone to cortisol ratio. Also known as T:C, this is a handy marker in the field of sports science and fitness.
It is very useful to understand how the body is reacting to exercise and to prevent overexercise. This T:C ratio measures the amount of strain the body is going through in stressful situations, including strenuous physical activity.
According to studies, the testosterone to cortisol ratio is significantly decreased as stress levels increase. For example, as physical exercise increases in duration or intensity, cortisol in the saliva increases, and testosterone decreases. Thus, in sports medicine, it is used as an indicator of physiological strain (3).
There’s even a rational principle to it. If you learn about cortisol and testosterone production, you will understand their relationship. Both testosterone and cortisol are steroid hormones. They need the same steroid for synthesis in the Leydig cell and the adrenal gland.
Pregnenolone can be converted into testosterone or cortisol; it can’t be both. So, when the body is under stress, the odds are for cortisol in a process called pregnenolone steal (4).
But there’s a problem beyond physiological strain. When cortisol is higher, and testosterone is lower, other health problems start to appear.
According to research, people with low testosterone and high cortisol levels have a higher risk of insulin resistance.
The tissues do not respond adequately to insulin in this metabolic problem. Thus, the pancreas is forced to create and release more insulin. This hormone is important for glucose homeostasis.
In time, it gets overwhelmed, and patients develop type 2 diabetes. Their cardiovascular system suffers in the process. Thus, they also end up with higher cardiovascular risk. That’s why a study showed that a low T:C ratio has a higher chance of ischemic heart disease (5).
In this medical condition, the arteries of the heart become hardened. They lose their properties and impair the oxygenation of the heart.
This is an increasing health problem and a significant burden in occidental countries.
So, be careful if you’ve had symptoms of low testosterone levels and experience high levels of stress. You increase your cardiovascular risk when cortisol levels increase, and your testosterone goes down.
How Can You Naturally Lower Stress Levels
What can you do to fix the problem, reduce cortisol levels, and increase your testosterone?
Since we live in a stressful world, one of the recommendations is reducing your levels of stress. Through this fix, you may be able to maintain your cortisol levels at bay and feel much better.
These lifestyle changes that will help you reduce stress and increase testosterone levels at the same time:
- Exercise regularly: Exercise is an excellent way to relieve stress and feel more relaxed. It is also very useful to increase serum testosterone levels. Moreover, resistance exercise does not only increase your muscle mass. It reduces your cardiovascular risk and improves your mental health. There are many benefits after only 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, 5 times a week.
- Stop smoking: Nicotine increases free cortisol, the stress hormone. Even though you may perceive stress by stopping the habit, your hormones will say otherwise. In time, releasing your body from the influence of nicotine has many advantages. Your cortisol and prolactin levels are reduced. You will naturally boost testosterone levels. And your cardiovascular risk will improve significantly (6).
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine: Alcohol and caffeine create a modulation in the central nervous system and cause stress problems in the long-term. These problems may even serve to perpetuate the habit. Thus, it is essential to avoid both alcohol and caffeine habits to improve cortisol levels (7). In doing so, we may even increase our free testosterone and total testosterone levels.
- Don’t use a shortcut to relieve stress: There are unhealthy shortcuts to relieve stress. We are talking about drugs and the illegal use of prescription meds. These shortcuts worsen the problem instead of giving you solutions. So, only use medications exactly when and as prescribed. And avoid trying to beat anxiety with drugs.
- Follow a healthy diet: Following a healthy diet will give your organism the building blocks for a healthy body. In the case of testosterone, you need cholesterol as a building block. But you should obtain cholesterol from healthy sources. Eat more unsaturated fats from olive oil, avocado, and nuts. They will also reduce your cardiovascular risk and improve your hormonal profile.
- Sleep properly: Whatever you do, care for your sleep. Sleeping is an important function of the body and maintains your health. It modulates your levels of cortisol and improves your testosterone. So, if you have a good night’s sleep, it is very likely that your testosterone levels will be fine, too.
- Learn to relax: Nowadays, learning breathing techniques and other ways to relax is very important. We will need them for many different stressors, alone and around other people. Through these techniques, blood samples of cortisol are significantly reduced. This will also have a positive influence on other health markers, including cardiovascular disease.
But what can you do if your job is stressful? Sometimes, there’s not much to do about daily levels of stress. There are still many things you can do to improve your hormonal profile and improve your cardiovascular health.
Start with a medical screening to know whether or not your symptoms are caused by testosterone or cortisol problems. You might also need cholesterol measures and other markers in your blood.
If you work in hot environments and in case you’re an athlete, you might want to consider measuring your levels of magnesium. This electrolyte is lost through sweating, and its deficiency is linked to low testosterone. Even if you’re a senior man, magnesium deficiency is a common cause of testosterone problems (8).
Another useful tool is vitamin D, and deficiency of vitamin D is common in many countries. It is also common in older men who do not go out much to the sunlight. According to recent research about vitamin D, people with low levels also had low testosterone. Supplementation can be very useful in this regard to reduce the effects of a stressful life (10).
How Can You Naturally Lower Testosterone Levels?
So far, we have talked about low testosterone and raising your levels naturally. This is very good for athletic performance and to keep a man’s health. But raising your testosterone levels too much is not a good thing, either.
One of the main concerns around too much testosterone in your body is developing aggressive behavior. There’s not a misconception or exaggeration. There are studies about it.
For example, in one study published in 2009, the researchers noted that high testosterone levels and low cortisol levels caused aggressive behavior in many different social contexts (11). This is true in men and women, and an alteration in the T:C ratio is apparently responsible for this. In short, having too much testosterone and not enough cortisol is also bad for you (12)
But if you suspect high testosterone levels for some reason, do not neglect your doctor’s opinion. You need to get tested and might also need the advice of a professional well beyond the reference levels provided by a laboratory or the internet
In a nutshell, stress affects testosterone levels, and this can be measured in many different ways.
Studies that evaluated testosterone under heavy stress found a significant reduction. And if we measure cortisol, the stress hormone, we find similar results. There’s testosterone to cortisol ratio, and it is very important to measure physiologic stress.
That’s one of the reasons why high levels of stress cause and aggravates symptoms of low testosterone. Moreover, patients may increase their cardiovascular risk when their T:C ratio is low.
One way to fix this problem is by reducing our levels of stress. This can be achieved by exercising, following a healthy diet, sleeping properly, and following other recommendations.