Why modern men are losing their testosterone

Research has shown that men today have less testosterone than they used to. What's happening?

  • Several studies have confirmed that testosterone counts in men are lower than what they used to be just a few decades ago.
  • While most men still have perfectly healthy testosterone levels, its reduction puts men at risk for many negative health outcomes.
  • The cause of this drop in testosterone isn't entirely clear, but evidence suggests that it is a multifaceted result of modern, industrialized life.

Remember Frank Sinatra's swagger, John Wayne's quiet confidence, and Burt Reynold's impressive mustache? They were icons of masculinity for a lot of people, and many folks today point to those icons when bemoaning a perceived loss of masculinity in our society.

Well, Frank Sinatra had a violent temper, John Wayne was a racist, Burt Reynolds was a womanizer, and they all drank way too much. Our values have changed more than the storied qualities of "manliness." Despite this, there is something to the argument that men used to be more manly back in the day.

A study on a large sample of American men found that the average testosterone level has been dropping by as much as 1 percent per year. Testosterone levels lower naturally with age, but this study found that a 65-year-old man in 1987 had about 17 percent more testosterone than a 65- year-old man in 2004. This wasn't just limited to Americans either; a Danish study found similar results. Anecdotally, sex counselor Ian Kerner told CNN that he's noticed "an increasing number of young guys are complaining of sexual concerns, such as diminished libido and erectile problems, more commonly seen in older men."

How bad is this?

It's not a disaster. Most men today still have perfectly healthy levels of testosterone even if it is dropping year to year. But if testosterone levels get too low, then we start to see a slew of bad effects.

Testosterone promotes attention, memory, spatial reasoning, and energy — essentially, it makes you sharper — and, of course, it increases libido and muscle mass. When Testosterone counts get too low, men can begin to feel fatigued, lose sexual interest, gain weight, and lose muscle mass. In addition, there is a link between low testosterone levels and depression.

There's also a wide association between low testosterone levels and disease. One study, published in the spring, found that people with a testosterone deficiency (defined as less than 300 nanograms of testosterone per deciliter) were at greater risk for obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, and other diseases. It's important to note that this is correlational data; it's very difficult to definitively prove that low testosterone causes these negative outcomes. But the odds are that doing the activities that keep your testosterone levels up will also help prevent these very undesirable conditions.

Flickr user Linden Tea

As testosterone levels decrease with age or in response to medical conditions, some people choose to receive testosterone therapy and inject what their body fails to produce.

What's the cause?

Unfortunately, the reason why testosterone counts keep dropping over the years isn't clear, but there are some likely candidates. One surprising possibility is that people smoke fewer cigarettes now. Even though everything else it does is terrible for you, smoking actually raises testosterone levels. And back in Frank Sinatra's day, smoking was the norm, not the exception. But please, don't light up to make yourself manlier. It's a bad idea.

Our rising rates of obesity, too, are probably contributing. Between 1999 and 2016, obesity in American adults increased by nearly 10 percent. Obesity and testosterone create something of a vicious cycle: obese men tend to have lower testosterone , and men with lower testosterone tend to become obese. This happens because fat cells metabolize testosterone and convert it into estrogen. In addition, obese people have lower levels of SHBG (sex hormone binding globulin), which transports sex hormones like testosterone through the blood.

However, the most likely candidate is pollution. Research has shown that chemicals that are commonly found in medicine and pesticides inhibit testosterone. These chemicals are seeping into our water, contributing to fertility problems in fish. The researchers also speculate that this same mechanism is occurring in humans as well.

In addition, research on Native American tribes found that higher levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs; a component in industrial coolants, as a plasticizer, and in many other applications) in the males' systems was associated with lower testosterone counts. We've known that PCBs are toxic for years, but the chemical lasts for a very long time. Other chemicals, like bisphenol A (BPA; a plastic) and triclosan (an antibacterial agent) have been shown to disrupt the human hormone system, either by mimicking estrogen or blocking the activity of testosterone. Once chemicals such as these get into the environment and enter the food chain, they are very difficult to remove.

(Photo by ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Industrial pollutants have a myriad of negative effects on our health, one of which can is the blocking of testosterone in the body.

What can be done?

Good news: The things that are lowering men's testosterone levels may be complicated, but combating this issue is simple and probably what you would have guessed anyways. Eat a healthy diet, exercise more, and get a good night's sleep. If you really want to go the extra mile, avoid eating or drinking from plastic containers. Finally, get political: When environmental regulation goes out the window, so too does your health. Contrary to the stereotype, becoming a treehugger might be the best way to save your masculinity.

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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