As a man, testosterone plays a big role in your life. As a youth it helped you grow taller, gain muscle mass, deepen your voice, and grow body hair. As an adult, testosterone continues to promote sperm development, regulate cognitive and physical energy, maintain muscle metabolism, and more.
However, once men reach the age of 30, their testosterone levels begin to decrease about one percent per year. As a result, you may experience reduced libido (sex drive), increased fat distribution, decreased bone density, reduced muscle mass, and many other side effects.
Because of these physical side effects, decreased testosterone levels can take a strong psychological toll on you, and make you feel like “less of a man.” As such, you’ve probably searched around for something “natural” that can help alleviate these symptoms. As it turns out, supplements manufacturers fully understand the desperation you may feel, and often play to this psychology by making very big promises.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at what testosterone boosters are, and how they’re claimed to work.
What are Testosterone Boosters, & How Do They Work?
As their name implies, testosterone boosting supplements claim to increase the levels of “free” testosterone in your body, thereby providing increased libido, improved sexual performance, increased energy, muscle mass gains, a boosted immune system, reduced signs of aging, and more. But what’s the difference between “free” and “bound” testosterone?
Without going into too much detail, the vast majority (around 98%) of the testosterone in your body is bound to sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG). This type of testosterone is controlled by your hypothalamus, and is released during periods of physical activity, such as working out. On the other hand, testosterone that isn’t already bound to SHBG circulates in your blood “freely,” which means that it is biologically active and is instantly available for your body to use.
As such, most testosterone boosters claim to work by boosting free testosterone levels within your body using one or more of the following primary ingredients:
- DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) – DHEA functions as a precursor to testosterone. In other words, it’s not testosterone, but it acts as a substance that can be converted by your body into testosterone.
- Tribulus Terrestris – Tribulus terrestris is a flowering plant that grows in many parts of the world in a variety of soil types, and has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for sexual and strength-building purposes.
- Fenugreek – Fenugreek is a plant found in most semi-arid areas of the globe, and whose seeds have traditionally been used for cooking. However, in more recent years, it has been touted as a natural remedy for sexual problems such as erectile dysfunction.
While one or more of these ingredients generally act as the base for nearly all over the counter testosterone boosters available on the market, most supplement manufacturers will include them as part of a proprietary blend of other ingredients, some of the most common of which include Eurycoma longifolia, Vitamins D, B6, and B12, D-aspartic acid (DAA), and ginseng.
Now that you know a little more about the ingredients contained in most testosterone boosters, let’s get to the heart of the matter: do they actually work?
Are Testosterone Boosters Effective?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, “There are currently no pills available in the United States that provide adequate levels of hormone replacement.” Granted, the Clinic is referring to prescription medications, but this brings up a good question: if there aren’t any prescription oral medications that can boost testosterone, what about over the counter nutritional supplements?
As it turns out, while the medical community can’t categorically claim that many of the ingredients contained in testosterone boosters don’t work, there isn’t sufficient evidence to claim that they do. Here’s what science has to say about each of these ingredients:
- WebMD states that, “DHEA supplements are used by some people who believe they can improve sex drive, build muscle, fight the effects of aging, and improve some health conditions. But there isn't much evidence for many of these claims.” In fact, the website even claims that there are several health-related concerns with the long-term use of DHEA supplements. In addition, the National Institutes of Health also notes that, while DHEA supplementation is possibly effective for improving the condition of elderly individual’s skin and improving the ability for men with erectile dysfunction to achieve an erection, there is insufficient evidence showing that it can help you lose weight, reduce depression, boost physical performance, or many of the other claims made by supplement manufacturers.
- In study after study, including this one and this one from 2007, Tribulus Terrestris has not been shown to increase free testosterone levels, or to provide any of the associated benefits, such as increased muscle mass or improved sexual or athletic performance. In fact, Tribulus terrestris and DHEA supplements have actually been shown to reduce good cholesterol levels, which can make you more prone to heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
- Fenugreek is thought to be a 5-alpha-reductase inhibitor, which is a chemical that is responsible for converting testosterone into di-hydro-testosterone (DHT). As such, the logic follows that if you can reduce the amount of 5-alpha-reductase in your body, less testosterone is converted into DHT, thereby maintaining higher testosterone levels. But is this really the case?
WebMD clearly states, “Fenugreek is used for many conditions, but so far, there isn’t enough scientific evidence to determine whether or not it is effective for any of them.” From a clinical perspective, there have been very few studies completed on humans, as most trials have been conducted on mice and rats. Of those completed on humans, most have shown to provide no increase in free testosterone—and for those that have (including this one from 2010), there are some concerns regarding methodology (e.g. how control groups were separated) and/or conflicts of interest (e.g. the fenugreek manufacturer also sponsored the study).
With this in mind, how is it that supplements manufacturers can claim that their testosterone boosters actually have a measurable effect? As we mentioned in our Complete Guide to Buying a Nutritional Supplement, manufacturers are not required by the FDA to provide evidence for their claims. In fact, the FDA only becomes involved if a supplement has garnered numerous complaints from consumers, but the company has no legal obligation to prove potency, purity, or efficacy beforehand. And, even if a manufacturer is found to have been “less than forthright” about their supplement, the FDA typically only requires them to change the wording in their advertising—not to pull the product from the shelf.
But if testosterone boosting supplements haven’t been clinically shown to boost testosterone, or to provide any of the associated benefits, what can you do?
What Should You Do if You Think You Have Low Testosterone?
As with any medical issue, the first person you should turn to if you believe your testosterone is low is your physician. During your visit, you doctor will usually run a set of tests to rule out many of these other problems, in addition to drawing blood to gauge your testosterone levels (also known as a serum testosterone test). According to WebMD, most men’s testosterone levels range between 300 and 1,200 nanograms per deciliter (ng/dL), so if your levels fall below this range, you may be diagnosed with low testosterone.
However, even if these tests ultimately reveal that you have low testosterone levels, it may not be the result of natural declination. This is because a wide variety of other causes can decrease testosterone production, including certain types of infections and hormonal disorders, obesity, type 2 diabetes, chronic liver or kidney disease, and many more. This is important, because it means that boosting your testosterone might only address the symptom and not the cause.
If your testosterone is found to be deficient, your doctor will likely recommend one or more testosterone replacement therapies, the most common of which include injections, patches, and gels, although there are additional alternative treatments such as implantable pellets.
Bottom Line: Should You Buy a Testosterone Boosting Supplement?
In short: Probably not. Between the fact that nutritional supplements manufacturers can make essentially any claim they want about their testosterone boosters, and the lack of evidence showing that the ingredients they contain have any effect on testosterone levels, you may want to think twice. Add to this the fact that most testosterone boosters can cost anywhere from $80 to $100 or more, it represents a significant investment on your part, with a very low possibility of being effective.
Instead, if you think you may be experiencing low testosterone levels, speak with your physician, who can use evidence-based medicine to help solve your problem.
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