Have you heard the term ‘ironman widow’? Where someone’s husband (or wife) is basically invisible for the better part of 12 weeks as they prepare for an upcoming race. This not only relates to being physically present (which is diminished when the training time is upwards of 15-20h a week) but also ‘present’ when at home. Often exhaustion sets in, particularly nearer the end of the week or after a heavy training day, where the mere thought of moving from the couch is akin to another 6h ride. Sex? Don’t even go there. It’s a fairly common (yet usually unspoken) phenomenon that rolling around in the sack is off the agenda in the lead up to the event. And I’m not talking about the day before an event; it’s more like as a general rule because they are too damn tired. Does this sound familiar? Yes, being tired is a natural (and expected) part of the training cycle – however, much as we talk about adrenal fatigue and hormonal imbalance in women – this is not an uncommon occurrence in men. It’s just not often talked about.
When we talk hormones, I know that I’m guilty of just addressing women. You know – the stress hormones, thyroid hormones and sex hormones. However men are not exempt from the debilitating effects of overdoing it. Just as a ‘rushed’ lifestyle can affect the thyroid and sex hormones in women (including testosterone), men who undertake endurance sport are at risk of poor testosterone status.
Testosterone: a sex hormone (also present in women too) is a chemical messenger. It declines as we age, and some studies have found a that testosterone levels for a male in their late 30s are down by as much as 50 % on the levels that were present in their 20s. Just as oestrogen is controlled by the hypothalamus, it is the same for testosterone; when the hypothalamus detects a deficiency of testosterone in the blood, it secretes a hormone called gonadotrophin-releasing hormone (GRH). This is detected by the pituitary gland that in response starts producing follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH). These travel to the testes where testosterone is produced from cholesterol by the leydig cells with just a small amount produced by the adrenal glands. It’s then sent back into the blood stream and either attaches to sex hormone binding protein (SHBG) and becomes biologically inert, or remains free in the bloodstream. Normal levels are between 300 ng/dl – 1200 ng/dl (10.41)-41.64 ng/dL. The three types of testosterone you might see reported are:
- Total testosterone- As the name implies, it’s how much testosterone available and is the sum of free and bound testosterone.
- Free testosterone is the most biologically active form of testosterone. Free but low biologically active test and therefore still have signs/symptoms of overall low testosterone.
- Bound testosterone-This is the testosterone bound to the protein Sex Hormone Binding Protein (or Globulin) (SHBP/SHBG). A high amount of SHBG will usually indicate a low free testosterone.
Testosterone is not just important for reproduction and sex drive – it has a number of other roles including supporting bone mass, regulating fat distribution, muscle size and strength and red blood cell production. If you are a typical endurance athlete who tends to push themselves and have had stress fractures that can’t be put down to a lack of calcium, it could well be that low testosterone is a contributing factor. As we know, testosterone increases during training and contributes to overall energy levels; a low production of testosterone contributes to the fatigue that can be felt under a heavy training load, making someone feel worse than they should. It’s difficult though, to know what is a normal byproduct of a heavy training load (because, let’s face it, endurance sport requires longer and harder training than, say, golf). Below are some common signs and symptoms of low testosterone.
- Decreased/absent early morning erection
- Reduced sex drive
- Erectile dysfunction
- Loss of facial or pubic hair
- Testicular atrophy
- Low bone mineral density/fractures
- Night sweats
Phew! That’s not you? Well, you may not be out of the woods just yet. Less specific (or earlier signs) include:
- Decreased energy or motivation
- Poor concentration and memory
- Disrupted sleeping patterns
- Reduce muscle/increased fat mass
- Reduced performance
You can see that the early signs of a reduced testosterone level could be summed up by being a bit ‘tired’ and are fairly non-specific. The best way to know what is going on with your testosterone is to get it tested through your doctor (noting that the free testosterone is the important measure).
Thankfully there is plenty you can do with your diet to ensure you’re optimising your ability to produce testosterone without getting a prescription for the pharmaceutical type. Unsurprisingly, these come down to pretty much what I write about on a weekly basis:
- Ensure adequate vitamin D – this is involved in the production of the corticosteroid hormones and it’s important we have enough available to support the production of our thyroid, stress and sex hormones. Food sources are full fat dairy products, a small amount in butter, liver, animal protein and fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel. Taking a supplement (that also contains vitamin K2) is warranted for a large part of the year in New Zealand, but particularly as we come out of winter and into spring, where the UVB rays are diminished and we’ve been spending the vast majority of time inside on the windtrainer to dodge the weather.
- Ensure adequate zinc intake (through oysters and animal protein, and brazil nuts too) – a note here is that iron can reduce our overall ability to absorb zinc, and this may need to be looked at if you’re taking an iron supplement.
- Ensure adequate selenium intake (seafood, Brazil nuts) and vitamin A (full fat dairy products, liver, eggs, animal protein)
- Saturated and monounsaturated fat: Again, most of the foods mentioned above are good sources of saturated fat in the diet, and monounsaturated fat is found predominantly in olive oil, eggs, avocado and raw nuts. The reality is, all fats contain the range of fatty acids we need, and are labelled ‘saturated’ or ‘monounsaturated’ fats due largely to the amount they contain. Coconut oil (which has had some bad press of late, despite a lack of evidence of a relationship to heart disease) is particularly rich in saturated fat.
- Cholesterol: another important co-factor in the creation of the sex hormones, and forms the backbone of these. Foods of animal origin help supply dietary cholesterol for this role. If you’re someone who has followed a low fat diet or vegetarian diet and has a low cholesterol level, then potentially your testosterone could be lower than ideal.
- Ensure adequate B vitamins and magnesium also (present in the foods mentioned above and in abundance in vegetables).
Finally – on the life side of things: sleep more, ensure adequate recovery from training and have more sex. That will increase your testosterone.