If there is anything that can be called the ultimate male essence, it is testosterone. Turning an embryo into a boy and a boy into a man, this hormone fuels masculine sex drive, reproductive capacity and general vitality along with building muscles and bones, sharpening mental focus and maintaining positive mood.
Testosterone levels fall as a man ages. Sometimes referred to as andropause, falling testosterone can reduce libido and energy levels, disrupt sleep and cause depression and irritability. Pollution has been found to reduce testosterone levels even further.
Testosterone comes in two varieties, bound and free; it is the free type that declines with age. Men also have small amounts of estrogen in their bodies. As testosterone levels fall, the ratio between male and female hormones changes, with estrogen becoming more prominent.
Environmental toxins called endocrine disruptors can also have estrogen-like effects on men’s bodies. These substances “bind with free testosterone or even interfere with its creation, thus altering proper testosterone levels,” says master herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner, author of The Natural Testosterone Plan (Healing Arts Press). Between andropause and toxin exposure, it’s no surprise that as many as one in every four men over age 30 may have low testosterone levels (Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 11/07).
Getting It Back
There are natural ways to overcome falling testosterone. Tribulus terrestris, also known as puncture vine, is valued in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine as a remedy that can increase sperm production and correct erectile dysfunction. “Studies have shown that tribulus increases serum levels of luteinizing hormone, leading to higher levels of testosterone,” says Buhner, who adds that this herb has increased male sex drive in clinical trials. Fenugreek, a spice that helps regulate blood sugar, also contains compounds called steroidal saponins that have shown an ability to increase testosterone levels.
Androgenic herbs such as tribulus and fenugreek are nicely complemented by adaptogens, herbs that help a man deal with stress. The most famous adaptogen is Panax ginseng. Buhner cites studies supporting ginseng’s use “for balancing androgen shifts and for helping with many of the common problems men experience in middle age, especially reproductive problems.” In one of those studies, ginseng helped men with erectile dysfunction (Asian Journal of Andrology 3/07).
Herbalists recommend another adaptogen, Rhodiola rosea, for its ability to reduce fatigue, improve mental and physical stamina, and revive a sagging libido.
Oysters have a reputation as an aphrodisiac because they contain high levels of the mineral zinc, which is required by a key enzyme involved in testosterone production. In one study, a combination of zinc and selenium was able to protect lab animals against testicular damage caused by cadmium, an environmental toxin (Food and Chemical Toxicology 10/10). In addition, calcium fructate, a mineral complex found in fruits and vegetables, has increased free testosterone levels among middle-aged men in early studies.
Other compounds found in fruits—specifically the polyphenols in grapes and apples—can also support healthy testosterone production. These substances help counteract peroxynitrite, a free radical that reduces testosterone. Low hormone levels, in turn, increase peroxynitrite; grape and apple polyphenols help break this cycle. In addition, peroxynitrite has been implicated as a factor in cardiovascular disease, neuromuscular disorders and cancer (Physiological Reviews 1/07). This increases the potential benefits of polyphenol supplementation.
Testosterone is under attack from all sides. Fortunately, there’s a wealth of nutrients and herbs that can help a man feel like his younger self again.