The Russian herb Tribulus terrestris has been reported to raise testosterone. But does it? Image courtesy via Wikimedia.

It’s hard to turn on the television these days without seeing ads for drugs to treat “Low T.” Well, usually, where there’s a drug, there’s also an herb.

Most of us know testosterone as “the male hormone.” And on one hand, that is true. But on the other, it’s very reductionistic. Certainly, testosterone drives puberty in males. Testosterone levels are 7 times higher in adult males vs. females. Women with over-the-top testosterone levels will develop male secondary sexual characteristics like facial hair, etc. Higher testosterone levels seem to promote stereotypical male traits such as competitiveness and even aggression. And in men, as testosterone drops with middle age, fitness, libido, and general vitality tend to drop alongside it.

But testosterone is produced by – and it belongs in – both men and women. It plays an important role in both biological sexes in maintaining bone health, muscle mass, sex drive, and general wellbeing. It is much more than just “the male hormone.”

If it’s reductionistic to call testosterone “the male hormone,” it’s equally reductionistic to always think of low libido, low energy, etc. as “low T.” But that’s another topic…

Let’s talk natural medicine.

I suppose I should say first, prescription testosterone replacement therapy isn’t not “natural medicine.” It’s giving your body a natural, bio-identical hormone. What I’ll be talking about are herbs and other naturally-derived substances that help your body produce more testosterone on its own. They’ll be less powerful and direct than the prescriptions. But sometimes, that’s a good thing – in a sense giving your body a nudge (or a shove) but leaving it in control.

Royal Jelly is an odd supplement. It’s not an herb. It’s not a vitamin. It’s actually a secretion produced by female worker bees to feed the queen.

First of all, don’t be turned off by the word “secretion” — honey and milk are also “secretions.”

When you think about Royal Jelly it helps to think about what its role is in the beehive itself. Royal Jelly is made for the sole purpose of feeding the queen. No other bee eats it. Now bear in mind the queen is genetically the same as the worker bees, but it transforms into this giant, almost entirely different organism, capable of laying twice its body weight in eggs a day, entirely through the power Royal Jelly – its vast nutritional stores, and the way Royal Jelly drives hormonal changes.

I understand that sounds scary – who wants a superfood from the insect kingdom to coopt your endocrine system? But if you’re a human being consuming sane doses, Royal Jelly won’t coopt your

endocrine system so much as gently ease it in the direction of greater youthfulness and vitality. One study enrolled 62 healthy volunteers, ages 41-82, both male and female, and randomized them to receive 3,000 mg of Royal Jelly or placebo daily for six months. Among many other benefits, Royal Jelly raised testosterone – slightly, in women; more significantly in men. To each their own.

There’s been other research, too. Honestly, I should devote an entire article to just Royal Jelly. But suffice it to say that wasn’t the only study showing increases in testosterone. The research on dry eye, menopausal symptoms, and wrinkles is also compelling.

Tribulus Terrestris (or “puncture vine”) is a plant native to four continents, a highly regarded booster in traditional medicine, and shown to raise testosterone in lab animals. For more than a decade, when people asked me for an herb to raise testosterone, Tribulus is what I’d reach for. So I was surprised and a little concerned when I sat down to write this, and I encountered more than one paper claiming Tribulus had been shown to not raise testosterone after all.

True enough, human clinical trials published in 2017, 2014, 2007, and 2005 showed no impact on testosterone levels – although it still did display other benefits around libido, vitality, lean body mass, and fertility. But then it did raise testosterone, significantly, in human studies in 2019, 2017, 2016, and 2011.

You can look at that a few ways. One way is just say, well, research is funny that way. Or you could say that an herb that works in 50% of trials still has a success rate equal to or better than Prozac. Or you could look at how the clinical trials differ. Generally speaking, Tribulus appears to have a higher success rate when the subjects are older men or women, or people out of shape. It did not work as well in younger men, and trained athletes. That makes sense, when you think of it as an herb that helps the body get to normal but maybe doesn’t override normal to reach an extreme.

So, at the end of that, I continue to recommend Tribulus. A standard dose is 500 mg, standardize to something in the range of 50% saponins. Most people will take 2-3 doses a day.

Fenugreek is a well-known cooking spice, with medicinal properties to boot. It dries drippy noses, regulates blood sugar, promotes lactation, and may also increase testosterone levels.

That sounds like a lot for a cooking spice and would almost encourage me not to use it in food for the whole family. But bear in mind two things. First, when we’re talking about testosterone, we’re talking about specialized, highly concentrated extracts. And secondly, fenugreek doesn’t exactly raise testosterone, as much as preserve it.

In both men and women, the body converts testosterone to estrogens via a hormone called aromatase. These specialized fenugreek extracts inhibit aromatase. So it both de facto increases testosterone, but also reduces estrogens. There have been a few clinical trials showing positive results.

It’s hard to talk of a standard dose of this herb, as different brands use different extracts with different measurements. My suggestion is, stick to a reputable brand, and follow the instructions on the bottle.

Vitamin D is a well-known and generally safe “hormone-vitamin,” which plays a role in mood, calcium metabolism and immune function. There has been at least one clinical trial involving 54 overweight men with low testosterone, where 3,332 iu of vitamin D daily showed significant increases in testosterone levels after one year. Considering how ubiquitous vitamin D is in supplements for men, women, and children, I think it’s safe to say this is less of a testosterone “booster” than a normalizer, for when levels have dropped too low.