What is testosterone: MD explains all commonly asked questions about the T hormone

Is this hormone the key to building huge muscles? MD explains all there is to know about testosterone

what's testosterone
(Image credit: Getty Images)

One way or another, if you are researching the topic 'how to build muscle', you will come across the question 'what is testosterone' and how different levels of the T hormone can affect the muscle building process. Many will say you need to take supplements if your T levels are low in order to build and maintain muscle mass. But is this true? Is testosterone the key to muscle building?

We asked Marc S. Schneider, M.D., surgeon, medical journal author and co-founder of Dioxyme Craft Nutrition, to answer some of the most frequently asked questions about testosterone. Since T3 is not a medical journal and we understand that people won't reference T3 in their dissertations, we kept the discussion on a level that's informative yet doesn't require extensive knowledge about human anatomy and biology.

IMPORTANT: if you have any concerns about your health including testosterone levels, please consult a medical professional and don't rely on information found on the internet. We made sure that all information presented here is accurate but it doesn't mean it replaces GPs and surgeries. Please be mindful about your health and always seek medical help when in doubt.

What’s testosterone and what are the effects of testosterone on the body

As Marc explains, "testosterone is the primary sex hormone found in men and is responsible for androgenic effects (male sexual characteristics) and anabolic effects (growth of tissues). It is responsible for brain and sex organ development in the fetus, the changes that occur in puberty, muscle and bone growth, sex drive and fertility."

Although most people associate high testosterone levels with bullish behaviour, normal testosterone levels are required for a male body to work properly. According to Medical News Today, testosterone "has many important functions, including the development of the bones and muscles, the deepening of the voice, hair growth, and other factors related to appearance [and] the production of sperm"

Low levels of testosterone can have a range of negative health effects, as discussed below.

what's testosterone

(Image credit: Getty Images)

What’s a healthy level of testosterone?

"Testosterone levels fall within different ranges throughout an individual's life and from day to day. T levels tend to be the highest from ages 16-18 (300-1200 nanograms per deciliter in men) and then drop as the individual enters their 20’s and 30’s", Marc explains. "As men get older, their testosterone levels may decline about 1 percent per year after age 30", according to Healthline

Not only the healthy levels of testosterone levels can vary widely in general but also from day to day and right now, the only way to find out T levels is to do a blood test, administered by a medical professional. Despite the broad range in which it's considered healthy, low levels of testosterone can cause health issues in individuals.

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What’s the effect of too low/high levels of testosterone?

Though physicians generally consider this huge range to be normal, as Marc explains, "lower levels within the normal range may leave the individual feeling tired, cause an increase in body fat, decreased mental attention, affect mood, lead to lack of sexual desire or performance issues, and loss of muscle."

On the other hand, it is incredibly rare for there to be excess testosterone without an individual taking an anabolic steroid. "Excess levels are associated with a host of issues including ED, heart disease, liver disease, blood clots, acne, mood swings and impaired judgement", Marc says.

"Low normal testosterone levels are now commonly seen with increased frequency in young and middle aged men", Marc goes on, "probably the most common causes that we see in our clinic in young men is due to a combination of excess stress, long working hours, lack of physical activity, and the constant use and carrying of cellphones in their pocket."

As explained in a Harvard Medical School articled titled Treating low testosterone levels, possible treatments to low-T levels include skin patch, gels and oral therapy, all being non-invasive type of treatment or pellets and injections, the latter two being on the invasive side.

what's testosterone

(Image credit: Getty Images)

What are the best ways to increase testosterone level naturally

According to Marc, "physicians typically recommend adequate levels of Vitamin D, Zinc, sleep, elimination of stress, exercise (particularly weight lifting/resistance training) and losing body fat, to help reverse lower T levels."

"Though these may support normal higher levels of testosterone, we have not seen this approach alone correct lower testosterone levels", he adds.

Of course, eliminating stress factors is usually easier said than done, but the other factors are well within the reach of most individuals. There are vitamin D and zinc supplements available or you can just go for a walk on a sunny day to get some vitamin D and exercising, all in one go. Sleep can be improved by following a sleep schedule and putting your mobile phone away a couple of hours before bedtime.

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Do you need extra testosterone to build muscle?

As Marc explains, "often men will seek to correct the symptoms of low T on their own by taking over the counter supplements. Tribulus terrestris, Tinospora cordifolia, and icariin are commonly claimed to increase testosterone, however clinical studies in humans do not show benefits. Numerous additional herbal remedies are popular yet human data showing that they increase testosterone is lacking."

"The decision to place someone on hormone replacement (testosterone) or prescribe them a testosterone stimulator such as HCG, is dependent upon a combination of their hormonal levels, their overall health, lifestyle and the symptoms they are feeling", he goes on, "the most effective therapy is often a combination of lifestyle modification along with hormone replacement. Combined with an effective exercise and nutritional plan, not only do the individuals improve their energy and sexuality, they can often drop significant amounts of body fat, gain lean muscle and most importantly, feel youthful and vibrant again."

In short, unless it's medically advised, you shouldn't be worry about increasing your testosterone levels with supplements. Most men can benefit from resistance training regularly and following a healthy diet, not just from a T level perspective, but also for improved health, sleep and mood. Increased testosterone levels are just the icing on the cake.

Matt Kollat
Matt Kollat

Matt is T3's very own fitness and nutrition writer. In his free time, he swims, runs, cycles and tries various resistance training workouts so he can ramble about them to people who aren't really interested in fitness.