Does Atkins Affect Testosterone Levels?

Health and supplement producers have recently been heavily marketing  testosterone pills, citing benefits such as increased energy levels, improved libido, and a sharper memory.   As a result, many men that are on the Atkin’s diet are curious about whether their diet has any effect (positive or negative) in terms of overall testosterone levels.

The strange thing you’ll find if you research relevant medical studies is that there is conflicting evidence.  Some show that a lower-carbohydrate diet may decrease testosterone levels, and some show that the diet will increase levels.

Why you Might Be Worried About Low Testosterone

There is a measured increase in the number of  men being diagnosed with low testosterone.  This increase is somewhat driven by our increasingly long lifespans, less embarrassment, and more frequent testing.  The biggest part of the increase however, is probably the TV commercials from peddlers of testosterone-boosting products…both real pharmaceutical products as well as questionable homeopathic ones.

The symptoms commonly associated with low testosterone, however, could be attributed to a number of other conditions, like hypothyroidism.  These symptoms can include a reduced sex drive, overall lethargy, erectile dysfunction, loss of muscle mass, and difficulty sleeping.

Evidence of Decreased Testosterone

A  study published in the December 2005 issue of  the journal “Nutrition & Metabolism” found that a lower carbohydrate diet reduces measured testosterone levels.  This study focused on women, but the results seem clear:

“there were significant reductions from baseline to 24 weeks in body weight (-12%), percent free testosterone (-22%), LH/FSH ratio (-36%), and fasting insulin (-54%)”

Three reasons to take this with a grain of salt:

  • The study focused on women, and while women do indeed carry testosterone, the way that steroidal hormones work is very different in men
  • The study was also solely made up of overweight women.  Chances are that the diet was lower in calories than what they were eating before, and there’s a demonstrated tie between calorie reduction and lowered hormon levels.
  • Only five participants completed the study, which isn’t a very broad sample set.

Evidence of Increased Testosterone Levels

Dr Shahid Athar performed a study the physical effects of fasting, specifically Muslims fasting for the Ramadan holiday.   This study is interesting because the method in which most Muslims fast induces ketosis, the key behind the Atkins and other low-carb diets.   While a variety of effects were observed, there was little to no effect on testosterone levels:

“…Serum Testosterone, LH, FSH may be  normal or slightly low…”

A 2002 study from a group of researchers in XX first shares some of the difficulty we had in finding relevant data:

“the popularity of diets with the common theme of restricting intake of carbohydrate while increasing protein and fat has increased in recent years. Surprisingly few scientific studies have examined the physiologic effects of carbohydrate-restricted diets.”

The study itself was more comprehensive than just measuring the effects of the diet on hormone levels.  However, the study did specifically look at testosterone, as well as other hormones, and definitively saw no change to testosterone levels:

“There were no significant changes in any hormones in the control group….There were no significant changes in glucagons, testosterone, SHGB, cortisol, IGF-I, or T3 uptake. The only hormone significantly correlated with change in body composition was insulin.”

Balance of the Evidence

After searching a huge volume of published medical studies, the two key takeaways we’ve found are:

  1. There isn’t an overwhelming abundance of evidence that the low-carbohydrate nature of Atkins affects testosterone levels either way.   There are conflicting studies that show increases and decreases, but the most credible and pertinent studies (performed on males, not females, and on humans, not animals) show no effect.
  2. Despite the comfort you might get from point #1, there is credible evidence that diets in general, specifically, any reduction in caloric intake, DOES have the tendency to reduce most hormone levels, including testosterone.

Recommendations

While the specific worry that Atkins could adversely affect testosterone levels seems unfounded, there is credible evidence that an abrupt change in diet does have effects on many parts of your body.

These effects aren’t limited to steroidal hormones…there’s potential changes in heart function, insulin levels, thyroid function, and just about every other key working mechanism in the body.   And, of course, many of those effects are positive, even more so if you’re exercising in addition to diet.

So, rather than focusing specifically on one narrow aspect, like testosterone, we recommend working with your physician when embarking on any significant life change.   The Atkins diet is perhaps a more significant change of eating habits than other diets, so the advice to work with your doctor is highly recommended.

Your doctor will be able to monitor the changes through blood tests and other clinical tools, and will be a good, neutral sounding board that you can use for feedback.

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