The male sex hormone testosterone is essential to many important bodily functions. It develops your muscle mass, keeps your bones strong, and fires up your sex drive. That’s why it’s vital that you maintain healthy levels of testosterone.
Unfortunately, some of your lifestyle choices may lower your testosterone levels. One such lifestyle choice is high alcohol consumption.
You see, alcohol and testosterone don’t exactly mix well, and serious alcohol abuse may severely impact testosterone levels in men.
So should you stop drinking alcohol to save your testosterone levels?
Maybe not completely, but there are many effects of alcohol on metabolism, libido, and hormonal balance (to name a few) to consider.
Below, I’ll quickly run you through how alcohol and testosterone are linked and what effects alcohol consumption has on your body. Is your alcohol use really killing your testosterone levels?
What is alcohol?
You probably wonder why I’m asking you such a simple question, but do you actually know what alcohol is?
What we tend to just call ‘alcohol’ is actually called ethanol. It’s the psychoactive ingredient in alcoholic drinks, and it’s what gets you drunk.
Ethanol is formed when yeast digests – or ferments – the sugar in certain types of food. Examples are grapes (which make wine) or grain (which makes beer).
Although alcohol is socially accepted in many societies around the world it is in fact a psychoactive drug. It is classified as a Central Nervous System (CNS) depressant. This means that alcohol consumption slows down neural and brain activity.
Furthermore, alcohol can be highly addictive, and alcoholism is a serious condition that can have detrimental effects on your body, health, and life.
If you struggle with alcoholism or want to know more about alcohol addiction and the possible treatments, you can find more information on websites of institutions such as SAMHSA, Alcoholics Anonymous, or Addiction Center.
So before moving on to the topic of alcohol and testosterone and how those two are related, let’s have a look at some of the many effects alcohol has on your health.
Common effects of alcohol on your health
The specific effect of alcohol use on your body relies on many different factors. Effects depend on the amount of alcohol consumption, the sort of alcohol you consume, and your personal body type.
You’ll find out all you need to know about alcohol and testosterone in a bit, but first, let’s look at some of the general ways in which alcohol affects a person’s health.
Ethanol has both short and long term effects on your brain.
In the short term, your brain cells will stop communicating as effectively as they normally would. This can lead to several potentially dangerous effects, such as memory loss or amnesia after excessive alcohol consumption (also called a blackout).
If you consistently consume too much alcohol this may result in permanent damage to your brain. Studies have shown that it increases the risk of dementia and Korsakoff syndrome.
On a positive note though, several studies, including this one, have indicated that moderate drinking (1-6 drinks per week) may reduce risks of dementia.
One of the biggest health issues related to alcohol abuse is depression, and the two are closely associated with each other.
Alcohol and depression are often seen as a two-way street, although studies report that alcohol abuse is more frequently the cause of ill mental health than the other way around.
Although alcohol may give you a temporary mood booster (that happy tipsy feeling) it may have a long-term negative effect on your mental health.
Your liver works to process and neutralize some of the toxic substances you eat and drink. One such toxic substance is alcohol.
Alcohol abuse can lead to alcoholic liver diseases (ALDs) such as alcoholic fatty liver, which happens when too much fat piles up in the cells in your liver. This, in turn, has been linked to diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.
The effects of alcohol on metabolism are incredibly complex, and researchers aren’t fully sure about what exactly causes what in a lot of cases.
However, the main effect of alcohol on your metabolism is related to the fatty liver I mentioned above, as it can cause damage to your liver and how it stores and processes (metabolizes) carbs and fat.
You see, alcohol is a primary source of fuel. This means that once consumed, your body will instantly try and metabolize the ethanol, putting other metabolic processes on hold.
Due to the alcohol interfering with your body’s metabolism, excess fat can build up, which can lead to weight gain.
However, this is only one of the ways in which alcohol affects your metabolism. Another way is indirect, by the effect of alcohol on your testosterone levels. So let’s look at alcohol and testosterone next.
Alcohol and testosterone
We’ve seen some of the damaging effects alcohol can have on your health, but what about your testosterone levels? How are alcohol and testosterone linked in all this? Let’s find out.
Alcohol affects your hormones, and not just the primary male sex hormone testosterone.
You see, alcohol may inhibit normal hormonal function by stopping the glands that release hormones from working properly. As such, alcohol has been shown to affect the entire endocrine system.
Alcohol troubles communication between your hormonal system and other systems in your body such as your immune system and nervous system.
This hormonal disturbance can cause hormonal imbalance. This hormonal imbalance caused by alcohol plays out differently in men and women.
Two of the main hormones in all of this are – you’ve guessed it – testosterone and estrogen. So let’s have a look at how both of these hormones are affected by your alcohol consumption.
The reproductive system
When talking about testosterone and estrogen we’re talking about the male and female reproductive systems and related matters such as libido and sex drive. Let’s start with the men.
The male reproductive system contains the anterior pituitary gland, the testes, and the hypothalamus. Alcohol consumption can negatively impact each of these parts and how they communicate with the rest of your body.
Because of this, alcohol abuse can result in serious issues such as infertility, impotence and reduced sperm maturation.
Alcohol also decreases the production and activity of multiple male sex hormones. Firstly, it impairs the normal function of luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone. Secondly, alcohol can damage the Leydig cells, which are responsible for testosterone production.
Now let’s look at the female reproductive system. Studies have shown that a lot of ethanol can cause numerous negative effects on women’s reproduction as well.
It may obstruct female puberty by negatively impacting bone health and general growth, disrupt a woman’s menstrual cycle, and further affect other hormone levels.
Just like in men, alcohol disrupts the hormonal balance in women. And funnily enough, this tends to work out exactly opposite to how it works in men.
You see, whereas it may cause low testosterone levels in men, it can actually cause high testosterone levels in women. Similarly, where it may cause high estrogen levels in men (more on that in a bit), it can cause low estrogen levels in women.
And that leads us to the big question of whether low levels of testosterone can be directly caused by alcohol consumption.
Does alcohol lower testosterone?
So yeah, as we’ve seen above, that depends on whether you’re a man or a woman. In men, the answer is yes. In women, the answer is the opposite.
But focussing on guys here – as most people reading this post will be men – let’s look closer at the effect it has on men.
Excessive alcohol use can indeed cause low testosterone levels by inhibiting testosterone production.
The main way in which it does this is by damaging the Leydig cells in your testes, which are the cells responsible for the production and secretion of testosterone.
Other ways in which your T levels may be affected are:
- An enzyme called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+) supports both alcohol metabolism and the synthesis of testosterone. When you drink, this enzyme will focus on metabolizing alcohol instead of synthesizing testosterone.
- Drinking releases endorphins (it’s why people tend to be happier when they’re drunk). Unfortunately, these endorphins also inhibit the synthesis of testosterone.
- Cortisol, the stress hormone, can increase due to drinking. This hormone in turn blocks testosterone synthesis.
Lastly, there is the special case of alcohol, testosterone, and estrogen. Does alcohol increase estrogen levels?
Again, as with the previous questions, this depends on whether you’re a man or a woman. But when talking about men, the answer is: indirectly, yes.
You see, another way in which alcohol causes low testosterone is by increasing the conversion of testosterone into estrogen.
So for men, this works as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it causes low testosterone, while on the other hand, it increases your estrogen levels.
Side effects of low testosterone caused by alcohol
We’ve already seen a lot of potential symptoms that you may experience from alcohol and low testosterone. Below, I’ll list some of the most common side effects you can expect.
Typical side effects of low testosterone levels include:
- Decreased energy levels
- Reduced muscle mass
- Less strength and muscle power
- Loss of body hair
- Lack of sex drive and flagging libido
- Shrunken testicles
- Erectile dysfunction
- Male infertility
Of course, this is aside from all the damage alcohol can do on your body that’s unrelated to your testosterone levels, such as liver failure, brain damage, or depression.
Other factors to consider
Of course, not every human being is the same, and it’s impossible to say how much alcohol is ‘too much’.
Nevertheless, there are a few factors to consider that can determine how alcohol will affect your testosterone levels.
- Your sex
As mentioned, this is the most important determinant in terms of how alcohol will affect T-levels. If you’re a man, you can expect a reduction, while if you’re a woman, you may say your testosterone levels increase.
- Your age
Alcohol use affects your health in different ways depending on your age. As a general rule, the older you get, the easier your hormones are affected by excess ethanol in your system.
Whereas younger people tend to still produce the same amount of hormones whilst drinking moderate amounts, for older people this can already cause a hormonal imbalance.
- Your drink
Quite frankly, beer is not the same as vodka. What you drink can determine the effect it will have on your testosterone levels.
For example, beer contains certain chemicals, phytoestrogen and prolactin, which may increase your estrogen levels and decrease your testosterone levels.
Aside from that, certain drinks can be high in calories, which can have a negative effect of its own on your health, your hormones, and your testosterone levels.
If you look closer at the actual effects of your alcoholic beverages on your testosterone levels, you wonder why so many people even drink.
But then again, the symptoms described above do tend to follow from serious alcohol abuse (and not just a drink every now and then). As long as you moderate your drinking habits, your testosterone levels probably won’t be heavily damaged.
But if you do feel like you start noticing some low T side effects, it might be time to limit your drinking a bit more next time.