Testosterone is an important hormone that helps men gain muscle mass, develop sperm, regulate cognitive and physical energy, and maintain muscle metabolism (to name just a few).
But after the age of 30, testosterone levels begin to decrease about one percent per year, potentially resulting in a variety of side effects like reduced libido (sex drive), increased fat distribution, decreased bone density, moodiness and depression, and reduced muscle mass.
If you’re experiencing signs of decreased testosterone levels, it makes sense that you’d consider taking a dietary supplement to alleviate some of the symptoms. But do testosterone supplements work and will you get your money’s worth?
Whether or not any supplement works as advertised depends on the claim being made, the ingredients included in the supplement’s formula and dosages. In this guide, we’ll walk you through it all in a step-by-step manner. We will finish it off with a quick discussion about the role food and exercise play in boosting testosterone.
What’s the Difference Between Free & Bound Testosterone?
Testosterone boosting supplements largely claim to increase the testosterone levels in the body, thereby providing increased libido, improved sexual performance, increased energy, muscle mass gains, a boosted immune system, reduced signs of aging, and more. But is all testosterone the same?
Without going into too much detail, the vast majority (around 98 percent) 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.
How does all of this relate? It’s free testosterone that many supplements promise to boost. But do their most ingredients have sufficient clinical support showing they’re effective for this purpose?
If we’re going to answer the ‘effective’ question, we first need to know which ingredients we’re referencing.
What Are Some Common Ingredients Found in Testosterone Booster Supplements?
With the help of websites like the Natural Medicines Database, WebMD, and Examine.com, the HighYa team has investigated more than six-dozen testosterone supplements over the years.
Based on this extensive experience, there are several common ingredients we frequently encounter. Even Dr. Jason Nardi, a chiropractor and board-certified internist who uses a combination of structural chiropractic correction, functional medicine, and lifestyle medicine to treat his patients, says that some of the go-to’s in his practice include:
Ashwagandha – An ancient plant used in traditional Ayurvedic treatments for everything from arthritis to hiccups.
B-Complex Vitamins – The vitamin B family (B1, B3, B5, B6, B12) plays many important roles in the body, and has been studied for its ability—in this specific instance—for suppressing estrogen production, improving testosterone production, and maintaining serum levels.
Boron – A mineral naturally found in the environment, which can help the body process other minerals like magnesium and phosphorus. It’s also been shown to increase estrogen levels in post-menopausal women, as well as healthy men.
DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) – functions as a precursor to testosterone. In other words, it’s not testosterone, but according to these same sites, it acts as a substance that can be converted by your body into testosterone.
D-Aspartic Acid – A natural amino acid often used to increase the absorption of other minerals.
Deer Antler Velvet – This substance covers the growing bone and cartilage that eventually develops into deer antlers.
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 recent years, it has been touted as a natural remedy for sexual problems such as erectile dysfunction.
Ginger – A plant often used as a spice in food, but also to help address nausea, vomiting, morning sickness, osteoarthritis, and dizziness when taken as a supplement.
Ginseng (Panax) – Asian ginseng is another plant that’s been used for a very long time to address stress, improve mood, and reduce fatigue, digestive disorders, and cold and flu symptoms.
Horny Goat Weed – An herb used in traditional Chinese medicine for everything from joint pain and weakness to viral infections.
L-Arginine – Another amino acid, this time one that helps the body make proteins. Inside the body, it’s turned into a chemical call nitric oxide (NO), which can also help expand blood vessels and boost circulation.
Maca – This plant, which grows at high elevation in areas of Peru, is often taken by mouth for conditions like reducing fatigue, improving fertility, improving sexual dysfunction, and relieving menopausal symptoms.
Mucuna Pruriens (Cowhage) – A bean-like plant commonly found in areas of the Caribbean that’s often used as an Ayurvedic treatment for Parkinson’s, anxiety, and arthritis.
Oyster Extract – Contains high levels of zinc (see below).
Saw Palmetto – A fern-like plant that produces fruit, which is then frequently used for benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), as well as asthma, migraines, and cough.
Selenium – A mineral naturally acquired from the environment through food—especially crab, liver, fish, poultry, and wheat—and water that’s often supplemented to address heart and blood vessel issues.
Stinging Nettle – A plant commonly supplemented to treat urinary-related issues, and used as a natural diuretic.
Tongkat Ali (Longjack) – An evergreen plant found in Southeast Asia that’s frequently used to make a tea consumed as a treatment for erectile dysfunction (ED), increasing libido and fertility, and reducing body fat.
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.
Vitamin K2 – A vitamin frequently taken as a supplement to treat everything from osteoporosis and bone loss to high cholesterol.
Yohimbe – An evergreen tree whose bark contains a chemical known as yohimbine, frequently used for sexual-related problems like erectile dysfunction and arousal.
Zinc – An essential trace element that’s necessary for human health and often supplemented for treating the common cold, ear and upper respiratory infections, asthma, diabetes, and macular degeneration.
Now that we know what specifically which ingredients we’re addressing, let’s get to the good stuff—the evidence.
Are Testosterone Supplement Ingredients Clinically Supported?
Bottom line: WebMD, Examine.com, and the Natural Medicines Database collectively indicate that none of these ingredients—or any other OTC ingredients—have sufficient clinical evidence that they can meaningfully boost testosterone levels or impact the hormone’s function.
However, they report that a couple of these ingredients may help address symptoms often associated with low testosterone:
1,400 to 2,700 mg of Panax ginseng per day may help improve erectile dysfunction. 3mg may also help improve sexual arousal, and a cream containing the ingredient could help reduce premature ejaculation.
5g of daily l-arginine is classified as possibly effective for improving sexual function in men with ED, while unlisted doses of tongkat ali could help improve the quality and concentration of sperm in infertile men. Tribulus might also improve sperm count (again, no dosing information provided).
Pro tip: Even for those ingredients with some relevant clinical support, it’s important to emphasize that they’re often contained in a supplement’s proprietary blend. This way, consumers often don’t know how much of each ingredient they’re actually ingesting.
With this said, Dr. Nardi emphasizes that he also frequently complements these ingredients with inflammation-reducing components like turmeric, resveratrol, and antioxidant therapies. “This is where things are very individualized,” he says, “since we all face different biological challenges.”
Even with this mixed level of clinical evidence, he points out that “the best and most supported methods to increase testosterone is lifestyle and diet,” which we’ll discuss more in a moment. First, let’s briefly cover potential side effects.
Can Testosterone Booster Supplements Cause Side Effects?
These authoritative sites indicated that, for the most part, these ingredients likely won’t cause side effects worse than mild digestive upset.
However, in some instances (no specific circumstances noted), taking more than 20mg of boron per day could harm a man’s ability to father a child, DHEA could lead to acne, hair loss, and high blood pressure, and fenugreek can lower blood sugar.
The most common side effect reported for ginseng is insomnia (as is cowhage), and long-term use may be unsafe due to the ingredient's hormone-like effects. WebMD tells us that in some instances, yohimbe "has been linked to reports of severe side effects including irregular or rapid heartbeat, kidney failure, seizure, and heart attack."
Finally, the side effects and overall safety for ashwagandha, deer velvet, and tribulus are reported as unknown.
Other Than Taking Food-Based Supplements, How Can Lifestyle Choices Impact Your Free Testosterone Levels?
Since dietary supplements as a whole (not just those marketed as increasing testosterone) and the ingredients they commonly contain are classified by the FDA as foods, it’s important to briefly transition our discussion to other professionally recommended lifestyle changes that might deliver results.
Diet-wise, Robert S. Herbst, a personal trainer, weight loss and wellness coach, World and National Champion powerlifter, and member of the AAU Strength Sports Hall of Fame, recommends consuming at least 1 g of protein per kg of body weight, per day, along with sufficient carbohydrates to fuel the repair and exercise. He also suggests eating some red meat, “which naturally has testosterone.”
However, Dr. Len Lopez, a Chiropractic Doctor, Clinical Nutritionist, and strength and conditioning coach, points out that “too many carbohydrates, especially after dinner, can increase your aromatase levels, an enzyme that causes your body to convert testosterone into estrogen.” So, even if you’re already producing enough testosterone, eating habits like this can reduce your overall supply.
In addition, Dr. Jason Nardi notes that his “usual (generic) advice is to reduce inflammatory foods like sugars, grains, and dairy, and increase grass-fed meats and fish, dark leafy greens, and colorful vegetables.”
» READ MORE: 10 Foods That Can Affect Your Testosterone Levels
According to Robert, another surefire method is “to lift weights using complex multi-joint movements such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, and bench press, all of which use the major muscle groups.”
He emphasizes that you’ll want to focus on lifting heavy weights, with no more than six to eight reps per set. How does this boost testosterone, exactly?
“During the exercise,” Robert tells us, “the muscles will suffer micro-tears, which the body will seek to repair and add additional muscle in anticipation of the next heavier workout.” And to initiate the process and support growth, “the body will produce more testosterone.”
Reducing Stress Could Improve Low-T Symptoms
We’ve talked in the past about how stress can negatively impact productivity, but Dr. Lopez also notes there’s some evidence that it can worsen symptoms related to low testosterone, including depression and insufficient libido and energy.
However, it’s important to maintain realistic expectations in this regard, since Daniel Shoskes, MD, a urologist at the Cleveland Clinic, points out that there’s “very little evidence that stress lowers testosterone and even less evidence that lowering stress will raise testosterone.”
Thinking About Sex
Finally, Robert S. Herbst adds that, “another trick to raise testosterone levels is to think about having sex.”
While it’s long been clinically shown that engaging in intercourse increases a man’s testosterone levels, there is mounting evidence indicating that just thinking about or anticipating sex can help raise it as well, albeit at a lower limit. And in both men and women (see here and here for a couple of examples).
For a more in-depth look, be sure to read 7 Ways to Increase Your Testosterone Naturally.
Bottom Line: Are Testosterone Booster Supplements Effective?
While low testosterone is a common problem, the fact of the matter is that you’re not guaranteed to be diagnosed with it. In fact, some numbers report that only 35 percent of men aged 70 or older have lower levels than younger men.
Pro tip: 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.
But if you’re experiencing one or more of the common side effects and the natural suggestions above aren’t doing the trick, the first person you should speak with is your doctor. They’ll run the appropriate tests (such as a serum testosterone test) and then recommend science-backed treatments based on your diagnosis.
Should your treatment regimen involve over-the-counter supplements? Again, this is a question only your healthcare provider can fully answer.
But we’ve learned organizations like the US Preventive Services Task Force, Heart Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the National Institutes of Health (to name just a few) emphasize that, unless you’re deficient in the ingredients they contain, taking dietary supplements isn’t necessary.
Specifically, regarding the topic at hand, the Cleveland Clinic adds, “There are currently no pills available in the United States that provide adequate levels of hormone replacement.”