04/19/2011 09:36 am ET | Updated Jun 19, 2011

The Trouble with Testosterone

By guest blogger Peter Moore, editor of Men's Health magazine and coauthor, with Travis Stork, MD, of the Lean Belly Prescription

A few years back, we editors at Men's Health decided to put our masculinity on the line and test our testosterone levels. Isn't that just what you picture Men's Health editors doing, dip-sticking their masculinity in their spare work time?

As if we have any spare work time, what with watching out for the fate of mankind and the state of our six-packs. Both of those are closely tied to our T levels, of course. Hence the urge to test.

We didn't do it by arm wrestling, or playing "chicken" out on an abandoned highway. We did it by spitting in test tubes, which we then sent off to the T-testing lab. While we awaited the results, we beat our chests and trash-talked, kind of like those disputatious apes at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I was one nervous editor-monkey, I'll confess. As the oldest guy in the group, I knew my numbers might be flagging. Men lose testosterone as they age, and I've aged plenty--especially when the magazine is late for its press run. That factor--plus my statin habit along with some unwise antiquing I did in my mid-20s--can have a depressive effect on testosterone.

So imagine my surprise--and OK, chest-beating delight--when the totals came back and I'd doubled up on the next closest competitor, a guy half my age. This felt pretty good, until I discovered that I might have been benefiting from some juiced protein powder that made its way to the free table at Men's Health. Call it a hazard of working at the manliest men's magazine there is: accidental oversupply of testosterone.

But that's not where I'm going with this post.

In fact, right now I'm more worried about the opposite problem: environmental factors that might be compromising the mighty T, and turning it into a rather flaccid lowercase t. The most recent evidence: an article I spotted on BBC Health news, alarmingly titled "Cancer rise and sperm quality fall 'due to chemicals.'"

I've always been terrible at chemistry.

The article looks at a study published in the International Journal of Andrology, studying an alarming rise in testicular cancers and an accompanying decline in sperm quality in men born between 1979 and 1987. The really scary thing: The decline in men's sperm counts accelerated noticeably as the years progressed. As for the testicular cancer, it was higher among men born around 1980, compared with men born in the 1950s.

The suspicious thing here is because the adverse effects multiplied over a relatively short timeframe, there's a likely perp: environmental factors. The BBC quoted a Dr. Allan Pacey, a senior lecturer in andrology at the University of Sheffield: "The best working theory we have to explain why sperm counts are may be declining is that chemicals from food or the environment are affecting the development of testicles of boys in the womb or in their early years of life."

It makes my spiked jug of protein powder sound like a walk in the park. What's more, I was one of those lucky guys born in the '50s, before the chemical overload could affect me.

What sorts of chemicals are we talking about? We published an article by Laura Roberson in Men's Health called "The Sex Disruptors," which named a dirty half-dozen of them:

Bisphenol-A (BPA). In the United States, BPA is embedded in everything from hard plastics (look for bottles marked with a 7 in the recycle triangle) to the linings of metal food cans and water towers. The problem is, it can leach into liquids. Once ingested, it mimics the effects of estrogen. This can result in chromosomal abnormalities, a likely cause of spontaneous abortions. While both boys and girls are vulnerable in the womb to chemical exposure, boys are particularly endangered because their Y chromosome is more prone to genetic mutation.

Dioxins. Industrial processes like waste incineration, oil refining, and wood preservation generate dioxins. And in our environment, they're everywhere--even in our food. In men, these toxins may alter hormone ratios, thus reducing the chances they will produce a boy.

DDT and Dicofol. These and other banned pesticides may linger in the environment for hundreds of years, which means they could still find their way into your body fat. Worse, they're unregulated in many countries, so they can turn up in imported foods. Inside your body, they lower testosterone levels, making you more likely to sire girls.

Phthalates. Manufacturers use these to soften the plastic in everything from IV tubes to food packaging. They don't actually bind to plastic, so they can escape into water and air. Inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin, phthalates boost estrogen in male mammals. This can hamper masculine development.

Hexachlorobenzene. It hasn't been used as a pesticide for decades. Even so, it's present in small quantities, floating through our water supply and sullying our food, particularly fish and wild game. It's associated with two things: (1) spontaneous abortion, and (2) reduced male births.

This hits very close to home for me as a man, as a magazine editor, and as the father of two sons who were born just after the timeframe of the study mentioned above. If anything, the toxic haze has only grown thicker during my sons' time on earth. Will they have the same chance that I did, to watch their children grow and thrive in the world?

Only if we acknowledge the mounting evidence that something is amiss in our environment, and act to correct it.

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