The Stress-Testosterone Seesaw

Does your testosterone level go up or down with stress? Answer: down. Makes no sense, right? You’d think it would go up to help handle the onslaught of whatever it is that’s coming at you. Trust me, it doesn’t.

Flooring it

This is top of mind as a I prepare to talk to providers at Marin General Hospital this week. The most convincing study I’ve ever seen demonstrating how testosterone reacts to acute stress was done by the military. Hormones were measured in recruits the week before, and the week of, intensive “operational” fieldwork. During the week of fieldwork, men performed combat drills and marches around the clock and had 1 meal and 1 snack daily along with two one-hour naps. When compared to the previous “calm” week, testosterone levels fell by 30% during the week of extreme physical activity. Shows that its not a great idea to keep the pedal to the floor all the time.

Run for Your Life

But what’s really happening here? To understand this hormonal paradox, take a stroll back in time to our caveman days. Take your pick: think 75,000 years for Neanderthals and 30,000 years for Cro-Magnon man. What kinds of stress did they experience? How about freezing, starvation, or being chased by woolly mammoths or saber toothed tigers. Nice to have that “fight or flight” nervous system around, all juiced up with adrenaline (cortisol), to help them survive.
So, testosterone takes the backburner in times of stress, as mind and body need peaky awareness and quick, explosive energy to respond to threats. Once the stress passes, during times of relaxation, that’s when testosterone does its duty: recovering and rebuilding muscle, bone and blood. It’s a “rest and restore” hormone at its best. Keep the stress up and you’ll be sure to keep the T down.


If you get diagnosed with low testosterone, start looking at your life. What’s chasing you? The most common forms of chronic stress in modern man are: worry, anxiety, poor sleep, medical illness, obesity, overwork and too much travelling. The Roman poet Ovid had sage advice on such matters: “Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” Boost your T by tending to your most valuable resource: you!