Wow! I just returned from driving my friends Porshe GT II, Ralph was good enough to let me feel what a car with real get up and go feels like. This car is strong, with great ³get-up and go² and without doubt raised my testosterone levels. While the feeling may not be easily equated with the testosterone rush one gets after pushing yourself through a tough leg workout, the result is the same * increased testosterone. The fact that testosterone is the major hormone responsible for muscle growth and that we often lift weights with the goal of getting bigger muscles, I have wondered is it possible that certain foods or spices can actually decrease one's ability to gain maximal effects or results from weight training?
Before I pour into the medical research surrounding foods and their effects on our hormones, it is important to note that many champion athletes credit their nutritional strategies as being responsible for more than 50% of their success. For many of us, success can be defined not by a championship ring or winning a boxing match, but rather reducing body fat or just feeling better about our appearance. I call this winning ourselves and self-esteem back one day at a time.
Plants come alive:
It is estimated that 80% of the world's population still relies on natural phytotherapy (foods, plants, herbs, etc.) as a major source of medicine. Through the years, certain foods and herbs have been recognized for their use in treating sex hormone related conditions. For some, this may be menopause, while others it is libido enhancement. Interestingly enough, many of these phytotherapeutic agents are not detected by conventional testing methods. Fortunately, scientists have developed methods for identifying the estrogenic content and bioactivity of foods, herbs and other related agents (1-3).
Most research has focused on the estrogenic and progestogenic activity of foods, herbs and spices. Estrogen and progesterone are usually referred to as the ³female hormones². Estrogen softens skin while making muscle more pliable and less taut. The estrogenic and progestogenic compounds in food may be of greater importance than direct effect of foods, herbs and spices effect on testosterone levels. Altering the testosterone to estrogen ratio can greatly influence anabolism in man. Essentially, this means the more estrogen, the less muscle. The present research examined the effects of 150 different foods, herbs and spices on estrogen receptor (ER) and progesterone binding properties. In addition, the effects on alkaline phosphatase (a group of isoenzymes which are involved with generating phosphate-used to produce energy (medically known as adenosine triphosphate; ATP, and clinically used to diagnose diseases which impair bile formation, liver disease and certain cancers), as well as the effects on down regulation of estrogen (4).
The herbs tested for ER binding activity were also tested for their ability to stimulate cell proliferation in breast cancer cells. Table 1 lists the results regarding ER binding potential. Soy milk and the 11 herbs/spices listed are with the highest activity and are expressed in total estradiol binding equivalents per 200 cc (6 oz.) of soy milk or 2 grams of dried herb.
Herbs and Spices Containing ER Binding Components
Micrograms of Estradiol Equivalents/200 cc or 2 gm Dry Herb
It is important to understand that just because a food, herb or spice has ER binding capability, it does not mean that it inhibits estrogen formation or acts as a natural aromatase inhibitor. In fact, the total opposite is true. In short, Table 1 indicates that the 12 listed agents have estrogenic activity at low physiological doses. If you take at least 2 grams of any of the herbs daily or drink 6 ounces or more of soymilk, your body is getting in touch with its feminine side. It is time to start watching Oprah and having long talks on the phone with your friends, pal.
The Connection to Cancer:
If breast cancer runs in your family, especially estrogenic receptor positive breast cancer (ER+BCA), that paying attention to what you eat and supplement with becomes of utmost importance. Now, you may be thinking that this doesn't directly affect you. Perhaps, but since breast cancer effects 1 in 9 females over a lifetime, chances are we all know someone who has it or will have it in our lifetime. Therefore, it is my belief that having information that may affect risk of breast cancer, it is important that we all know and share the information. Within the limited scope of this article, the information presented fits into potential supplements and foods or spices to avoid. Table 2 lists the results of the research examining the effects of the herbs on ER (+) breast cancer cells. Any herb or spice with a score above 400 has greater estrogenic activity than estradiol.
Effects of ER binding herbs on ER (+) Breast Cancer Cells
Table 2 indicates that coumestrol, red clover, mistletoe, don quai, hops, licorice, white clover, yucca and motherwort are more estrogenic than estradiol! For people at risk for breast cancer and men who want to remain real T men, avoiding the aforementioned herbs and spices seems prudent.
Eat clean and grow:
Typically, when people are trying to gain muscle size via weight training, they are also attempting to eat a clean diet, get adequate rest and are take appropriate supplements. Most of us incorporate a good protein based shake, a multivitamin, creatine and perhaps other supplements, which are, aimed at bolstering testosterone levels. As a method of naturally enhancing gonadotropic hormones (i.e., testosterone) many people look to stimulate luteinizing hormone (LH). One of the effects of the female hormone progesterone is to inhibit the release of new LH and reduce the circulating levels of LH (5). Therefore, while progesterone is not produced in men (well, perhaps in the Fab-Five or some daytime soap devotees) certain foods, herbs and spices do have progesterone like activity. Eating these progesteronic foods in appreciable amounts theoretically may reduce testosterone levels. Table 3 notes the progesterone-like activity of herbs and spices.
Micrograms of Progesterone Equivalents/2 g Dry Herb
According to the researchers, none of the herbs tested are progesterone antagonists (the abortion pill and sometimes used bodybuilding drug, RU486 is a progesterone antagonist). However, red clover, licorice, goldenseal, pennyroyal and nutmeg are progestin (a progesterone-like hormone) antagonists. The herb with the greatest progesterone receptor binding activity was bloodroot. Interestingly enough, in alternative medicine, bloodroot, mandrake, pennyroyal, yucca and mistletoe are all used to bring on menses. These are definitely herbs to be avoided by anyone looking to be a T man.
What about Food and Testosterone?
Unfortunately, there is not a plethora of well-conducted studies investigating the potential testosterone raising effects of herbs or spices as there is with estrogen and progesterone. We all know that in order to remain or even attain an anabolic state, you have to include more than enough protein and calories in your diet. If you eat a boatload of protein, but still take in an insufficient amount of calories, your body will preferably use the ingested protein for energy rather than shuttling it toward the muscles for growth and recovery. This does not mean when on a cutting diet, it is worthless to eat high protein, rather research indicates that the extra protein may help preserve the muscle mass during times of slight (but not starvation) calorie deprivation.
Recent research indicates that licorice lowers testosterone levels in men. Logically, this makes sense, since it is such a strong phytoestrogen. Now it is becoming more apparent that men should avoid the foods, herbs or spices that have estrogen or progesterone-like activity (unless indicated by your physician i.e., prostate cancer) when training to gain strength and/or size. To date, there is mixed findings regarding tribulus terristris and avena sativa for effecting testosterone levels in young men. Some proprietary studies with older men indicate that avena sativa and or eurycoma longifolia can enhance free testosterone levels, while the data for tribulus appears to be gaining a better foothold. One issue with tribulus is purity. Impure or substandard products will not yield the same results as the higher quality products.
A Herbal Recap
The work of Zava et al in the hormonal effects of food, herbs and spice is unparalleled. Herbal therapies are gaining daily in popularity (it is a multi-billion dollar business). As people who are into lifting, looking good, staying healthy and every now and then adventurous, making gains and being the T man is important. Think of it, would you be reading this website if you were not in search for the information to help you attain the T man look and attitude? Making wise choices with supplements and foods is one key towards success. The following herbs, spices or foods should be avoided in your quest to remain all man soy, soy milk, soy protein powders, licorice, red clover, dong quai, damiana, black cohosh, verbana, motherwort, thyme, oregano, tumeric, hops, (sorry guys, beer itself lowers testosterone levels in men, while having the opposite effects in females), bloodroot, mandrake, pennyroyal, yucca and mistletoe.
To maximize your results from your efforts in the gym:
* Avoid eating large amounts of phytoestrogens.
* Make sure to use smart nutrition by incorporating a post-workout shake containing both carbohydrates and protein.
* Make sure to eat fatty fish a few times per week or supplement with the at least one to two grams of essential fatty acids daily.
About the Author: Douglas S. Kalman MS, RD is a Director at Miami Research