Category Archives: Food

How to naturally boost testosterone

Supplements make unsupported claims, but that doesn't prevent them from taking billions of your dollars.

Supplements make unsupported claims, but that doesn’t prevent them from taking billions of your dollars.

“Naturally boost testosterone, and increase the size of your penis.” Does it work for FTMs? Here’s how one trans man and technical writer researches those claims.

Maybe you’ve got “absolutely no problem (TM)” with the size of your unit. If that is not the case, such promises are beguiling. All the more true for transgender men. A pill, or a diet, that will masculinize a person’s body, without taking testosterone, is exactly what some trans and gender nonconforming folks are looking for. And the industry delivers: people spend billions of dollars on products (and books about diets) that don’t live up to the hype.

Why are we so gullible? Because we want it, a lot, and because there’s so much to know about how our bodies work, that it’s easy to be confused by scientific-sounding claims. This weekend, someone told me that if you eat a lot of broccoli, it will stop your tongue from producing estrogen. What they said exactly was, “Broccoli has been proven to block the parts of your tongue that convert food into estrogen.” And other people believed it.

Might as well as Google, “Am I man enough?”

I knew this was not true, but now I was faced with the challenge to disprove a nonsensical statement to people who didn’t particularly want to not believe it was plausible.

“Does broccoli block absorption of estrogen?” is not the kind of question that Google can answer (yet), not like it will if you ask “How old is Cher?”, or “What’s the capital of Assyria?” If you try, the results may lead you to some articles about broccoli and estrogen and, if you have been misled or don’t understand what you’ve read, you may end up believing something like what I was told about broccoli.

Complicated information like how our bodies use food and hormones isn’t as easy to transfer as simple advice like “eat broccoli.” It’s like a game of telephone. On the starting end, there may have been a true fact, but by the time the message reaches its final recipient, it’s nonsense.

I’ve written before on this blog about how difficult it is to figure out what is trustworthy information, among all that is posted as “fact” on the internet. When I was growing up, traditional publishing included fact checking, providing some reassurance that the contents of a book marked “Non-Fiction” on the cover were just that. Online, the job of separating fiction (or garbled nonsense) from fact is the responsibility of the reader.

To find out whether it’s true, that “broccoli has been proven to block the parts of your tongue that convert food into estrogen,” I have to know how the human body works. Without a fundamental education, I wouldn’t know the right questions to ask.

The person who says that broccoli blocks the parts of your tongue that convert food into estrogen presumes the following are true:

  1. Estrogen comes from food.
  2. Your tongue is the organ that turns food to estrogen.
  3. Broccoli can prevent this conversion.

All three of these are false.

First, estrogen does not come from food. Sex hormones are naturally produced by our bodies. We can also absorb hormones in the forms of pills, creams, injections, and patches. Some kinds of estradiol pills are designed to be taken sublingually. There are a lot of blood vessels close to the surface, beneath your tongue, and some medications are designed to be absorbed sublingually, directly into the bloodstream. If you hold a micronized estrogen pill under your tongue, your tongue is absorbing estrogen. It is not turning one thing (phytoestrogens) into another (estrogen), and it’s only able to efficiently absorb chemicals that have been very finely milled, to a microscopic degree, so the molecules are small enough to cross the mucous membrane. If you hold peas, or milk, or avocado, or tofu, or any other food, under your tongue, estrogen is not going to come out of it and go into your bloodstream.

There are substances called phytoestrogens which occur in small amounts in our food, and mimic some (but not most) of the effects of estrogen. Phytoestrogens are chemically and structurally different from the estrogens that human bodies make, and from the kinds of synthetic estrogen that come in pills and patches. These differences are why there’s no amount of phytoestrogens that can replace estrogen at normal, healthy levels in a human. When you eat broccoli, a small amount of phytoestrogens are absorbed through the walls of your digestive tract (starting with your tongue), and circulate in your bloodstream. They have a weak effect on the body that is not well studied, and you excrete them with your urine, just like with other hormones.  

To recap:

  1. There’s no way to prevent your tongue from converting food into estrogen, because it does not do this.
  2. The phytoestrogens in foods (like broccoli) occur in small amounts, and have different, weaker effects on the human body than either natural or synthetic estrogens.
  3. No food can replace hormone therapy.

But what about the claims to “naturally boost testosterone”? The majority of supplements contain misleading and unsubstantiated claims, and mislabeled ingredients. This doesn’t stop Americans from spending billions of dollars every year on vitamins and other dietary supplements. Transgender men in my Facebook group ask this question often: “How can I masculinize my appearance without taking testosterone?”

The answer is that you can’t, at least not to a significant degree. Surly Amy turned to professional bodybuilders for information on “Natural Transition,” a trademarked term. “I asked [natural bodybuilder Denise James] if following the prescribed routine would result in masculinization: a deeper voice, increased body hair, etc. She said that women who are natural bodybuilders don’t generally experience those effects.” 

When I investigate claims of products that are said to raise testosterone levels, I’m skeptical on a number of levels. First of all, the claim is generally directed at cisgender men. Whether the product will have an effect on a trans man, is another question, and much like the broccoli claim, you have to know more about how human bodies work, to properly evaluate its value.

Read the whole claim, including the studies your source says support their statements. Understand what the claim is.

For example, when I search on “natural testosterone enhancement” I get a mixed bag of results. Many of the hits I get are just lists of vitamins and nutrients that you already need to be healthy. The Livestrong site says this about broccoli and estrogen: “Cruciferous vegetables, especially broccoli, contain many nutrients that promote healthy metabolism of hormones.”

Your body needs nutrition to work properly. Part of healthy bodily function is making hormones. So sure, broccoli is related to hormone levels, but no more so than a hundred other nutrient-dense foods. Being properly nourished is always good advice, especially if you want to feel better. The more diverse your diet, the more likely you’re getting all of the nutrients you need—like zinc, vitamin D, and saturated fat—to make hormones, sweat, muscles, hair, and everything else you’re made of.

The Livestrong site also says that xenoestrogens (phytoestrogens are plant-based xenoestrogens) have two different classes of side effects. “In men, high estrogen may lead to a decrease in sex drive, decreased muscle mass, chronic fatigue and an increased risk of developing prostate cancer. Women may experience severe premenstrual syndrome, unexplained weight gain, hot flashes, allergies, osteoporosis and depression.” Which ones should I expect will apply to me, an FTM? And how much support do any of these statements have in the medical literature? According to one abstract, “The possible impact of xenoestrogens, to which humans are also exposed through the food chain, needs to be further clarified”: a fancy way of saying, “we just don’t know yet.” The Livestrong site doesn’t say, so I would have to search for the answer to each one: “sex drive xenoestrogen”, “muscle mass xenoestrogen”, and so on, maybe add “female” and “male” to those searches, and see what comes up. 

There’s something called a “xenoandrogen,” too, which have characteristics similar to xenoestrogens. These have been studied even less, and while they exist in substances like certain kinds of tree pollen used in Ayurvedic medicine, they are not found in food.

Some products that claim to be “testosterone boosting” are really designed to make your penis hard. Classic (and totally unproven) aphrodisiacs, like eggs, avocados, and other egg-shaped foods, will sometimes appear on these lists, and are based on magical thinking that says if it looks like a testicle, it must be good for virility. Some products claim to improve your vascular health, which may help with the underlying cause for impotence, but are really best left to a doctor to diagnose and treat. My point, in either case, is that neither of these has a thing to do with testosterone. The only connection among these health claims is they all play on male fears of sexual inadequacy, which is what a “natural testosterone booster” search is really all about. Might as well as Google, “Am I man enough?”

If you have found a product that claims to “boost testosterone,” next ask the question, “How does it work?” How does this product (or practice) affect testosterone levels? Based on your understanding of the body, does the explanation make sense, or is it like the broccoli example, contradicting what you know to be true about the body? You might have to return to your general studies in digestion, or the endocrine system, to be sure. That’s okay: no one knows absolutely everything about a subject. As you read, when questions arise, jot them down and do the research.

Once you’ve identified the method by which a product or practice claims to increase testosterone levels in the human body, study the literature around this, until you understand how it claims to work. Search on the keywords involved in the mechanism, not just the product itself. Has it been tested in a double-blind, controlled study with a large number of participants? Were the results written about in a peer-reviewed journal?

And if it does make sense, generally speaking, will it work on your body in particular? Not all our bodies work like the subjects that appear in medical studies. Trans men’s bodies are not the same as cisgender men’s bodies. If you’ve studied the product and it affects production of testosterone, will it still work in a body without testes? You may have to study the way the product or practice works on female bodies.

Pay attention to sources. Just because it’s on a blog doesn’t mean it’s not true. Who’s the author? Are they credible? Are they trying to sell you something? Keep track of where you pick up your facts. Even a sales website written by non-doctors can be telling you the truth, but before you accept it, confirm it with another source, one you are sure is not making money off convincing you to buy their product.

When are you done? Ask yourself, if I were a journalist writing an article on this subject, who are the authorities I would ask? Then go find those sources by adding their name to your search. What are the organizations you consider reliable sources of health-related information? Some terms to consider adding: “peer reviewed” “endocrinologist” “gastroenterology.”

A final tip for your searches: try adding the word “controversy” to your keywords. The results will give you another perspective, and address the differences in opinion that exist on a subject.

Keep studying. The more you know, the harder it will be to fool you, and the easier it will be for you to investigate a claim.

Share your work. If you are out with the guys and one of your buddies starts talking about this amazing study and how he’s eating six cups of broccoli a day, and it’s really working because look, he’s got four new chin hairs, ask if he knows how it works. When you come to the part where your friend doesn’t know how his body works, send him a link to one of your sources that explains it. 

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Our human polyculture

Since Kevin and I got together, more than eight years ago, we’ve pulled one another along on our journeys toward health. We’re both unusual people with special needs: sensitive, intelligent, and traumatized, as well as queer and transgender. Our trajectory toward integration and wellness hasn’t been steady or moved only forward. When Kevin moved into my Brooklyn apartment, he was an ex-smoker, but he picked up cigarettes again because I still smoked. He introduced me to a whole foods diet, and I started cooking it, but only occasionally: mostly we still ate fast food or worse, convenience store food. Eventually I got sick for what I decided would be the last time, and we both quit smoking. We got bicycles and rode them to farmers markets and the upscale groceries in Manhattan. We subscribed to a weekly delivery of organic vegetables and fruit, and worked our way up to the challenge of eating a whole farm share. When we moved to Massachusetts, we made local farm shares the staples of our diet.

Now we’ve lived here in the Pioneer Valley for more than six years. While Kevin has pursued mental health therapy, I’ve worked through trauma in my body by engaging in physical activities. Kevin has gotten more active and seen the benefits to his mood and reduction in chronic pain, but nothing he tried, not exercise, prescription drugs, or careful adherence to a whole foods diet, helped with either his sugar cravings or his road rage.

A couple weekends ago, I took him to his first Weston A. Price Foundation potluck, and he learned from some of the attendees about their Paleo or otherwise gluten-free diets, which could be seen as a subset of the traditional foods diet that the WAPF people eat. Cutting grains out of his diet was a revelation. Even with all of the progress he has made in therapy with his panic disorder, the multiple daily panic attacks continued. What finally made them stop, cold, was no longer eating wheat. His sugar craving is gone, too. He no longer comes home and tells me about the cookies he couldn’t resist at work, or the drivers he tailgated on the way home. After years of living with his panic attacks, he doesn’t go off anymore. He tells me he feels like he’s finally himself.

In the same time frame that Kevin has been figuring out the effects of certain foods in his diet, I have been learning the differences among the sensations that I’ve always classed as “hunger,” including certain kinds of boredom and anxiety, low blood sugar, withdrawal from sugar or caffeine, and hungers for protein, fat, or carbohydrates, which I had never before differentiated. I used to eat what I ate, when I ate it, because I kept a routine to tell me when and what to eat. I used dishes and the amounts I commonly served myself for portion control, because I would eat everything on my plate. Now I find that the sensation of being done eating is enough to make me stop eating. I no longer power through that “stop” and go on eating til the food is gone.

The adjustment, as the household cook, is more than just new lists of foods Kevin will and will not eat, and new proportions for the foods that remain. Both of us listening to our bodies and eating what we want is resulting in us choosing different diets. When I started cooking Paleo for Kevin, it meant changing what a meal looked like. Before, lunch or dinner always looked the same: rice or potatoes, meat or beans, and at least one vegetable, in rough thirds by volume. Now Kevin’s meals are more like half vegetables, half meat by volume. Where he used to take oatmeal for an afternoon snack, now he takes a sausage. He fixes his own beef soup for breakfast each morning and seems to enjoy doing a little slicing and simmering for his meal. He’s suddenly become a big fan of my bone stock. This diet has done for Kevin what whole foods and being able to feel my own hungers, which came from reading about the difference between sating and satiating, have done for me. He was like me, also a “Clean Plate Club” member, and now has become an extremely fussy and particular eater. He knows exactly what he wants to eat, and wants to eat that only, nothing else. When I try to eat like he does now, I find the soup off-putting as a first food of the day, and at mid-morning, I still want a grilled egg and cheese sandwich. I miss the part that’s gone, but Kevin doesn’t. I take this to mean that we’re different, and while it was good to experience what Kevin’s new diet is like, I have to trust my body’s cues, which I’ve just begun to understand.

If we trust our own bodies and the wisdom inherent in them, they can tell us what we need, whether it’s to move or eat, drink water, sleep, seek out other people, or get some sun. We knew enough to do these things before science told us they were necessary. Some people’s bodies definitely tell them that wheat is toxic. Other people’s bodies are unable to tolerate other foods that I can eat without trouble, like dairy, soy, shellfish, and nuts. I don’t know if an inability to process these foods is part of natural variation, or a sign of damage to the body, but in either case, the body’s wisdom should be allowed to prevail. It’s obvious to me, with all of the uncertainty and anxiety that exists in my culture around what we ought to eat, that we have insufficient scientific knowledge to answer these questions for everyone. What we do have in sufficient quantities are bodies that can speak to us, if we can only listen. In order to listen, we might need to know what it is we’re listening for. Although its a private conversation between you and your body, it’s informed by culture: what is worth listening to, and what we even have common language to describe, determine to a tremendous degree what we are capable of even considering, much less understanding. I doubt I would have learned on my own that I was transgender before I had conceptualized a trans man or learned that we exist. Finding out about my hunger drives was a similar kind of revelation, and I’m sure there is much more wisdom of this kind, if I can only figure out how people talk about it. While lots of people are concerned about health, diet, and exercise, far fewer are listening to their bodies for the answers, and fewer still know how to talk about those conversations. We need to learn how to do this, and by “we” I mean me and the other members of my culture who have lost this wisdom and are looking for it.

Our understanding of the human race does not end with the genome, but even here, I am beginning to think that we are more of a polyculture than we are used to thinking of ourselves. While I’d heard that there were no more traces of the Neanderthals in the modern human genome, more recently I have learned that they do live on in us: except for Africans, who apparently never encountered them, modern people from everywhere else in the world have between one and six percent Neanderthal genes. It made me happy to learn this, because I was sad at the thought that when a species dies, nothing is left of it to live on, not even its successful progeny. Someday we will divide again, and a new subset of humanity will arise from among us. How we react to them, and whether we will consider them human at all, remains to be seen.

There may be only tiny differences—less than one percent—between our genome and that of our nearest living relative, the chimpanzee, so either those tiny differences are potent, or some of the apparent junk in the genome is actually important, just undecipherable to us right now. I think we will not be able to precisely define what makes an individual a human, because it will turn out that a species is defined not by the traits each one of us carries, but by our characteristics as communities of humans. We have much in common, but trying to nail down the essentials always leaves some human out. We can’t all reproduce, or walk, we weren’t all born with ten fingers and ten toes, and we have different reactions to drugs and some foods. In agriculture, polycultures are healthier and more efficient, so it may be for the best that science hasn’t figured this out yet, because I have a feeling we’d start hurtling toward a human monoculture, first thing, instead of valuing our human diversity.

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