The Testosterone Crisis!

5 Reasons It's Happening and 5 Ways to Fight It

Testosterone (“T”) is the so-called “He Hormone” even though it’s produced in the bodies of both men and women. Men produce more of it, which is why, on average, dudes have bushier beards and deeper voices than Kim Kardashian or Taylor Swift. Men’s T levels peak during our teen and early adult years, then decrease about 1% a year after age 30. But beyond normal aging, there’s a mysterious generational decline going on. Let’s start with the numbers. Research published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism spanning three decades found that when the T levels of same-aged American men were compared, the men of the 1980s had higher average T levels than the men of the ‘90s, and the men of the new century have on average the least T of all.1 For example, a 60-year-old man in 2004 had T levels 17% lower than those of a 60-year-old in 1987. Another study of Danish men produced similar findings, with men born in the 1960s having 14% lower T than those born in the 1920s.2 Lower T is associated with lower sperm counts, raising concern for the next generation. A 2017 study found that average sperm counts in Western countries had nosedived by 59% between 1973 and 2011, making low T and plummeting sperm counts a major public health issue.3

Why are average T levels dropping in recent generations? In my book Alpha Male Challenge,4 co-authored by James Villepigue with an esteemed group of expert contributors, we cited the usual suspects: poor diet, lack of exercise, less demanding physical labor, more obesity, ingestion of phytoestrogens, and exposure to various environmental toxins (including endocrine disruptors like parabens and phthalates). Surely, all are possible culprits (see sidebar for 5 suggestions on naturally boosting your T).

But I’m going to propose also looking at things from a different angle: testosterone from an evolutionary perspective. Testosterone is a facilitator hormone; it rises to help us meet challenges, such as physical or mental competition. Higher T is associated with higher rank or “status” within a group’s hierarchy. Higher status usually means greater access to limited resources needed for survival and breeding. In the animal realm, resources like food, water, territory and healthy reproduction partners improve the chances that an organism and its offspring will survive. All living creatures are genetically programmed over millions of years of evolution: Rule One for every organism is to pass on copies of its genes. Natural selection is the name of the evolutionary process by which organisms whose genes are the most environmentally adapted achieve a survival preference over others. Higher status, leading up to the top “alpha” rank, improves an organism’s chances of fulfilling its Rule One programming. So here are five reasons why evolution may be driving down our T levels – and the last one may be the most surprising!

1. CIVILIZATION FAVORED COOPERATION

Could lower T have played a positive role in human development? Actually, decreasing average T levels among the human population and our ancestors is nothing new. There was a time when our prehistoric forebears had much higher T than men do today. Modern humans appeared about 200,000 years ago but only about 50,000 years ago did art and advanced tools become widespread. A study of 1,400 human skulls showed that it was at that time that heavy brows went out, and rounder heads came in, traced to T levels acting on the skeleton.5 The authors argue that human society advanced when people started living together and cooperating, putting a premium on agreeableness and lowered aggression, leading to lower T, changed faces, and more cultural exchange. In other words, conditions changed so that genes for lower testosterone levels were better suited for positive social interactions in an environment that favored more cooperation.

2. EASY LIVING

Civilization changed the environmental demands upon prehistoric men, who gradually spent less time fighting saber-toothed tigers and each other. Today, we live amid a lesser level of physical danger, and a lesser need for our brains to direct a surge of testosterone to meet the threat. In fact, although inequities persist, more Americans live in relative comfort than ever before. Physical labor is less prominent in many men’s lives. Pushing pencils in climate-controlled workstations simply doesn’t require the same T levels that the bodies of cavemen did. We don’t even need the same levels of a few hundred years ago. Many men don’t mow their own lawns much less build their own houses. So, the steeper generational decline in recent average T levels may correspond to the modern technology revolution that’s making life in our environment physically easier for many of us.

3. COMPETITION IS SO YESTERDAY

Testosterone increases for a competition or “tournament,” driven by Rule One. As with many things, the relationship is bi-directional, meaning that each affects the other. The environment impacts our behavior, and our behavior impacts the environment around us. Higher T levels promote increased competitiveness, and competition promotes increased T levels. What happens in a world where everyone gets a trophy? If winners and losers reap the same rewards, why invest in the outcome? Remember, Rule One is about the drive for limited resources. If the exact same resources were to be provided without any expenditure of effort, high T levels would serve no purpose (although there will still be those with higher T levels, now “mismatched” to their environment). A society that becomes more egalitarian and equitable may have great social benefits by reducing the advantages of privilege (and merit), but the genes for high testosterone become less useful in an environment where competition as a means toward resources is reduced or eliminated.

4. MASCULINITY GOT CANCELED

Dramatic recent changes in cultural values may be having an accelerating effect on the decline of average T levels. Western society is taking an increasingly dim view of traditional masculinity, going as far back as 1975 when television actor Alan Alda opined that modern men were suffering from “testosterone poisoning,” which he claimed was the root of their bad behavior.6 In 2019, the American Psychological Association published a position paper concluding that “traditional masculinity” is psychologically harmful to men and boys.7 Focusing on behaviors like aggression, hyper-competitiveness, stoicism and repressed emotions, the APA declared manliness a bad thing. Not everyone agrees with that.8 However, in place of traditional ideals of masculinity, Western culture is shifting toward a gender model in which “male” and “female” are loosely and subjectively defined. Many politicians, social scientists, corporations and media outlets now support a more “non-binary” society in which high T and excessive masculinity seem out of place, although readers of this magazine may feel differently.

5. FEMINISM CHANGED THE GAME

Lastly, the feminist revolution, which resulted in the long-overdue empowerment of women and the erosion of traditional gender roles, may have had a bearing on men’s diminishing average T levels through the choice of mate selection. Mating behavior, consciously or unconsciously, is driven by Rule One: How can I maximize the chances of successfully passing on my genes? Mating and raising the gene-bearing offspring is at the heart of all animal behaviors.

For reproduction purposes, we can divide animals into roughly two types. “Tournament species” comprise the overwhelming majority. The males are typically twice the size of the females and are full of testosterone. For tournament males, status is linked to aggression. The males fight for mating privileges, with sharp teeth and claws or massive antlers, and the winners do all the mating. All the other males in the group are, well, involuntarily celibate. The females are attracted to the largest, strongest males. These alpha males are perceived by the females as the healthiest genetic specimens for breeding purposes. The alpha males, of course, are just playing the numbers. Their goal, driven by Rule One, is to maximize the success of the survival of their own genes by mating with and impregnating as many females as possible. A small number of males leave behind a wake of pregnant females, who must then raise the offspring on their own while the alpha male moves on to the next female.

By contrast, in the few “pair-bonding species,” like marmosets and penguins, the males and females look and act alike. There’s no competition for reproduction privileges. The females of these species are attracted to males who exhibit more nurturing behaviors and are more likely to share parenting duties, because these traits are perceived as best adapted for ensuring the survival of the offspring. The males are programmed for monogamy, maximizing the survival of their genes by sticking around to protect and raise their progeny. (Interestingly, in pair-bonding species it’s the females who are more likely to “step out” into infidelity – once the male is busy nurturing the offspring, the female hedges her bets by hooking up with a new set of good-looking genetic traits.)

Which, as you may be thinking, brings us to the subject of humans. What are we, in this mix? Humans are a unique hybrid of tournament and pair-bonding traits (a factor that’s likely responsible in part for our high rates of infidelity, divorce, and hurt feelings). Given the shape of the brows of our prehistoric ancestors, we likely started as a straight-up tournament species (like chimpanzees still are) but have evolved more pair-bonding traits as the demands of our environment have changed. I suspect we are still evolving in that direction, and mate selection is another factor pushing us there. After all, it’s the females of the species that bear the heavier biological burden in producing offspring, and so Rule One imposes on them a greater interest in mate selection (far more than the investment of the classic tournament male). How does Rule One bear upon women’s mate selection in society today? The past few decades have been marked with a radical change in the division of labor, which was once based on traditional gender roles. Women have fought hard for equality in the workplace, a fight that continues today. More and more women are pursuing full-time careers outside the home (e.g., as an attorney myself, I note that more than half of all law school graduates today are women). So, does it make sense that for today’s working women, the testosterone-dripping human equivalent of the elk with the biggest antlers may be less attractive than the low-testosterone specimen who’s willing to trade off who’s dropping off the kids at day care? Of course, some women will always gravitate toward tournament males (perhaps anticipating that they will change, with time, into pair-bonding males, as some do), while others will change preferences at different stages of life (i.e., favoring tournament males in their teens and 20s but pair-bonding males in their 30s when it’s time to settle down). For reproductive purposes overall, however, wouldn’t we expect more and more working women to prefer men with lower T levels?

The Bottom Line

Put it all together, and there’s little reason to expect the ongoing downturn in generational T levels will stop. If anything, it may accelerate. If, as it seems, we are shifting away from our tournament mating origins toward a more pair-bonded future, how should we feel about that? The short-term societal implications of a more non-binary landscape populated by lower-T men can only be hypothesized, but might include a more cooperative, nurturing, less competitive world. There’s some potential social good in that. Of course, continuing lower testosterone levels, and associated declining sperm health, if unchecked, may have detrimental effects on the long-term survival of our species. If we are gradually evolving for reproductive purposes into a species more like penguins than chimpanzees, is it a blessing or a curse?

References:

1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17062768/

2. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5949978_Secular_Decline_in_Male_Testosterone_and_Sex_Hormone_Binding_Globulin_Serum_Levels_in_Danish_Population_Surveys

3. https://academic.oup.com/humupd/article/23/6/646/4035689

4. In essence, how to be an alpha and not be an a$$hole. https://www.amazon.com/Alpha-Male-Challenge-10-Week-Attitude/dp/1594869316

5. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/677209

6. Alan Alda, “What Every Woman Should Know About Men,” Ms., New York, October 1975.

7. https://www.apa.org/about/policy/boys-men-practice-guidelines.pdf

8. https://www.amhf.org.au/male_psychology_what_s_wrong_with_apa_s_masculinity_guidelines

 

5 WAYS TO BOOST YOUR NATURAL TESTOSTERONE

Just because average testosterone levels are declining doesn’t mean yours have to drop as well. Low T levels are linked with low libido, erectile dysfunction, muscle loss, weight gain, fatigue, memory issues and even heart disease and depression. Here are five ways to boost your “alpha” factor!

1. Lift Weights. A bout of resistance training raises your T levels right after your workout, and regular high-intensity training can raise them over time. Aim for at least three sessions a week of intense training. Note that cardio exercise may be great for the heart, but too much of it can lower T levels.

2. Lose Pounds. Obesity is linked to low T levels, and 40% of American men are now obese. Reduce your calories by ditching sugary drinks, fast food, and cut back on alcohol (a T killer in itself), but don’t eliminate healthy fats. Pump up your overall activity level (walk more, sit less).

3. Leave Your Safe Space. Testosterone rises to meet a challenge. While even winning at chess can raise T levels, try leaving your comfort zone behind and finding physically active ways to compete or challenge yourself. Doing what scares you, within reason, is a great way to boost your confidence and your T levels.

4. Don’t be a Soy Boy. While experts disagree on the degree to which dietary phytoestrogens like soy may lower T levels, consider switching away from using soy as a major protein source in your diet. But don’t worry about the occasional bowl of edamame.

5. Ditch the Chemicals. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and Bisphenol A (BPA) are “endocrine disruptors” that screw with our T levels. Consider bottled water to reduce your exposure to these toxins in our water supply. Phthalates are chemicals added to lots of household items from shampoo to detergents. Many plastic food containers contain phthalates, so eliminate them when possible, and always avoid heating food in plastic containers.

If you feel symptoms associated with low T, don’t be afraid to talk to your physician. A blood test can determine whether you have a deficiency in the hormone, a condition called hypogonadism. Your doctor can discuss with you whether testosterone replacement therapy might improve your quality of life.

© Rick Collins 2022

References:

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21058750/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23442269/

https://www.healthline.com/health/does-working-out-increase-testosterone#exercises-that-wont-increase-t

https://bigthink.com/health/men-have-less-testosterone-today/

https://www.nextavenue.org/how-chemicals-plastic-lower-testosterone/

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2022/05/09/fact-check-testosterone-levels-lower-25-1999-2016/7381735001/

https://www.forbes.com/sites/neilhowe/2017/10/02/youre-not-the-man-your-father-was/?sh=1df4742c8b7f

https://www.healthline.com/health/low-testosterone/warning-signs#Risk

https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db360.htm#

Rick Collins

Rick Collins, Esq., CSCS [https://www.rickcollins.com/] is the lawyer who members of the bodybuilding community and dietary supplement industry turn to when they need legal help or representation. [© Rick Collins, 2021. All rights reserved. For informational purposes only, not to be construed as legal or medical advice.]

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