Category Archives: Health

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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Why trigger warnings are a waste of time—and why that’s a good thing

bear hazard 588x350

It’s better to be prepared for panic than to rely on prevention.

I got rearended by a U-Haul, once. I was sitting at a red light, and the U-Haul driver was fiddling with the radio or the air conditioning (this is before texting) and hadn’t noticed the traffic light had changed. For months after the car accident, whenever I saw a car coming fast from behind in my rear view mirror, I felt a jolt of anxiety. A sick, tightening in the guts. I got the sweats. And then it was over. Again and again, the cars slowed and stopped without touching my rear bumper.

This is called having flashbacks. The cars in my rear view mirror, not crashing into me, were the triggers.

Flashbacks are rarely in all of the senses, like they are in the movies. What cannot be conveyed except artistically is how the feelings come rushing back in a flashback, the felt sense of being in that place. In a flashback, my whole body is on alert. My perspective narrows to admit two categories into the world, those things that are safe, and those that are threats. When I feel this way, my amygdala is taking over, constricting blood flow to the front of my brain, where I do all of my thinking. In panic mode, we all have the same, short decision tree: fight, run away, freeze, flatter, or submit.

Last week I was with friends, having dinner, and one was telling us about a reality show he likes, featuring very poor parenting. Kevin said, “Hey, could we not talk about this? Because we’re losing Justin.” And I didn’t know it was true until he said it. I was eager to get away from the subject matter, so I did… on the inside, without choosing it consciously. On the outside, I was frozen and unable to say anything. Becoming aware that I’m noticeably frozen and mute, that I’m panicking, makes it worse.

Spiders are scary. We humans are designed to have a prejudice against creeping things with lots of legs. But we also are designed to have smart brains capable of discerning, naming, and sharing information, on which species are poisonous, and which are harmless. We can show non-fatal, non-dangerous digital images of spiders to one another all day long, and no one gets bitten. That’s our leg up on the competition: a bear either knows a snake is dangerous or doesn’t. He can’t learn the difference on Wikipedia.

Getting triggered feels like being a victim again, but it is not a revictimization. The bad thing is not happening. Here, I can turn off the computer, make the horrible spider go away.

The impact from the moving van threw the pickup truck into the middle of the intersection. I heard the smashing sound and then the silence. I could feel the little pebbles of safety glass in my hair. My first thought was, I need to get out of the intersection. I thought the other cars would just start up again and want to come past and around me, without regard for what had just happened, and this would be unsafe, so I needed to move. The truck had stalled, but I was able to start it again. I drove across the intersection and pulled over.

After the U-Haul incident, I knew what caused the trauma. In non-panicked times, I could remember the accident, the details and timeline of the sickening moment I re-experienced each time I looked in the rear view mirror and my lizard brain thought, “It’s happening again.” Every day after my accident, I drove, and hundreds of cars pulled up behind mine and did not crash into me. Eventually, the symptoms faded. But with other triggers, I’m not so lucky. I still have them, every day.

So how do you plan to deal with being taken out of your head? Do you tell the whole world, “Hey everyone, here’s a list of the stuff I can’t deal with, and would you please not talk about them in front of me?” In the real world, you’re going to get less than 100% compliance. I’ve known my reality TV loving buddy for ten years, but he had no idea his talk was affecting me. Because of the wide variety of things that people with PTSD find triggering, there is no way to get satisfactory trigger warning coverage for everyone. There isn’t even adequate coverage for one person, because how do you make an exhaustive list of all of the things that panic you and make it impossible for you to think?

Trigger warnings are a way of bringing your cage out with you into the world. And your amygdala is not going to agree with me on this one, but not everything that is scary is dangerous. And information about scary shit is necessary, even though learning about it can be triggering for some people. Are you not going to let anyone educate your children about what to do if a gunman comes to their school, because it’s too scary to think about guns, or violence against children? This approach has been consistently disastrous, from the way Americans have approached sexuality education, to our imperialist problems with domestic gun control and immigration. Adopting a strategy of trigger-proofing the world for ourselves means we don’t ever talk about the serious shit that hurts and kills us. And that might please our amygdalas, who are not big thinkers, but it’s not how we’ve succeeded as a species. We can learn the difference between a concept we find threatening, and a speeding U-Haul approaching in the rear view mirror.

We can plan to be prepared, to be extent that is reasonable. Which means not relying on the unreasonable. Getting panicked is something that happens. You can learn how to get grounded, when you are freaking out about something you see on your screen. Put your feet down. Breathe. Look around and notice something in the room with you. Describe it. I’ve made habits of these exercises, because I need them all the time. They don’t always work, but it’s better to have tools than to make my emotional intelligence someone else’s job.

While it’s awesome and affirming for my husband to recognize when I’m triggered, to change the subject, and help me realize that I’m not there right now, the only kinds of changes that are going to help me long term with my PTSD are the ones I can implement. It’s not something anyone else can do for me: not my community or a web browser plug in, not even my therapist or my loved ones can protect me from getting triggered. And that, my friends, is the good news about trigger warnings not working. You are not at the mercy of others. You are in charge and most highly qualified to manage your own panic. That’s the reason for the exercises, and the thoughtful consideration of how we humans work in a crisis. Because it’s better to be prepared.

Image credit: animals.desktopnexus.com

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Death In Spring

My yard in riotous June.

“I hate this wallpaper,” Wilde was supposed to have said, just before he died. “One or the other of us will have to go.”

My therapist told me this quote from Oscar Wilde, supposedly his last words. We’ve been talking about being outcast, and queer, and of thoughts of death and suicide. Wilde had been ill after his imprisonment, and his last months were spent bedridden, in a room with ugly wallpaper. When Jason tells me this I think of “The Yellow Wallpaper” first, because of the literary connection, then of the wallpaper in my own home, the lower half of a decrepit Victorian. “I hate this wallpaper,” Wilde was supposed to have said, just before he died. “One or the other of us will have to go.”

It’s a season of death and illness, even as it’s undoubtedly spring come early. Everyone’s mental health and immune defenses are at their lowest ebb, in the pause between the last of the cellared rations of tubers and the first greens of spring. My husband claims to be nursing at least his third consecutive cold. The snows have melted, unlikely to return. The banks of the river are pits of sucking clay. In the yards and along every path, snowdrops have been supplanted with crocuses; this morning I walked the dog through the neighborhood, and saw a forsythia in bloom.

Anything growing in my own yard, besides grass and trees and some shrubs, is thanks to Abby, who had been our neighbor when we first moved here. As I go in and out the door to the porch where I garage my bicycle, I pass the particularly sprawling and accursed yew that Abby had a vendetta against. Now that the snow has melted, I can see the pile of sand and yard trash she had deposited into the middle of it, in her attempts to kill it without uprooting it outright. She hated our landlord, but would not defy him outright, only in her sidelong witchy way.

Abby, her teenage daughter, Micah, who had ferrets, Abby’s wife, Janet, their neurotic dog, Ziggy, and their cats constituted the family upstairs when we moved in. A couple years after we arrived, Micah graduated and moved into her own place in town. Then, a few years ago, Abby and Janet bought their own house in the next village. Within the year Abby, who had never been well, became seriously ill. I saw her in the hospital the day she and Janet got the news that Abby had stage IV cancer, but I didn’t realize that I would never see my friend again. There is no fifth stage. Abby died within a couple of weeks.

After Abby and Janet moved away, we had other neighbors, but they come and go, all college students, and we’ve liked some of them, but never had the fondness we did for our first neighbors. We were “the boys” to them, just a little bit younger than our upstairs matriarchs and an all-male household beneath their all-female one (except for cats and ferrets). They were the ones who made relationships with our neighbors in the houses on either side of us, gave us a way to piggyback into them when they left, so that we share dog talk, snow removal equipment and labor with them, watch their houses when they go on vacation.

But mostly this is Kevin who does this work of being neighborly. I’m planted in the past, still picking Abby’s raspberries every May and freezing them. I make desserts from them and bring them to Janet’s potlucks. I admire, photograph, and report upon Abby’s roses, her black irises, the daffodils and crocuses that are thinned each year by the squirrel population. No one feeds the birds, now that Abby’s gone, but they still come to raise families in our trees each year.

Even that fucking shrub is still alive, still gaping where it has spread instead of being pruned, full of grit and trash. Oh Abby, I think, as I pass. She had such a cheerful way with what was ugly, happy to bring home boxes of plants, plaster stickers over her loud and tiny sherbet-orange beater of a car. Abby made things with her disturbances of fertile grounds. Her perennials still bloom. Micah still has Janet. So does Ziggy, who is a calmer animal than she ever was, reflecting her mistress’ unflappable demeanor. Abby was the loud one, spiky-haired, covered in piercings and dressed in purple, though there was always something calm and fixed about her gaze. She was actually shy, but went to pains to hide this. She loved the beautiful and the tender ones, hated bullies and the resistant, persistent ugly things that can’t be scrubbed out or ripped out.

How Abby hated that shrub. One or the other of them was going to have to go.

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