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How Stress Management Can Protect Testosterone Production

It’s a common inditement of modern life that we have never been so stressed. We’re not sure that the unfortunate soldiers of World War One or the serfs of Feudal England would agree with this statement. But it is certainly true that as a society we have never been more aware of our own mental health, or how our lifestyles affect it.

There are many ways in which stress can affect our lives. Mental stress can be the result of a challenging job or a family dispute. Physical stress can occur thanks to overtraining in the gym or over-exerting yourself at work or attempting some questionable DIY. Stress can be caused by illness or mental health issues.

The effect of stress on testosterone production cannot be overstated. Not only can it directly affect your testosterone production, but stress can also affect testosterone in indirect ways, by affecting sleep or appetite (for example).

What is Stress?

Stress is often talked about in terms of how it affects your mind, but stress can affect you both physically and mentally. High blood pressure, a severe headache, digestive problems, and muscle pain are all examples of the physical effects of stress.

It is important to discuss the physical effects, because too often when talking about mental health issues, the common response from people is that it’s all in your head. That you just need to think your way out of the situation.

This advice would make sense if stress really was just a mental construct, but it clearly isn’t. If you have an upset stomach, trying to think your way out of the situation is going to end up with a spare pair of trousers and a pretty humiliating story to accompany them.

Stress is a collection of physical and mental responses to change or challenges. Being out of your comfort zone will often be the main cause. Stress responses are not always a bad thing, many times it is stress and how you respond to it that leads to growth.

If you didn’t have the stress of a driving test, you wouldn’t drive. If you didn’t respond well to the stress of a job interview you wouldn’t be employed. If you didn’t respond to the stress of lifting a barbell off the floor, you wouldn’t get stronger and more competent at deadlifting.

Stress and anxiety are often conflated. This is understandable as the two conditions have identical symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Low mood
  • Insomnia
  • Digestive issues
  • Aches and pains
  • High blood pressure

The difference between the two is that stress is caused by something external. A car travelling at full speed towards you is an external threat that causes stress. Anxiety on the other hand is internal, and it is caused by worrying about possible stressors, even if they aren’t likely. Lying in bed and worrying about being hit by a car is an example of anxiety.

This is not to diminish anxiety, it affects one-third of the population at some point in their lives [1], and it can be very hard for people to distinguish which is stress and which is anxiety.

It’s not always easy to decide whether you are excessively worried about something or stressing about something that is likely to happen. Being anxious about losing your job vs being stressed about losing your job may just be a matter of opinion. If you end up losing your job were you being anxious or were you stressed about something that was likely to happen?

Confusing things further is the fact that stress can progress into anxiety and depression over time. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an example of a highly stressful and/or distressing event leading to an anxiety disorder [2].

It is beyond the scope of this article to help diagnose stress or anxiety in you the reader, and that is not our intent. But it is important to discuss the difference between the two. This article can help to treat some of the symptoms of chronic stress and anxiety, but ultimately talking to a health professional is one of the first things that you should do.

Our stress management techniques can help with minor aspects of stress and anxiety, but they are no substitute for specific qualified advice from a physician or therapist.

The Stress Response

The stress response is an immediate physiological change in your body when it is presented with an external or internal trigger. Your brain is the first to respond, sending signals from the amygdala to the hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus responds by raising the alarm and setting off a chain of events. Epinephrine (often referred to as adrenaline) will start to course through your body, increasing your blood pressure by narrowing your blood vessels. Your breathing rate will increase rapidly so that your brain has more oxygen. Your body will produce more energy as a fight or flight response.

This response is instantaneous, faster than you can perceive, but it doesn’t last very long. It is a response designed for immediate danger. Ideally, you would use this extra energy and clarity to think of a solution and/or run away from the danger.

But what if the stressor lasts for a long time? Your hypothalamus can’t keep releasing epinephrine, so instead, it releases hormones that stimulate the release of cortisol. Once cortisol has been released your body can stay in an alert mode for longer. Cortisol also helps to regulate your body during this period.

Once the stress has gone, your body can help to relax you using the parasympathetic nervous system. In this scenario, all of the different parts of your stress response have worked as they should.

The adrenaline has given you that initial burst of energy and momentum, the cortisol has helped to maintain this for as long as you needed it, and once the threat has passed the parasympathetic nervous system has restored order and helped you to relax.

Problems occur when you can’t fix the solution quickly. What if your stress is due to a test that is five days away? You can’t solve the problem immediately, and this can lead to your body continuously pumping out cortisol.

Animals don’t have this issue, and nor did our ancient ancestors. Their stress response was based on real threats, and it worked perfectly for this. It still works perfectly for humans who are facing threats to their life. But the stress response system does not work quite as well for long term stresses, and it certainly doesn’t work well for anxiety.

The downsides to chronically high cortisol levels include:

  • Increased body fat
  • Fatigue
  • Hypertension
  • Acne
  • Low mood
  • Lack of focus
  • Slow recovery from injury
  • Insomnia
  • Low testosterone

How Stress Affects Testosterone

Now we know how stress affects the body, let’s take a look at how it affects your testosterone levels. Stress affects your testosterone production in three ways:

  1. Cortisol inhibits testosterone production
  2. Cortisol affects sleep
  3. Cortisol causes weight gain

There are other ways in which a stressful life can affect testosterone (lowering energy means less exercise for example), but these are the three main causes.

Cortisol Inhibits Testosterone Production

Cortisol appears to affect testosterone production in a variety of ways. It can attack the Leydig cells in the testes which is where testosterone is converted from cholesterol [3]. Cortisol may also inhibit luteinising hormone which is responsible for stimulating testosterone production in the Leydig cells. A third way in which cortisol may affect testosterone is by causing the body to produce more gonadotropin-inhibitory hormone (GnIH) [4].

Don’t worry if this all sounds confusing, all you need to know is that stress leads to increased cortisol, which attacks testosterone production in a number of ways. This is the most direct way in which stress affects testosterone, targeting the production.

The biological reason for this is that your body wants to prioritise systems that can help you to remove the threat (stressor). Your immune system and reproductive system are not seen as priorities, so testosterone production is inhibited.

Cortisol Affects Sleep

If you’ve read our article on sleep then you are already aware of how crucial a good night’s sleep is for healthy testosterone production. Cortisol (and stress in general) can massively affect your sleep. Remember, cortisol raises your heart rate and blood pressure, these things can make it much harder to fall asleep.

Stress can also cause you to toss and turn, while meditation can help you to fall asleep by removing thoughts, stress ruins sleep by keeping those thoughts prominent in your head. After a night of tossing and turning your morning, testosterone levels will be significantly lower than usual.

A bad night’s sleep can also affect your diet, by increasing your appetite, inhibiting satiety (how full you feel), and causing you to seek out higher-calorie junk food. This can lead to weight gain, which can cause low testosterone. Speaking of which …

Cortisol Causes Weight Gain

While a lot of the best research has been done on the effects of cortisol on weight gain in women [5], there is certainly evidence that cortisol can lead to an increase in appetite in men. The reverse is certainly true, with lowered cortisol being found to reduce appetite in men [6], though this is not always a good thing.

As we’ve already mentioned, chronically high cortisol can also cause insomnia which can lead to increased food intake. Over time, this can lead to you becoming overweight, which can lead to reduced circulating testosterone.

This is because body fat releases an enzyme called aromatase which converts free testosterone into estrogen. This means that you would have less testosterone than usual and more estrogen.

Is it Possible to Remove Stress from Your Life?

The obvious solution to all this would be to completely remove all stress from your life. But is this realistic? No, not really. For starters, everything that is ever worth doing will require some stress at some point.

Exercise and dieting require you to handle stress, fashioning a successful career requires stress, and raising children generates enough stress for five people. If you avoid all forms of stress, your life may be quite limited.

Even if you did your utmost to avoid stress, you have no control over stress generated by the outside world. Pandemics, wars, riots, demonstrations, and politics, can all cause stress as you learn about them, discuss them with others, or live through them.

Even if you somehow avoided all of those forms of stress, you could still be hit by a car tomorrow (though this is of course unlikely).

The point here is not to help generate more anxiety, that’s the last thing we want to do. The point is to point out the futility of trying to remove all stress from your life so that you instead find more productive ways to manage stress.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t limit your risk of dealing with stressful situations, but ultimately you need a plan for when bad things happen. Which is what we will be covering in the next section.

15 Stress Management Techniques

Here are fifteen stress management techniques that you can use to help you deal with stress on a daily basis. Some techniques are preventative, while others are designed to help you deal with stress after it has occurred. Remember, these techniques are designed to help manage stress, and do not cure it. Speaking to a professional is always the best option if you are chronically stressed or anxious.

Technique #1 Limit Your Risk of Exposure

While you can’t rid yourself of all stress, it is certainly possible to make strategic decisions that can help you to limit your risk of exposure to them. For example, if you find parties incredibly stressful, then acknowledging this and explaining the situation to your friends can help you to avoid them in the future.

If your job is incredibly stressful, then you can talk to your boss or HR about this, alternatively, you can search for a similar job that comes with less stress. Or be more realistic about what you can actually manage. Too many people stress themselves out trying to live up to unrealistic expectations, whether this comes from their colleagues or from within.

If you feel stressed often, then why not try writing down a list of ten common causes of stress. You can then try to address some of the items on this list and help to reduce the number of triggers in your daily life.

Technique #2 Exercise to Lower Stress

Regular exercise can help to lower stress, it can also improve sleep, keep your weight down, and improve your mood. All of which can help to reduce stress in your life. If you’ve read our article on exercise and testosterone then you will know that overtraining can increase stress, so be sensible and train around 3-4 times per week with good rest in between sessions.

A mixture of cardio and resistance training will provide you with the best weight loss benefits, but any form of exercise can boost mood and lower stress. Team sports can help too as they can help you socialise. But over-competitiveness can be an issue. We want enjoyment and relaxation, rather than high-stress situations and tears.

Technique #3 Spend Time in Nature

Spending time outdoors has long been associated with relaxation and enjoyment, but increasingly studies are finding that green spaces are more effective than urban environments. Woods, fields, hills, rivers, and the beach are incredibly effective at reducing stress and cortisol [7].

The closer to nature you can get, the better the results. City dwellers fear not, you can still get good results from parks, but if it is possible to find some real nature, spend time there frequently to relieve and (possibly) prevent stress.

Technique #4 Meditate

Mindfulness and meditation are very effective at lowering blood pressure and helping you to relax when stressed. Mindfulness is often taught in classes, as are many forms of meditation. But you can meditate quite easily on your own. It does not require any fancy poses or any of the religious overtones it is often associated with. Just lie down, close your eyes, and concentrate on the sound of your own breathing. Simple.

Technique #5 Sleep 8 Hours

Check out our article on sleep for more information but sleeping 7-8 hours is a great way to boost your mood, reduce chronically high cortisol levels, and help you to relax. Sleeping well can also allow you a better perspective on situations that caused you stress in the first place.

Technique #6 Avoid Stimulants When Already Stressed

Caffeine has many benefits, but calming you down when already stressed is not one of them. Caffeine can cause a release of epinephrine [8] and it can also increase cortisol [9]. This mirrors the stress response and can escalate matters if you are already stressed. Remember, caffeine when not stressed is absolutely fine and has many benefits but try to avoid it (and similar stimulants) when you are stressed.

Technique #7 Separate Work and Home Life

Work is one of the most common causes of stress in adults, while your home life can be the most relaxing. In the UK and US, the work/home life balance has been altered significantly compared to other countries, with an almost fetishization of “hustling”. Working harder and for longer is seen as morally right. But it is dangerous for your health.

You need to create that separation. Work hard during office hours, but when quitting time comes you need to switch off and clear your head of all work-related issues.

Technique #8 Improve Your Time Management

Being late for things can be incredibly stressful, as can being too early. Constantly being in a rush because you have spent far too long on one thing while neglecting others is another cause of stress. Time management is essential if you want to achieve a lot while leading a mostly stress-free lifestyle. It is a skill and may take a lot of practice, but it is well worth mastering.

Technique #9 Make Dietary Changes

Eating a healthy diet that contains lots of complex carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as healthy fats and proteins can help to boost your mood, reduce your risk of stress and depression, and help to reduce stress by improving sleep quality, reducing fatigue, and providing you with the energy to exercise.

Technique #10 Socialise With People Who Relax You

Socialisation can be incredibly helpful, helping you to relax and enjoy yourself. Isolation is one of the biggest causes of depression and stress. However, you need to find the right balance of people for your needs.

There will be friends who bring their own drama, who may not be ideal if you are already stressed. There are also friends who are highly extroverted or take you out of your comfort zone. This can be a good thing in certain situations, but when already stressed it can exacerbate things. Find friends who you can relax around.

Technique #11 Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

CBT is one of the fastest-growing methods to deal with stress, depression, and anxiety. It helps you to find a more effective way to discuss and analyse stress. It is highly effective with anxiety, as it can be used to prevent you from spiralling. But it also helps with stress, teaching you how to handle stressful situations better. When used correctly, CBT is the most effective technique on this list other than talking to a professional.

Technique #12 Talk to a Professional

If you are chronically stressed and it is affecting your health, then talking to a professional may well be the best decision you can make. Some issues can’t be treated with chamomile tea or a walk in the park. They need to be discussed with a healthcare provider.

Technique #13 Supplement

Supplements can help with mood and reduce stress. Ingredients such as Rhodiola Rosea, ashwagandha, and the like can help to calm you, and allow you to sleep better.

Technique #14 Herbal Remedies

This is similar to technique number 13 but relies more on teas such as lavender and chamomile. They can calm you down, relax you, and help you fall asleep. They work both as preventatives and treatments.

Technique #15 Avoid Known Triggers

Cigarettes, excessive alcohol, and gambling are all addictive behaviours, but even if you aren’t addicted, they can provide a lot of stress when abused. They can also affect sleep, appetite, mood, and your health (less so gambling, but it is still a serious issue). If you are already stressed, then none of these things will help, they will only exacerbate the issue.

Final Thoughts

If you want to boost your testosterone, then finding ways to avoid and treat stressful situations is a must. Stress can make sleep, exercise, and weight management more difficult, while also harming testosterone production, and increasing your risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

Follow the 15 techniques in this article, but if you have been chronically stressed for a long time, then please seek professional help.