If you have turned on a television recently, most likely you have seen a commercial touting the fountain-of-youth-like effects of a product claiming its remarkable ability to boost testosterone (“test”) and improve sex drive. While test-boosting products have been around for decades, their emergence as purely muscle builders and the now-trendy supplementation for low testosterone levels (“low T”) and sexual performance has made this category one of the hottest growth markets in the industry, and not just for men.
While the low T movement is certainly seeing success, sports nutrition companies and product formulators have been looking for new, innovative ways to integrate test-boosting ingredients into their arsenals. Ingredients such as D-aspartic acid, fenugreek, Tribulus terrestris, Eurycoma Longifolia (aka Tongkat Ali or longjack), and Epimedium grandiflorum (known as horny goat weed) are widely touted in the sports nutrition market as effective test boosters, despite inconsistent and limited research on both test levels and muscle development.1,2 Further, the claimed effective doses of these can be high enough to make powder applications difficult, posing challenges for flavoring; capsule-fatigue also is setting in, as users often need to take four or more large capsules (00+ capsule size) per serving. Moreover, many of the so-called test-boosters don’t necessarily increase testosterone or improve its bioavailability, but they have shown promise in other areas. That said, the category itself has become quite broad in definition and the application appears to have shifted from the weight room to the bedroom.
Categorically speaking, low T has been self-diagnosed as not only having low levels but also having conditions that may or may not be due to low testosterone, including: low sperm production or sperm quality, decreased libido, decreased energy, decreased strength, increased stress and anxiety, decreased health and immune function, and probably most notably erectile dysfunction and reduced sexual performance. Hence, drug-makers are a having a field day helping men (and women) find a path back to their younger years. However, the hope that many of the natural ingredients that are pre-DSHEA (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act), have GRAS (generally recognized as safe) or NDI (new dietary ingredient) status, can offer similar benefits has yet to be proven.
Most studies involving Ayurvedic herbs and other traditional medicines have only shown modest results in animals and human subjects who are classified as having low testosterone levels. Few studies exist showing positive benefits on muscle-building in bodybuilding and active exercising populations (or those with normal testosterone levels). So why are test boosters continuing to gain momentum? If you ask users, most will tell you that while acute effects may not be noticed, regular testosterone use offers additional benefits that improve performance. To that end, whether there is a placebo effect or factual evidence of efficacy, test boosters are here to stay, and for brand marketers, this represents a significant revenue opportunity.
Tackling the low T issue requires a little thought and a solid game plan for execution. The test-boosting paradox is conquered by attacking the “problem” from all sides. Improving performance, increasing muscle size and shape, and reducing excess body fat all start with improved energy, stress mitigation and proper recovery from exercise and life events. Improving testosterone is as much a part of reducing catabolic or muscle-threatening activity as it is trying to load up on ways to increase it. Formulas should not only look to increase testosterone, but also delay, reduce and reverse its tendency to aromatize (convert to estrogen by aromatase enzymes), while reducing inflammation and stress and improving libido and overall health.
For the formulator, rather than trying to craft the perfect anabolic steroid replacement, consider the fact that with increased energy and stamina and decreased stress, one can exercise longer, more frequently and with greater intensity. Over time, this will increase muscle size, strength and testosterone levels naturally. Thus, a comprehensive approach to research-proven dosages should include using both known testosterone-increasing ingredients (such as fenugreek, zinc, vitamin D, D-aspartic acid and ashwagandha)1 while adding libido- and energy-enhancing ingredients like Tribulus terrestris, Longjack, epimedium, oat straw, eleuthero root and, more recently, maca.
Formulas should be designed to enhance overall workout performance across all facets, which may produce added benefits in non-weight room applications. Additionally, additional ingredients like diindolylmethane (DIM), white button mushroom extract and black pepper extract may act as anti-aromatics while enhancing androgenic activity.3,4 Thus, a well-rounded test booster needs a comprehensive approach. However, the “trick” here, in formulating, is not to overcomplicate. Instead, choose fewer ingredients served up at research-proven efficacious doses versus throwing the proverbial kitchen sink full of partially dosed ingredients at your concoction.
For brand marketers, spending a little more on the cost of goods and working with your science team to create powerful marketing sound bites—draw in the consumer while explaining truthful benefits and showing transparency in application—will not only foster loyalty but will have a better chance of meeting and exceeding expectation when it comes to product quality and performance. With so many brands competing in the space and so few adhering to the “rules” of sound product development, creating consumer loyalty instead of skepticism will prove far better down the road when the end-of-the-year revenue numbers are scrutinized.
With advancing science, better ingredient extraction techniques, more refined processing, higher dosing and innovative methods for flavors and maskers, the testosterone-boosting market should continue to see much success. But there is more work to be done by all involved. Ingredient suppliers should be persistent and look deeper in to current “approved” ingredients and their sub-species. Likewise, researchers should try to design studies that target specific users with a broader approach that looks at other performance markers that may be related to testosterone and not just total or free testosterone levels. Sports nutrition brands should spend more time in research and development and work to refine formulas that have good data, rather than just firing off un-founded claims backed by a micro-dusting of ingredients. And finally, consumers in this segment should expect to feel energized, not like a boost from stimulants but invigorated, refreshed and driven to improve performance in all aspects of life.
Note: This article is an online only bonus from the January 2020 digital magazine, Muscle quest: Developing products to promote lean mass.
David Sandler has been an advisor, researcher, formulator and consultant to the sports nutrition industry for almost three decades. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Clemesha CG et al. “Testosterone Boosting’ Supplements Composition and Claims Are not Supported by the Academic Literature.” World J Mens Health. 2020 Jan; 38(1): 115–122.
2. Balasubramanian A et al. “Testosterone Imposters: An Analysis of Popular Online Testosterone Boosting Supplements.” J Sex Med. 2019 Feb;16(2):203-212.
3. Balunas MJ et al. “Natural Products as Aromatase Inhibitors.” Anticancer Agents Med Chem. 2008 Aug; 8(6): 646–682.
4. Balunas MJ et al. “Natural Product Compounds with Aromatase Inhibitory Activity: An Update.” Planta Med. 2010 Aug; 76(11): 1087–1093.