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Last updated October 16, 2019. 5 minute read

Do testosterone supplements work?

Testosterone declines naturally, about 10% per decade after 40. But studies show it’s declining faster in the modern era. Some studies show that certain supplements can increase testosterone or improve issues associated with low testosterone, including libido.

Self Written by Michael Martin
Reviewed by Dr. Jefferson Chen, MD

Testosterone is basically the Amazon.com of male adulthood—it’s a one-stop-shop for the components that make a man a man. Produced primarily by the testicles, testosterone (along with DHT, which is derived from testosterone) is the hormone responsible for muscle development, secondary sexual characteristics like genital growth and body hair, plus sperm production and sex drive. Testosterone and DHT pretty much have a monopoly on manhood. (It’s also key for bone health and red blood cell production.)

Vitals

  • Along with DHT, testosterone is the hormone responsible for male adulthood—it spurs the development of secondary sexual characteristics like genital growth, body hair, sperm production, and sex drive.
  • Testosterone is also associated with other essential body processes including bone health and red blood cell production.
  • Testosterone declines naturally, about 10% per decade after 40. But studies show it’s declining faster in the modern era.
  • Some studies show that certain supplements can increase testosterone or improve issues associated with low testosterone, including libido.

Another fact of male adulthood is that testosterone levels decline as we age, about 10% each decade, starting at age 40 (Travison, 2007). A low testosterone level (known anecdotally and on countless TV commercials as “low T”) can lead to a reduced sex drive, erectile dysfunction, muscle deterioriation and fatigue—and contribute to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Besides age, lower testosterone seems to be a sign of the times. In a 2007 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, researchers found a “substantial” drop in American men’s testosterone levels since the 1980s (Travison, 2007).

Scientists aren’t exactly sure why this is. They theorize that the worldwide increase in obesity, is partly responsible: Excess body fat lowers testosterone. Environmental factors may also be to blame, though the exact factors are speculative at this point.

There’s also the fact that we’re a less active society than we once were. In Forbes, historian Neal Howe (who coined the term “millennial generation”) discussed the generational T decline, pointing out that in previous generations, more men worked manufacturing jobs and thus engaged in physical labor. Physical activity, particularly lifting weights, builds muscle and thus increases testosterone levels. As society has pivoted more toward automation, more of us have become sedentary during the day. We also have more time for socializing and hanging out with our friends, partners, and families, which produces the comforting “bonding hormone” oxytocin has opposing effects to testosterone on our behavior. 

Again, none of this is conclusive, but it’s important context. Aging men are justified in being concerned about naturally declining testosterone levels. So you might be wondering what you can do about it—for example, if there are any supplements you can take to support or increase your testosterone level.

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Can supplements increase your testosterone level?

First, if you truly have a testosterone deficiency, you and your healthcare provider should talk about the best course of action for you, including TRT (testosterone replacement therapy; read on for more about that).

But if you just want to support the T level you’ve got, several supplements have shown promise in supporting testosterone levels in clinical studies. They include:

  • Vitamin D: The “sunshine vitamin”—so named because the body produces it naturally when the skin is exposed to the sun—vitamin D plays a role in bone health, cellular processes and maintenance of calcium and phosphorus levels in the body. Many Americans are deficient in it. Some studies show that supplementing with vitamin D can improve sexual function and increase testosterone levels in men who are vitamin D deficient (Pils, 2011). It’s recommended that men have at least 600 to 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily, whether that’s from food (such as milk and eggs), exposure to sunlight, supplements, or a combination of all three. Adequate Vitamin D levels have been associated with a lower risk of several cancers.
  • Magnesium: An important mineral for overall health, magnesium plays a role in several cellular processes, including bone structure and muscle function. Some studies have shown that magnesium supplementation can increase testosterone levels in men (Maggio, 2014). It’s recommended that men get around 400 to 420 mg of magnesium per day, which can come from food or a combination of food and supplements. 
  • Zinc: Zinc is an important trace mineral in the body that plays a role in many cellular processes, wound healing, growth, and development. Some studies have shown that zinc supplementation can improve semen quality in subfertile men and increase testosterone levels in zinc-deficient men (Fallah, 2018). It’s recommended that men have at least 11 mg of zinc per day, which can come from food or supplements. 
  • Ashwagandha: This medicinal herb is said to be an “adaptogen,” a natural agent that helps the body manage stress. In a small 2019 study, overweight men who took an ashwagandha supplement for 16 weeks saw a 15% increase in testosterone, on average, compared to men who received a placebo (Lopresti, 2019). 
  • Fenugreek: A 12-week study found that men who took a fenugreek supplement experienced an increase in testosterone levels, morning erections, and frequency of sexual activity compared to men given a placebo (Rao, 2016).
  • DHEA: Dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, is a hormone produced in the adrenal glands. It’s a natural booster of hormones like testosterone and estrogen. Some studies have found that taking a DHEA supplement can boost free testosterone levels along with exercise; others found no difference (Liu, 2013).

What about TRT?

Testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) is an FDA-approved way to increase testosterone and treat the symptoms of low testosterone. But one of the most common side effects of testosterone replacement therapy is low sperm count. A risk of TRT is that when you add artificial testosterone, it can trick your body into slowing down production of GnRH, LH, FSH, which are sex hormones produced in the brain because it thinks you’re making enough. This may have the undesired side effect of slowing down sperm production and worsening your body’s ability to make its own testosterone, which could make you dependent on continued TRT. 

How do I know if my testosterone level is normal?

See your healthcare provider about a blood test that can check your testosterone level. Apologies, but they should recommend taking it first thing in the morning, between 8 and 10 am. Testosterone levels decrease throughout the day, and they’re highest just after you wake up, so the most accurate measure of how much testosterone your body is producing should be taken early in the AM. Your healthcare provider should have you take the test twice to confirm the results.