Even though there’s a huge uptick in interest in vegan diets, some men are reticent to take the plant-based plunge. Why? For fear it may make them less manly by sapping their testosterone. There are all sorts of ideas and myths surrounding plant-based diets and low testosterone, but can veganism really affect your testosterone (T) levels? Let’s find out.
What is testosterone?
Testosterone is a hormone manufactured by the body that plays a critical role in the development of the male reproductive system. It’s also essential for the male body overall, helping dictate traits and essential functions. This includes sperm production, body hair, voice, muscle mass and strength, bone density, fat distribution, height, and even brain function.
Do women have testosterone?
Although it’s usually associated with men, women also produce testosterone, just not as much—on an average day, a man will produce about 20 times as much testosterone as a woman.
How does the body make testosterone?Like all hormones, the making of testosterone starts in the brain—the hypothalamus to be exact. The hypothalamus decides when the body needs to produce testosterone, and it communicates this information to the pituitary gland. Armed with this order, the pituitary gland then communicates this request to the testes (or the ovaries, in women). Although the testes are responsible for the majority of testosterone production, some also comes from the adrenal gland, a small gland located above the kidneys. Without certain nutrients, testosterone manufacturing would be impossible. These include:
During the hormone production process, cholesterol is converted to a steroid called pregnenolone, which is an essential building block of testosterone.
Even though vegan diets exclude animal sources of cholesterol (which might be one reason people think a plant-based diet reduces testosterone levels), cholesterol is so important to hormone production that the body can produce all the cholesterol it needs for bodily processes without acquiring it from the diet. A vegan diet won’t harm testosterone levels by interfering with cholesterol intake.
Studies have proven there is a relationship between adequate vitamin D and testosterone levels. Sunshine is the best source of vitamin D; it’s also found in a few food products like egg yolks, fortified juice, UV-treated mushrooms, and can also be taken in supplement form.
Zinc also affects testosterone levels by preventing the conversion of testosterone to estrogen. The body does not manufacture zinc, so it’s important to consume the recommended daily amount from sources such as beans, nuts, legumes, seafood and supplements if needed.
During the aging process, testosterone binds to SHBG (sex hormone binding globulin), preventing it from fully functioning. However, when there is enough magnesium in the body, testosterone will bind to that instead.
It’s easy to under consume magnesium in a plant poor diet, so be sure to eat plenty of dark, green, leafy vegetables, nuts, and legumes (some of the richest sources).
Vitamin A assists in the production of sperm. Studies have shown that when vitamin A is absent from testicular cells, testosterone levels plummet and estrogen levels actually rise. Great sources of vitamin A include carrots, kale, broccoli, cantaloupe, apricots, and winter squash.
Adequate omega-3 fats, mono-unsaturated fats and even saturated fats are essential for healthy hormone activity, hence their importance in testosterone production and function.
Since vegan diets are often naturally low in fat, it’s particularly important for men who eat plant-based diets to get enough of the right kinds of fats (as mentioned above, and limit the poly-unsaturated kind). Not getting enough fat to support testosterone production could be another reason why vegan diets are associated with low testosterone. You can find testosterone-supportive fats in nuts, seeds, avocados, coconut, coconut oil and olive oil.
Why do testosterone levels drop in men?Although every man will experience a decrease in testosterone production as he ages, external factors can reduce testosterone levels, too. The main culprits include:
- Aging. Generally, by the time a man reaches his thirties, his testosterone levels will begin to dip by about 1% each year. It’s simply a natural by-product of aging.
- Stress and Anxiety. When we experience stress or anxiety, the body floods itself with cortisol. Aptly nicknamed “the stress hormone,” cortisol gives your body the energy to fight or flee and suppresses the production of hormones—like testosterone.
- Excessive physical activity. Here’s one situation where there really is “too much of a good thing.” Too much prolonged strenuous exercise can actually cause testosterone levels to take a nose dive. Scientists believe this may be due to prolonged release of cortisol, which also makes an appearance when you engage in physically strenuous activities.
- Poor Sleep. Studies have shown that testosterone production requires regular undisturbed REM sleep—but stress, jam-packed schedules, parenting, and everything else life throws at you can cut into this essential sleep time, resulting in plunging testosterone levels.
- Being Overweight. Body fat contains an enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen. Lots of extra body fat equals more testosterone elbowed out of the way (a lack of nutrients doesn’t help either—but more on that later).
- Medications. Every medication has a side effect, and testosterone suppressing is one of them. Chemotherapy drugs, some antidepressants, and prescription anti-fungal medicines are frequent culprits—something to be aware of as you carry out a prescribed medical treatment.
- Diseases of pituitary gland. Remember the pituitary gland’s role in making testosterone? When this essential gland becomes diseased or malfunctions, its ability to help produce testosterone can suffer.
- Exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals. An endocrine disruptor is a chemical that can wreak havoc on the body’s endocrine system—the glands responsible for hormones. Endocrine disruptors interfere with hormones in a few ways. Numerous studies have proven that exposure to phthalates and BPA (notorious endocrine disruptors) impact testosterone levels, causing low sperm count and malformed genitals in infant boys. These chemicals aren’t just found in plastic, but foods as well, particularly animal products like fish and the lining of food cans.
- Poor diet and vitamin deficiency. Diet is crucial to overall health, so it’s no surprise that essential body functions like the production of hormones are affected by what we eat (or don’t eat!) Low Vitamin D levels in particular have shown to cause low testosterone levels. Can you add that this is true regardless of diet type (vegan or omnivorous). You can be on a poor vegan diet just like you can be on a poor westernized diet.
- Alcohol consumption. Drinks with the guys can actually undermine your manliness. Too much alcohol—7.7 ounces daily to be exact—has been shown to send testosterone production into a free fall.
What are the effects of low testosterone?Because its functions are so far-reaching, men (and women) can experience a wide range of symptoms from low testosterone, including:
- Decreased libido
- Low semen production and erectile dysfunction
- More body fat
- Less muscle mass
- Fatigue and trouble sleeping
- Trouble concentrating
- Feeling depressed
How to naturally increase testosteroneIf you need to increase low testosterone, there are a number of things in your control you can do, such as:
- Exercise regularly
- Increase your muscle mass
- Eat a healthy diet
- Get recommended amounts of vitamin D
- Take a vitamin supplement if you’re lacking in certain nutrients
- Prioritize sleep
- Learn to manage stress and anxiety
Plant-based diets and testosteroneWe already talked about the misconception that the absence of cholesterol will limit testosterone production in a plant-based diet. The other common myth surrounding vegan diets and testosterone centers around soy. Because soy contains phytoestrogens, it was thought too much soy consumption could seriously harm testosterone levels. However, the latest research has dispelled this idea as well, and newer studies show that soy does not harm reproductive hormones, including testosterone.
How does a vegan diet help foster proper testosterone-making?Vegan and plant-based diets—and the healthy lifestyle that typically goes along with them—are rich in the essential nutrients needed to make testosterone. They’re also low in the fatty, processed foods that can harm your levels. But a vegan diet promotes healthy testosterone production in other ways too:
- Weight control. Studies have found that vegans have lower BMIs than their meat-eating counterparts
- Better mood and less stress. Plant-based diets have actually been shown to lower stress and anxiety
- When properly balanced and adequate in calories, provides all key macro, micronutrients, and antioxidants necessary for testosterone-production
- Reduced cancer risks. Scientists believe that indole-3-carbinol, a substance produced when cruciferous vegetables are broken down, can reduce cancer risks by assisting in the excretion of estrogen in men.
So, do vegan and plant-based diets really harm testosterone? Nope. It’s not plant-based eating that lowers testosterone, it’s an improper balance of nutrients—and that can happen in any diet. A balanced vegan diet can provide all the nutrition essential for healthy testosterone production, so you can rest easy knowing you can still experience the benefits of a plant-based diet without slowing your testosterone production.
Written By: Jill Overmyer
Reviewed and Edited By: Scarlett Full, in-house Registered Dietitian