The ketogenic diet is popular for many reasons, primarily because it helps to shed weight quicker than many other diets and plans. As the diet has increased in popularity, many people have questions about its long-term effects on the body.
For example, some claim that it helps to control hunger and others claim that it improves focus and cognitive function. One study showed that the keto diet was successfully used to improve symptoms of epilepsy.
A common question is the effect of the keto diet on testosterone production in the body. This article discusses the one question you want to know: ketogenic diet and testosterone – is there a connection?
What Is the Ketogenic Diet?
For those who don’t know, the ketogenic, or simply keto, diet is a very low carb, moderate protein, and high-fat diet. Its aim is to simulate starving conditions by consuming very little to no carbohydrates. Usually, there’s an adjustment period where people feel sick-ish (the ‘keto flu’ or ‘carbohydrate slump’) after which the body adopts fat-burning or ketosis for energy.
In ketosis, the body uses ketone bodies from the breakdown of fats instead of glucose. Ketosis proponents claim that this is more efficient and cleaner ‘energy’, and it improves metabolic flexibility.
Do Diets Affect Hormone Levels?
Before delving into details, we know that severe caloric restrictions can affect hormone production and hence hormonal balance. There are three major glands that oversee hormonal production and balance: the hypothalamus and pituitary in the brain, and the adrenals on top of the kidneys.
Together, they form the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), which regulates hormonal balance. They control stress levels, emotions, moods, immunity, digestion, metabolism, libido, and energy levels, among others.
The HPA axis is sensitive to stress, exercise, and calorie intake. It is postulated that creating long-term stress, such as in starvation, causes the overproduction of stress hormones that disrupt the HPA axis balance.
Specific Effects of Keto Diets on Testosterone
Coming back to the keto diet, if the body is put on starvation mode, this causes a shutdown of non-vital functions. However, this often happens if you’re on no-carb or very low-energy diets for a prolonged period or you hit very low body fat percentages.
There is a point beyond which the keto diet begins to have detrimental effects. When your levels of body fat are severely low, with low dietary supplementation, your steroid hormone production is suppressed. Testosterone is a steroid hormone, meaning that it is produced from the cholesterol molecule.
In relation to this, since dietary fat and fiber have an inverse relationship, one study showed that high-fiber diets reduce cholesterol levels and can reduce levels of steroid hormones. It is noteworthy, however, that vegans don’t seem to show suppressed testosterone production despite their diets, which have higher fiber content (here and here).
For overweight or obese people, calorie restriction and the related fat loss of the keto diet can improve hormone balance, including testosterone levels. This is an important feature, which informs the keto-testosterone correlation theory. Note that fat loss in an obese person also improves other body functions, causing testosterone and other hormones to be balanced better.
Testosterone and High-Carb Intake
This thought seems to refute the keto-testosterone correlation theory at face value. However, we know that some body cells need glucose for survival – brain cells, for example. Therefore, no matter how keto-adapted a person becomes, they still need to produce glucose through gluconeogenesis – the process that turns glycerol, a component of fatty acids, into glucose.
Considering this, it can be argued that the glucose needed for testosterone production while on a keto diet can still be furnished through gluconeogenesis.
Additionally, in some studies, a higher carbohydrate intake was necessitated by intense body training through exercise (here and here). With increased body training, a higher carb intake counters the stress-mediated hormonal suppression that comes with intense exercise.
What Does It All Mean?
There are several viable theories about the effects of keto diets on testosterone production and many more on the effects of diet on the hormonal balance. We need further research and more time before any of these theories can be considered to be definitively proven.
However, one definitive theory is that the keto diet, if taken to the extreme through chronic or severe restriction of caloric intakes, will decrease levels of testosterone. If you stay in neutral calorie balance (consume about as many calories as you expend), and start and maintain healthy body weight with adequate body fat percentages, the keto diet should boost your testosterone.
Does Ketogenic Diet Boost Testosterone?
The simple answer is yes, but there are pre-conditions as follows.
First, the mechanism through which testosterone production is boosted during keto dieting isn’t well understood. It may be because of the higher levels of available cholesterol, which begs the question: can simply increasing your cholesterol intake have the same effect? What are the associated risks of increasing cholesterol levels over the long term?
There are also exceptions to the rule, namely, intense body training and extreme dieting, which decrease testosterone production. If you’re exercising intensely while also limiting your carbohydrate intake, you’re likely to see a testosterone dip.
If you want to go on the keto diet only to boost testosterone, maybe you shouldn’t. Use the keto diet to gain its many benefits, including suppressing hunger, improved energy levels, increased focus, and weight loss. Remember that the keto diet is fairly restrictive, meaning you must be ready to adhere to it over the long term.
We hope this post has answered the question “ketogenic diet and testosterone – is there a connection?”
On the whole, whether or not you are on the keto diet, you can improve your hormonal balance and boost your testosterone production by adopting a healthier lifestyle. This means losing some weight if you are overweight or obese, eating plenty of low-carb vegetables, and limiting saturated/unhealthy fats.
Regardless of your diet, ensure that your total calorie intake sustains your minimum body functions to keep you at a healthy weight over the long term. Remember that increased stress levels can undo any good effects of your diet. Finally, ensure that both you and your body are comfortable with your dietary choices.