When it comes to men's hormones we usually don’t give them a second thought outside of a lower libido. But hormones play a pivotal role in men’s health as we age. As a 48-year-old male Clinical Nutritionist, it’s interesting to experience these challenges. The good news is we can mitigate many of the effects of hormonal decline by being aware and modifying our diet and lifestyle choices.
Hormones are chemical messengers that tell your body what to do. Whether it’s great day time energy (cortisol), a great metabolism (insulin), sleeping well (melatonin), and of course, your sex hormones, everything that is fun (and important) in your life is dependent on hormones. There are over 50 hormones operating throughout our bodies and the interrelationship of hormones is complex. Much like an orchestra, the timing and relationship of each component often affects other components and the outcome as a whole. However, for men there are a few key ones that, if we can get right, can really help our quality and experience of life.
How to support healthy testosterone?
Let’s start with the big one for men, testosterone. Primarily synthesised in the testes, testosterone is our main hormone and controls many facets of our daily existence from energy production, mood, our physique, and sex drive amongst others. As we age our testosterone levels naturally decline, this decline has been coined andropause. Often the symptoms of lower testosterone include; lowered libido, loss of muscle mass, increase in body fat, reduced energy, and mood changes. Therefore supporting testosterone production as we age becomes part of a healthy lifestyle not only for longevity, but also enjoyment and function in life. We’ll look at some of these strategies later on.
What about oestrogen?
Another sex hormone, which is actually primarily a female hormone, but men have small amounts of, is oestrogen. Men can experience some issues when we start getting too much oestrogen. Too much oestrogen can impact our libido, increase ‘love handles’ on our hips and increase fatty tissue on our chests. Excess body fat is one of the main contributors to excess oestrogen, and for some people who are genetically susceptible, excess beer (and hops) can cause it. Research in animals also suggests that xeno-oestrogens, which are synthetic molecules (pesticides, herbicides, plastics etc) in the food and environment that mimic oestrogen could also be a contributing factor.
What role does insulin play?
When you think of men’s hormones, insulin might not be one of the top ones that jump to mind. But when it comes to men’s health it is one of the most important. High insulin levels have been associated with up to 70% of diseases.
Insulin is produced and released by the pancreas, primarily in response to carbohydrates and sugars in the diet. It’s role is to open up the gates on the cells to allow energy (glucose) to move into the cells, therefore balancing the amount of glucose within the bloodstream and cells. However, we run into problems when we eat too many high sugar or simple carbohydrate foods, and over years we have consistently high blood sugar levels resulting in consistently high levels of insulin. Over time the cells stop responding to the message of insulin and we develop what is known as insulin resistance.
Other than blood tests one of the indicators of insulin resistance is visceral fat, often referred to as belly fat, however, it's more than just belly fat, it’s fat around the organs. Carrying a high amount of visceral fat is known to be associated with insulin resistance, which can lead to glucose intolerance, type 2 diabetes and a myriad of health challenges associated with what’s called metabolic syndrome, low HDL cholesterol (generally our beneficial cholesterol).
How does cortisol impact men’s health?
Another hormone that has the ability to impact your blood sugar levels is cortisol. Cortisol is our main ‘daytime’ hormone and our main stress, or fight and flight, hormone. Cortisol is made and secreted by the adrenal glands on top of our kidneys, its role in the body is large, regulating a wide variety of processes throughout the body, from energy production, regulating our response to stress, and modulating our immune system. Cortisol is part of the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis (HPA axis), a complex interaction between the brain, the pituitary (master gland) and adrenal gland.
In the modern world men can really run into problems when we experience prolonged stress. Prolonged stress can cause HPA axis dysfunction meaning our body no longer responds to stress in an appropriate way. Fatigue is a common symptom of this and often it’s a fatigue that’s not resolved by sleep. Cortisol shares the same metabolic pool of reserves with testosterone, with both of them being synthesized from another hormone called DHEA, meaning that chronic stress for many men leaves them not only low in energy but also low in testosterone.
What about the importance of sleep?
One of the best ways to not be stressed is to sleep, and to sleep well. Which leads us to melatonin. Melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland and is our main sleepy time hormone. It promotes the brain wave activity that’s associated with sleep. The body of research showing the importance of sleep has grown exponentially over the last few years, with sleep now touted as being as important to our health as what we eat. The benefits of at least seven hours of sleep are seen in a broad range of health conditions. If you are having trouble sleeping then it could be a sign that your melatonin might be low.
How can we support a good night’s sleep?
You can support your melatonin production by minimising your exposure to blue light in the evenings. Blue light stimulates your nervous system telling your body that it’s daytime and stimulating the release of cortisol and suppressing your melatonin production. Many household lights and computer screens emit blue light which artificially extends our body’s ‘daytime’ and minimises our chances of a great night's sleep. I’d recommend minimising blue light exposure in the evening to give your body a chance to produce the melatonin it needs for sleep to occur.
Another strategy to support sleep would be to take a high quality magnesium supplement, look for a product with 300 mg of magnesium in a magnesium bisglycinate form. Magnesium helps relax the body and mind and is heavily supported by research for sleep. If taking a herbal product to support sleep look for something with multiple ingredients like tart cherry, passion flower, and california poppy.
Supporting sleep will actually support your other key hormones; sleep supports testosterone production as the majority of testosterone is released at night. Sleep has been shown to improve your metabolic health (insulin) and poor sleep has been shown to increase the consumption of calories and simple carbohydrates the next day to support energy levels.
The importance of exercise for healthy hormones
Another big lifestyle factor that will improve a man’s key hormones is exercise, which improves sleep by assisting in the build up of a molecule in the body which helps communicate to our brain that we are tired. Exercise improves metabolic health by lowering blood sugar levels and fats in our blood. For testosterone production, resistance training like weight lifting or high intensity interval training (HIIT) has been shown to boost testosterone production both in the short and long term. Exercise can also release a build-up of stress hormones that can occur in the body when we experience mental and emotional stress.
Support healthy hormones with key nutrients
Finally, perhaps one of the simplest things to do to support our key hormones is to take a high quality multivitamin everyday. The production of hormones all require nutrients (vitamins and minerals) that act as cofactors in their production. If you don’t have enough nutrients then you are going to limit your body’s ability to build hormones.
For example the production of melatonin is dependent on zinc, vitamin B6 and vitamin C; zinc also enables the body to make testosterone. Additionally, the production of insulin is vitamin D dependent, and in one study of New Zealanders, 84% were found to have insufficient levels of vitamin D. All the while, cortisol requires over fifteen nutrients in its production.
Research shows it’s very difficult to get all the nutrients you need from your diet in the modern world and that much of the population is deficient in many key nutrients. Therefore I’d recommend buying the best multivitamin you can afford, look for a product that has many ingredients (full range of B vitamins, fat soluble vitamins, minerals and a whole food base), at levels above the RDA and with minerals that are attached to proteins, like glycine, as it helps their absorption.