There can be only one!! No, I am talking about the highlander but the biggest guy in the gym. Everyone wants to be the big guy at the gym, this means hardcore training and of course lots of calories for muscle growth. The only problem is that most bodybuilders when they start bulking and incorporate massive calories into their diet they start putting on fat in addition to lean muscle. It’s pretty well accepted that you bulk up in the off-season and pack on as much muscle as possible and then as competition approaches try to strip off the fat. Some bodybuilders tend to look like football players in their off-season; they eat so many calories to bulk-up that they tend to put too much fat on. If you look at many powerlifters and strongmen you will notice they are as strong as an ox but tend to have a protruding midsection.
Men tend to accumulate fat in their stomach due to an abundance of lipoprotein lipase – an enzyme that is responsible fat storage – in these regions. Women have higher concentrations of lipoprotein lipase in the thighs and buttocks while men have higher concentrations in the abdomen. When the off-season arrives, some bodybuilders adopt the ‘massive eating’ diet; the problem is that with increased abdominal fat comes a drop in testosterone levels according to a new study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism which reports that increases visceral adipose tissue (a deeper layer of adipose tissue that cushions the abdominal organs) in the waist area is associated with a decrease in bioavailable testosterone levels1. The study examined 783 Caucasian males, aged 20-29 years and examined serum testosterone, free testosterone, and estradiol in relation to bodyfat mass. The results of the study indicate that in healthy young men, the larger the central adiposity (stomach), the lower the testosterone, free testosterone, and DHT levels were; additionally there was an increase in estrogen as well. It’s also of interest that weight loss causes an increase in an in testosterone in overweight men (5, 6). The question is can massive calorie consumption that occurs with bulking in the off-season be counterproductive for testosterone levels?
Testosterone and Lifestyle
Increased abdominal fat mass and lower serum total testosterone and free testosterone mass has been documented in several studies (2, 3). In the recently published clinical guidelines from The Endocrine Society, increased central (stomach) adiposity is listed amongst the less specific signs associated with androgen deficiency (4). Everyone knows that testosterone levels decline with age, but new research demonstrates that maintaining a healthy weight may reduce the rate of drop of testosterone with aging. Scientists at the New England Research Institutes, sought to establish the relative contributions of aging, health, and lifestyle factors to changes in testosterone levels in community-dwelling men. In the study, over 1667 randomly selected men; aged 40 to 70 were enrolled in the Massachusetts Male Aging Study, a long-term epidemiological study of men’s health and endocrine function.
The men’s testosterone levels and a variety of other factors, including weight, were measured at the beginning and the end of the study period, which lasted nearly 15 years. After controlling for the different ages at baseline of the men in that group, the researchers found a 14.5% decline in total testosterone per decade of aging and a 27.0% per decade decline in free testosterone. When these trends were evaluated only in the men who maintained a healthy bodyweight had a lower decline in total testosterone (10.5 %) and free testosterone (22.8). This suggests that a substantial proportion of testosterone loss was due to health- and lifestyle-related factors. This suggests that not packing on to much fat can prevent a significant decline in testosterone with aging. Analysis of the data indicated that a 4-to-5-point increase in BMI was associated with a loss of total testosterone comparable to that of about 10 years of aging; the loss of free testosterone was much less, however, corresponding to about 3 years.
Testosterone and the Male Pregnant Gut Syndrome
Total and free testosterone is inversely associated with body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference (8, 9). It’s not so much BMI that men have to worry about but their waist circumference. The lowest levels of both total and free testosterone were found in men with a high waist circumference (9). A large scale epidemiological study called the Tromso study shed some light on belly fat and testosterone levels. Tromso is in the very northernmost part of Norway. It has with extreme variation in daylight exposure –there are months of complete darkness!! Interestingly, the researchers also noted that when there were months of darkness and inactivity were at its highest resulted in an increase in waist circumference with a drop in testosterone (15). Additionally, when the same men had blood samples drawn during periods of sunshine when waist circumference was lower resulted in higher testosterone levels. The study demonstrates that even small increases in waist circumference can reduce testosterone.
Increased Leptin Lowers Testosterone
Leptin is released by fat cells in amounts mirroring overall body fat stores. Leptin is a protein hormone that plays a key role in regulating energy intake and energy expenditure, including the regulation of appetite and metabolism. In addition to regulating both appetite and metabolism, it also regulates testosterone levels as well. In this month’s journal of Archives of Andrology, researchers examined a sample of 77 men (ages: 20 to 60 years old) to determine what factors correlated to testosterone suppression. After careful analysis, testosterone suppression was related to BMI, waist circumference, insulin resistance, and high leptin levels10. There have been several studies in healthy young men and older men that have reported that high leptin levels are associated with decreased testosterone levels12, 13. Recently, it was reported that testosterone and its active metabolite dihydrotestosterone (DHT) were able to suppress leptin secretion and leptin mRNA in human adipocytes, suggesting a direct effect of testosterone and its metabolites at the level of adipocytes13.
Obesity is clearly associated with lower levels of testosterone and free testosterone, the decrease in serum hormones are thought to be mediated by: 1.) reduced sex hormone binding globulin (low levels of sex hormone-binding globulin are considered to be due to hyperinsulinemia, predicting the later onset of insulin resistance) 2), reduced LH amplitude, and excess estrogen; however excess estrogen may not be the only fat derived hormones suppressing testosterone, leptin may be an even greater suppressor of testosterone than estrogen.
In one study, males who were of normal weight and moderately obese had blood samples drawn to determine hormone levels in addition to body fat distribution. The obese men had ~30-40% lower testosterone levels than the normal weight men; more important, the degree of testosterone suppression was related to leptin, but not to estrogen levels or other hormonal variables (10). Another interesting finding was that male obesity reduced LH-stimulated androgen secretion and was inversely correlated with leptin levels (the higher the leptin levels, the lower the LH production). The impaired androgen response to LH was due to a defect in the enzymatic conversion of 17-OH-progesterone to testosterone. This is in conjunction with another study, which reported that excess leptin produces a significant decrease in the amount of LH produced from the hypothalmus (11). The results of the study strongly suggests that excess bodyfat which increases leptin levels can lead to reduced androgen levels by inhibiting LH production in the brain.
The abrupt drop in LH levels in the most viscerally obese subjects may reflect a sudden incapacity of the pituitary to keep up its LH secretion. The identification of a possible link between visceral obesity and decreased LH levels might be due to excess free fatty acids. Excess free fatty acids have been linked with inhibition of another pituitary hormone- growth hormone. In addition to the suppression of LH pulse amplitudes and aromatization of androgens to estrogens, some have suggested that putting on bodyfat with an increase in leptin levels directly suppresses testosterone at the testicular level. Isidori et al proposed that elevated leptin levels may directly inhibit Leydig cell (testosterone producing cells) function (16).
All bodybuilders need to increase calories during the off-season to put on quality muscle but this does not give you the green light to eat everything in sight. Some bodybuilders put on as much as 30-50 pounds in the off-season. The following research may persuade bodybuilders to not put on excessive amounts of fat in the off-season.
1. Nielsen TL, Hagen C, Wraae K, Brixen K, Hyltoft Petersen P, Haug E, Larsen R, Andersen M. Visceral and Subcutaneous Adipose Tissue Assessed by Magnetic Resonance Imagine in Relation to Circulating Androgens, SHBG, and LH in Young Men. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2007 Apr 10
2. Giagulli VA, Kaufman JM, Vermeulen A 1994 Pathogenesis of the decreased androgen levels in obese men. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 79:997-1000.
3. Niskanen L, Laaksonen DE, Punnonen K, Mustajoki P, Kaukua J, Rissanen A 2004 Changes in sex hormone-binding globulin and testosterone during weight loss and weight maintenance in abdominally obese men with the metabolic syndrome. Diabetes Obes Metab. 6:208-215.
4. Bhasin S, Cunningham GR, Hayes FJ, Matsumoto AM, Snyder PJ, Swerdloff RS, Montori VM 2006 Testosterone therapy in adult men with androgen deficiency syndromes: an endocrine society clinical practice guideline. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 91:1995-2010.
5. Stanik S, Dornfeld LP, Maxwell MH, Viosca SP, Korenman SG 1981 The effect of weight loss on reproductive hormones in obese men. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 53:828-832.
6. Niskanen L, Laaksonen DE, Punnonen K, Mustajoki P, Kaukua J, Rissanen A 2004 Changes in sex hormone-binding globulin and testosterone during weight loss and weight maintenance in abdominally obese men with the metabolic syndrome. Diabetes Obes Metab 6:208-215.
7. Travison TG, Araujo AB, Kupelian V, O’Donnell AB, McKinlay JB. The relative contributions of aging, health, and lifestyle factors to serum testosterone decline in men. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2007 Feb;92(2):549-55.
8. Svartberg J, Midtby M, Bønaa KH, Sundsfjord J, Joakimsen RM, Jorde R. Associations of age, lifestyle factors and chronic disease with testosterone in men: the Tromsø Study. Eur J Endocrinol 2003; 149: 145–152.
9. Svartberg J, von Mu¨ hlen D, Sundsfjord J, Jorde J. Waist circumference and testosterone levels in community dwelling men. The Tromsø Study. Eur J Epidemiol 2004; 19: 657–663.
10. Osuna C JA, Gomez-Perez R, Arata-Bellabarba G, Villaroel V. Relationship between bmi, total testosterone, sex hormone-binding-globulin, leptin, insulin and insulin resistance in obese men. Arch Androl. 2006 Sep-Oct;52(5):355-61.
11. Tena-Sempere M, Pinilla L, Gonzalez LC, Dieguez C, Casanueva FF, Aguilar E. Leptin inhibits testosterone secretion from adult rat testis in vitro. J Endocrinol. 1999 May;161(2):211-8.
12. Haffner SM, Miettinen H, Karhapaa P, Mykkanen L, Laakso M. Leptin concentrations, sex hormones, and cortisol in nondiabetic men. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1997 Jun;82(6):1807-9.
13. Vettor R, De Pergola G, Pagano C, Englaro P, Laudadio E, Giorgino F, Blum WF, Giorgino R, Federspil G. Gender differences in serum leptin in obese people: relationships with testosterone, body fat distribution and insulin sensitivity. Eur J Clin Invest. 1997 Dec;27(12):1016-24.
14. Wabitsch M, Blum WF, Muche R, Braun M, Hube F, Rascher W, Heinze E, Teller W, Hauner H. Contribution of androgens to the gender difference in leptin production in obese children and adolescents. J Clin Invest. 1997 Aug 15;100(4):808-13.
15. Svartberg J, von Muhlen D, Sundsfjord J, Jorde R. Waist circumference and testosterone levels in community dwelling men. The Tromso study. Eur J Epidemiol. 2004;19(7):657-63.
16. Isidori AM, Caprio M, Strollo F, Moretti C, Frajese G, Isidori A, Fabbri A. Leptin and androgens in male obesity: evidence for leptin contribution to reduced androgen levels. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1999 Oct;84(10):3673-80.