Do testosterone boosters work?

Posted 20 December 2020

And can they help men improve their mental and physical health?

From Skeptical Inquirer 5 Dec 2023


There are hundreds, if not thousands, of commercial products aimed at increasing testosterone; they represent a drop in an ocean that is swelling with some 30,000 dietary supplements. The ones offered for boosting testosterone range from relatively benign multivitamins to anabolic/androgenic steroids and everything in between, all thriving in an industry lacking effective regulation or validation of claims.

When evaluated, the evidence is found wanting. Of fifty commercial products claiming to boost testosterone, improve libido, or help men feel stronger, only around 25 percent were supported by any evidence. Around 62 percent of supplements had no literature whatsoever, which is a surprise given the 109 unique compounds found among the supplements (an average of 8.3 ingredients per product). With such a litany of ingredients, one would expect a positive hit on something.

Other reviews of testosterone boosters show that “most fail to increase total testosterone,” with some exceptions. For instance, β-hydroxy-β-methylbutyrate (HMB, a metabolite of the amino acid leucine) was said to increase testosterone levels in male athletes. However, in the studies they cite, HMB was co-ingested with other compounds, including creatine and β-alanine. These amino acids have been studied for decades. They don’t boost testosterone but rather increase the capacity to exercise at a high intensity. It’s the extra “work” that elevates circulating testosterone, not the supplement. It’s an important distinction that’s overlooked by the authors. One could similarly start a resistance exercise regimen and augment testosterone all the same.

The benefits of testosterone boosters, if there are any, are outweighed by the potential risks. There are published case reports showing compromised liver function with long-term use. This poor benefit-to-risk ratio has most experts discouraging their use. Expensive commercial testosterone boosters may only be minimally more effective than Carlson’s testicle tanning.

The only ways to naturally boost testosterone revolve around lifestyle: exercise and physical activity, adequate sleep with good efficiency, and weight management (seeing as being overweight diminishes testosterone production). Deficiency in key nutrients, such as vitamin D, zinc, or magnesium, can also suppress testosterone production. If this is clinically diagnosed via a blood test, then supplementing with the relevant nutrients may help restore testosterone levels. But as far as augmentation beyond baseline, you’re probably out of luck. Unless …

There is a reliable, pharmacologic way to boost testosterone, build muscle, strip fat, and improve libido, but you aren’t going to like it.

Low testosterone isn’t a fabricated complaint. Males with hypogonadism suffer from abnormally low testosterone concentrations that can affect growth and development during puberty and diminish sperm count, sex drive, energy, fertility, muscle mass, bone mass, and overall quality of life in adulthood. Low testosterone and its harmful milieu is pathological; that is, it can be clinically diagnosed and treated. If someone believes they have a genuine testosterone deficiency, it shouldn’t be left to the chance lottery of unregulated commercial supplements. And, if “Low-T” is not clinically diagnosed, then tell Carlson you have nothing to worry about.

Hypogonadism is a condition in which the gonads don’t produce enough hormones. In men, it’s testosterone. It’s diagnosed via a blood test and can be treated. But readers are discouraged from self-diagnosing based on their perceived manliness or the quality of their golf swing.

Others turn to anabolic/androgenic steroids. This is because they work. There’s a reason nearly all professional bodybuilders and men playing superheroes on the big screen turn to these drugs to sculpt their superhuman physiques. Most are “designer steroids,” synthetic testosterone derivatives that are modified to maximize the muscle-building (anabolic) effects and minimize the unwanted androgenic effects. They’re so effective that around 15 percent of legal, over-the-counter dietary supplements are contaminated, sometimes deliberately, with anabolic steroids. It isn’t uncommon for a professional athlete to blame anti-doping violations on contaminated products.

Using steroids comes at a significant cost, and I don’t just mean financially. According to The National Institutes on Drug Abuse, anabolic steroids can cause “severe, long-lasting, and in some cases, irreversible damage. They can lead to early heart attacks, strokes, liver tumors, kidney failure, and psychiatric problems.” People often forget that steroids and other drugs are banned in athletic competition, not just because they violate the spirit of fair play, but because they have the potential to cause significant side effects: harm overlooked by the sociocultural emphasis on masculine traits and the associated aesthetics. When it comes to boosting testosterone, the safe ways are ineffective, and the effective ways aren’t safe. There’s little in the way of consolidation.

Men with clinically low levels of testosterone should seek advice from their doctors. For everyone else, the broader challenge is to uncouple the concept of “masculinity” from the circulating concentrations of a single hormone. If you have questions about your manhood, you won’t find the answers in a testosterone supplement; your insecurities will haunt you long after the bottle is empty.

Dr. Nick Tiller is an exercise scientist at Harbor-UCLA, an author, and a writer. You can follow his work at

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