SHBG: Friend or Foe?

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SHBG
SHBG

SHBG is not all bad though, and might not be something you would want to reduce if you already have levels within normal range. SHBG might lessen the effectiveness of your bioavailable testosterone (free); however, it also protects you from the detrimental effects of excess estrogen since it also binds to this.

In previous articles, we have already talked about the damaging effects of excess estrogen in the male body and how this is becoming increasingly more widespread in the modern age. Maintaining adequate levels of SHBG makes sure you have the defence mechanism in place to protect you in times of excess. Excess estrogen levels promote feminization, muscle loss, fat gain and can often be the start of developing severe health conditions such as obesity, hair loss, BPH, gynecomastia and in worse cases even prostate cancer.

If you have above normal SHBG levels, usually the best thing to start to investigate is if you have excess levels of estrogen floating around, since elevated estrogen levels will make your body increase its SHBG levels to protect itself. In other words, reducing estrogen can actually lower SHBG and in turn, free up more testosterone. Hence, the best approach to modulating SHBG is usually by modulating other hormones such as estrogen.

Increasing levels of total testosterone can also mean more free testosterone without necessarily increasing SHBG. This is the approach many TRT (testosterone replacement therapy) clinics take with patients with high levels of SHBG. Increased levels of androgens such as from testosterone injections will push levels of SHBG down, so on TRT, the solution can be to increase your testosterone dosage to lower SHBG. However, it is a balancing act since more testosterone often equals more estrogen conversion in return. The endocrine system is a complex balancing act and optimizing it is a learning process in itself.

If you have already looked into ways to lower your estrogen levels but are still not happy with the results on your SHBG, some nutritional changes and supplements can be taken to optimize further.

Dietary Macros:

Because insulin has a tendency to drive down levels of SHBG, many hence claim that the best diet for lower SHBG is one high in carbohydrates. However, recent research has shown that in fact this has more to do with the sugars and spiking blood sugar, rather than insulin.

If you go by this mentality, it would mean that a person with diabetes would have the ideal conditions for high free testosterone since they have chronically elevated levels of blood sugar and low insulin. We all know for a fact though that this is a very damaging metabolic state and men with diabetes have actually been shown to have low testosterone levels.

It is better to lean towards having high SHBG than too low. We would rather argue that the fact that carbohydrates and sugars affect SHBG in this way is a clue that excess carbs and sugars are indeed not that good of a thing for the human body.

Another often cited study is the following one that showed higher levels of total testosterone and lower levels of cortisol and SHBG when following a high carbohydrate diet. What 99% of the people citing this study on the internet fail to do is read it in detail, which shows that in the end a high carb diet and a high protein diet only had a difference of a few % in free testosterone levels.

The differences in total testosterone and cortisol were merely influenced by the change in SHBG between the diets and the same applied with cortisol and cortisol binding protein (like SHBG but for cortisol). The body simply adjusted its systems to different diets, but the amount of free androgens and free cortisol was still the same on both diets, proving in the end that macros of dietary carbohydrates have no real influence on levels of free androgens.

To take this even further, I have personally experimented with about every possible extreme macro combination there is, high carb, ketogenic diet (high fat) and even a meat only high protein diet. The results? No direct influence on levels of SHBG in the long term (minimum 1-2 months between diet changes).

The key error that almost all the nutritional studies do when testing diets and hormone levels are that they don’t give the body enough time to adapt to dietary changes. Among the high-fat ketogenic community it is a known fact that it takes the body at least 1-3 months to adjust to the diet; hence, there is no point in doing blood tests and compare diets this way unless you give the body sufficient time to adapt. Metabolic pathways have to be redirected, and the gut microflora repopulated.

In the end from my own experience, most diets will give you similar hormone levels in the end unless you go on an incredibly low-fat diet and deprive your body of the building blocks needed for testosterone, such as cholesterol. Vegan diets often do this and also include excess levels of fiber with drives up SHBG, often resulting in reproduction issues in vegan men.

What is instead important is to optimize diet for metabolic function, such as don’t create inflammation and chronically high blood sugar levels through high sugar consumption. Just because you are doing a bulk protocol does not make it OK to go crazy on sugary treats!

Fiber:

Another important nutritional topic to discuss when it comes to hormones is fiber intake. Fiber can be great for your gut microflora, but its effects on our hormones are not always what we might want. There is actually not much scientific evidence that humans need a lot of fiber in their diets, as many traditional populations have survived on diets containing zero fiber for thousands of years in excellent health.

Fiber accumulates in our gut and absorb hormones and eventually bring them out of our body with normal bowel functions. Without fiber, these hormones would be reabsorbed into our system and reused. This is why studies has shown higher fiber diets to have testosterone lowering effects, and it is another good reason for why a 100% plant based diet is not a good way to go for men.

Also like mentioned previously, high-fiber diets increase SHBG which makes fewer androgens bioavailable. However, if you have a problem with excess levels of estrogen, fiber can actually be a good way to flush estrogen out and raise SHBG temporary to protect you from its adverse effects. So there is no real optimal diet, aim for a diet that is suitable to your goals.

Alcohol & Pharmaceuticals:

We all know that excess alcohol consumption is not good for you, and if you are a serious athlete and want serious results, we recommend you forget about alcohol altogether.  In fact, alcohol not only raises levels of SHBG but also lowers testosterone, sperm quality and even reduce the weight of your testicles. Not only that but then you have to suffer the hangover as well. Worth it? We don’t think so bro.

There are also plenty of pharmaceuticals that can wreck your hormone levels and increase SHBG. The mechanism often being that pharmaceuticals impair liver detoxification (as does alcohol) and the liver is responsible for maintaining balanced levels of SHBG. If you want optimal SHBG, keep your liver running as smooth as possible.

Examples of drugs that can affect SHBG are:

  • Statins
  • Anti-fungals
  • Anti-depressants
  • Hair loss drugs (finasteride in particular)
  • Beta blockers

If you have health issues that need you to take any of the above, maybe the potential adverse hormonal effects they can cause will further motivate you to get your health back in shape. Remember, there is no such thing as chronic disease, it is chronic because it stems from damaging lifestyle choices (poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, high-stress levels, etc.). Address the lifestyle, and you will treat the disease in return. Work with your doctor on what steps you can take to reduce the dosage of your medication and eventually wean off it.

Supplements to Optimize SHBG:

Boron:

One of the best natural supplements to lower levels of SHBG is Boron. Boron is a mineral that few people have heard about. It’s present naturally in our soil and is believed to have come to earth through cosmic dust. However, most of our commercially bought vegetables today are not grown in nutrient rich soils and are hence often devoid of this essential mineral.

Boron has some interesting effects on the endocrine system and depending on the person, can be both good or bad in its effects.

In the following study Boron was shown to increase levels of free testosterone by 28%, by lowering SHBG. Another study also showed a similar effect of Boron supplementation. What is important to note however that all of these studies also showed an increase in levels of estrogen.

Lowering your SHBG levels with Boron is only a good idea when you already have your estrogen levels under control and in a low range, as otherwise, you would release this estrogen in your body which might cause more harm than good. The ratio between testosterone and estrogen is, in fact, more important for male health than how much testosterone you have.

So if you have an estrogen problem, Boron is not for you. Fear not, there are plenty of other options for you:

Vitamin D:

Vitamin D has been shown time and time again to be an important nutrient for health since it is involved in a staggering 1000 bodily functions! One study even showed that it could help reduce levels of SHBG. However, what is important to note is that a majority of people today in our sedentary lifestyles spent mostly indoors are in fact vitamin D deficient.

The above study was done on men who were deficient in vitamin D, and supplemental vitamin D increased their levels of testosterone because of that. So if you spend lots of time outdoors in the sun, it is highly likely you already have optimal levels of vitamin D and would not get this benefit from supplementation. Our recommendation? Make sure you receive adequate sun exposure (minimum 1 hour, preferably 1-4 hours) per day.

Magnesium:

One of the most important minerals for the body is magnesium, and it is also one of the most commonly deficient ones.

Magnesium is involved in over 300 bodily functions and has plenty of studies to back up its effects. Here are the main effects magnesium has on male hormones:

Most often people who are deficient in magnesium is so because of their less than ideal dietary habits. If you want to make sure you get enough magnesium through your diet alone, focus on these foods:

  • Beef
  • Spinach
  • Swiss Chard
  • Cacao/Dark Chocolate
  • Brazil Nuts

When it comes to supplementation and magnesium, some types of magnesium are better than others. Focus on magnesium glycinate, orotate, malate and citrate as these are more bioavailable and active compared to for example magnesium oxide. Topical magnesium products such as oils, creams and Epson salts (magnesium sulphate) can be a more effective way of supplementation to restore a deficiency since you can avoid potential GI distress that can be a side effect of high oral dosages of magnesium.

In other words, topical magnesium supplementation enables you to go higher on the dosage with less potential side effects!

Zinc:

Zinc is considered the most important mineral for men, and for good reason as it has been shown to regulate many different hormones as well as improve sperm quality and fertility. 

One of the hormones that zinc modulates is SHBG, and it has been demonstrated to reduce SHBG in two different studies, #1, #2.

Conclusion:

To sum it all up, maintaining healthy levels of SHBG is simple. Here are the quick pointers how to quickly implement what we have outlined in this article for best results:

  • Keep estrogen levels within low-normal ranges
  • Supplement with a good mineral complex (magnesium, boron and zinc)
  • Get daily sun exposure
  • Limit consumption of alcohol and pharmaceuticals if possible

Remember that SHBG is an essential part of your endocrine system and meant to balance your hormones, only when issues such as excess estrogen, toxin buildup or nutritional deficiencies are present does SHBG become a problem for your testosterone levels.

Free testosterone is key to reaping the performance benefits of high testosterone levels, even a small change such as adequate levels of minerals can produce pronounced effects on low testosterone levels.

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