I received a call late one Friday evening from an old college friend I hadn’t spoken to in years.
“Mike! How’ve you been? It’s been awhile!” I said.
“…Dimitri?” he asked, puzzled.
“Yeah man, what’s up?”
“Dude, did you go through a second puberty or something? You sound completely different.”
We first met in 2012 while taking a General Chemistry class at a community college. I had graduated from a four-year college in 2011, but decided to return to school to finish up pre-requisites for medical school. Mike was on a similar path, having dropped out of school for personal reasons, but was now back to finish and apply to graduate school.
While Mike breezed through the work and exams, I was in a constant state of nearly failing out. Come exam day, weeks of preparation would go out the door as I’d suddenly be paralyzed by an overpowering sense of anxiety and panic. Mike would always tell me, “Dude, I know you know the material, you’re always answering everything in lecture, but when you take the exam, you fall apart!”
This issue wasn’t confined to the classroom; I began to notice a creeping sense of discomfort while in public settings, something I had never experienced before. I couldn’t walk from one end of a mall to the other without my heart beginning to race and my palms beginning to sweat. I would over-analyze everything around me—Were people staring? What were they thinking? Was I wearing something weird? This was a mindset worlds apart from a confident, carefree attitude I had been used to in high school and college.
On top of it all, I had gained a total of 40lbs in my final two years of college. I felt slow, tired, and irritable. Throughout the day, I found myself getting nervous about everything. At night, my sleep habits were a mess, always sleeping too much or not being able to sleep at all, the last kind of problems you need when pursuing a career in medicine.
I began researching my symptoms online and everything pointed to a classic case of general anxiety and panic disorder. However, symptoms like low energy and excessive sleep also suggested depression, a diagnosis which of course got my mind racing even more.
Typical solutions for such disorders call for an antidepressant prescription and a vague recommendation to “find ways to reduce the stress in your life.” Not wanting to spend the rest of my life on a revolving cocktail of antidepressants, who's side effects can often make things worse, I decided to keep researching other ways to manage the anxiety.
One day I came across a message board where people discussed how they managed their anxiety, when someone mentioned that their physician had requested a hormone blood test panel. Intrigued, I read on.
His doctor found he had been producing slightly below normal levels of testosterone, which as a result had begun to affect his mood and even bodyweight. Luckily for him, it was a mild case and he was still in his early 20s, so the doctor opted not to place him on hormone therapy, but rather make changes to his diet and exercise routine.
This for me was the turning point. We tend to think of the mind controlling the body and how we feel, but what if it was the other way around? What if I could manage my own issues naturally and without medication?
Depression has been on the rise for young men. The BC Medical journal refers to it as the "Silent Epidemic":
"It has a disturbingly high incidence and is a major contributor to men’s mortality. In British Columbia, suicide is one of the top three causes of mortality among men aged 15 and 44. Among men of all ages in Canada, suicide ranked as the seventh leading cause of death in 2007."
While depression is a complex disorder to treat, one of the symptoms found amongst men has been low testosterone.
Emotional changes can include lack of motivation, self-confidence, anxiety, or general moodiness.
A recent WebMD article shows how doctors in recent years have begun to take notice:
"As an endocrinologist, I'm thinking hormones," says Dr. Mezitis, who estimates that about a quarter to a third of the men he tests for low testosterone have levels below normal. “They come in saying they feel excessively fatigued, weaker, depressed, and that they have lost their sex drive -- all common symptoms of a drop in testosterone.”
While drops in a man’s testosterone are common as they get older, more and more young men are being diagnosed with lower than normal levels.
Age tends to play a big factor when it comes to defining “normal” levels of testosterone. One example is for younger men (age 20-39) to be in the range of 300-1000 ng/dL (nanograms of testosterone per deciliter of blood). As men age, their levels naturally tend to drop, as seen in the chart below. In severe cases, men whose levels drop below 200ng/dL are clinically diagnosed as having hypogonadism. This would be one situation where men would require some form of testosterone therapy.
With more and more young men being diagnosed with low levels of testosterone, many researchers have begun to suspect environmental factors are to blame, with phytoestrogens being the main culprit.
Phytoestrogens are chemicals that mimic estrogen in the body, which can lead to hormone imbalances in men. Even worse, they’re found in everything from food, to plastics, soaps, and most detergents.
How dangerous can they be? A study released by the National Institute of Health had this to say:
“A possibility of increasing concern is that phytoestrogens may interfere with the organizational role of estrogen in the developing brain and reproductive system. Regardless of animal model used, manipulation of estrogen during specific critical windows of development throughout gestation and early infancy leads to a myriad of adverse health outcomes including malformations in the ovary, uterus, mammary gland and prostate, early puberty, reduced fertility, disrupted brain organization, and reproductive tract cancers.”
Essentially, continued exposure led to everything from underdeveloped sex organs to cancer, scary stuff. My first task became understanding what to avoid. Half of the battle became knowing what NOT to eat.
As someone who used flax seed for years in shakes I was stunned. Flax seed packed TRIPLE the number of phytoestrogens of soy beans and FOURTEEN times more than tofu. Data has constantly shown that a diet high in soy often resulted in lower sperm counts for men, as shown in a 2008 study ,
"Men in the highest intake level of soy foods had, on average, 35 million sperm/ml less than men who did not consume soy foods (95% CI: −67, −3), and there was a statistically significant trend toward decreasing sperm concentration with increasing soy foods intake (P, trend = 0.03)."
Cereal with soy milk was doing me no favors, so instead of sugary cereals or soy products for breakfast, I started eating eggs and oatmeal with coffee.
First thing I noticed was my energy levels. I stopped getting sugar crashes around noon, as my blood sugar wasn’t spiking from all the processed sugar I was used to eating, which led to an elevated mood.
Ok, so far so good.
Next up was lunch and dinner. A good rule of thumb is if it used to be alive, make sure it's organic. According to the Food and Drug Administration, non-organic beef can contain “a number of steroid hormone drugs in beef cattle and sheep, including natural estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and their synthetic versions. These drugs increase the animal's growth rate and the efficiency by which they convert the feed they eat into meat.”
Estrogen is the last thing you want in your meats so avoid it if possible.
While injecting hormones into chickens was banned in the U.S. in the 1950s, non-organic chicken can be given feed that contains animal by-products, antibiotics, and genetically engineered grains. Thus, the poultry meat ends up being tainted.
As for the finer points on foods/supplements to consume, Victor Pride over at Bold & Determined has a great article on specific foods and habits to cultivate for boosting testosterone levels.
There’s a million exercise routines out there so I won’t give you another one. To be honest, I didn’t have a plan other than making sure I was in the gym no less than 4 times a week lifting weights.
As the weeks went by, I started looking up more structured routines and added them as I progressed, but the important part to remember is that I was getting off the couch and going to the gym.
Studies have constantly shown the boost in testosterone men can get from weight lifting, regardless of age:
“We observed the response of serum growth hormone (GH) and testosterone (T) to a progressive resistance strength training program. Basal levels (after a 12-h fast) of GH and T were measured in young (23 years) and elderly (63 years) subjects before and after a 12-week training program… the data presented here indicate that strength training can induce growth hormone and testosterone release.”
For 6 months, I dedicated myself to rebuilding my body and mind, eating clean and lifting consistently. Three months into my routine I lost 35 pounds. My sleep improved dramatically, I fell asleep faster and woke up earlier with more energy. Most importantly, my outlook on life changed. It was subtle at first, but over time I began to notice the lack of anxiety when being out in public. Malls, sporting events, or conventions, I found myself not only being able to attend them, but actually enjoy them and casually socialize with others. It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, like I had transformed into a different person, the anxiety was finally gone!
Four years later, while I worked on creating MYLABFAX, I received that phone call from my friend Mike. Having laughed at his comment, I decided to test out the site by purchasing a hormone panel. It had never occurred to me to check because the way I felt after was like day and night. Four days later, the results were in,
Total testosterone: 657ng/dL.
I had gone and doubled my numbers, transforming my body and mind in the process. It demonstrated to me the growing importance of keeping an eye on your hormones and how important of a role they play in achieving an optimum state of mind. The best part of the experience was that I was able to do it naturally through a cleaned-up diet and exercise routine that anyone could do.
As well as this solution worked out for me, what about those people whose hormone levels are so low that natural solutions won’t cut it? What if testosterone replacement therapy is the only way to restoring their levels?
In my next post, I’ll discuss the options that are currently available for those men with low testosterone who are more inclined toward hormonal therapy. I’ll weigh the pros and cons of the treatments, as well as assess the possible risks to help you determine which method may be right for you. Stay tuned.
Until next time,
If you’re interested in finding out your own hormone levels, click the link below to purchase a comprehensive hormone panel.