Testosterone is the male hormone responsible for a number of important roles, such as the development of the male reproductive system, muscle mass, facial hair, libido, and stronger bones. But there are certain factors that lead to low testosterone levels. In this article, we’re going to take a look at whether vitamin D levels and sunlight exposure can affect testosterone levels.
The problem with low testosterone levels
Low testosterone is a problem for many people. And it’s actually getting worse with time, with a 2007 study showing that men’s testosterone levels have been progressively getting lower with each passing decade since the 1980s (1).
The question of course is why?
Certainly, our genetics have not changed in just a few years, so we really need to look at lifestyle to see if there’s anything that could be responsible.
The lack of sunlight
With our busy modern lives and worries about skin cancer, one of the possibilities is that many of us just don’t spend enough time outside in the sun, which can be especially difficult for those living in regions that don’t get a lot of sun anyway!
A deficiency in Vitamin D
Vitamin D deficiency is a major public health issue and has been associated with a whole range of health problems including musculoskeletal diseases, cardiovascular disease, cancer as well as infectious and autoimmune diseases (2).
In addition to this, there is a significant concentration of vitamin D receptors, (vitamin D has its effects in the body through stimulating the vitamin D receptor), in the male reproductive tract including the Leydig cells of the testes, which are the main source of testosterone production in men (3).
Is there an association between low Vitamin D and low testosterone levels?
Scientists are able to breed mice so that the gene that makes the Vitamin D receptor is removed, and they are known as vitamin D receptor knockout mice. This means that even when the mice have vitamin D in their bodies, they can’t use it because the vitamin D receptor isn’t there. This means they effectively have no vitamin D and studies have shown that these mice have low fertility and low sperm counts (4).
In humans, 3 different studies have shown an association between low vitamin D levels and low testosterone levels (5, 6, 7). Also, a further study took 54 men with low testosterone and low vitamin D levels and gave half 3,322 IU of Vitamin D per day for a year, whilst the other half received a placebo.
At the end of the year, there had been no significant change in the vitamin D levels or the testosterone levels of the placebo group. However, in the group that supplemented with vitamin D, their vitamin D levels increased by 46%, and their testosterone levels increased by 29%.
The results certainly suggest that if you have both low vitamin D and testosterone that increasing your vitamin D levels – which can be done through diet, supplements, or increasing sunshine exposure – can also increase your testosterone levels (8).
Is there an association between sunlight and low testosterone?
What’s more, the study (8) also found that during the winter months when there is significantly less sunshine, both vitamin D levels and testosterone levels drop. The question is, is it just a reduction in vitamin D that’s causing the drop in testosterone, or are there other factors involved such as the reduction of light itself?
A 2013 study in male rats found that when they were exposed to continuous light for 70 days, they actually had higher levels of testosterone, more 17β-HSD enzyme activity (which is the enzyme that produces testosterone and the testosterone and DHEA precursor Androstenediol). Also, the rat’s testis grew in size and they produced more sperm (9).These results suggest that not only vitamin D, but actually light itself is affecting testosterone levels.
A further study this time in humans looked at the levels of Luteinising hormone (LH) after exposure to bright light first thing in the morning. Whilst the study didn’t measure testosterone levels directly, LH is produced in the pituitary gland in the brain and travels to the testes to act on the Leydig cells causing them to produce testosterone (10).
The level of brightness of light can be measured in Lux, and the researchers gave the subjects firstly exposure to 1000 lux of light for 5 days, and then a further 5 days of a placebo light exposure of just 10 lux. These brightness levels were chosen after a previous study had found 1000 lux to improve the mood of depressed patients (11).
The subjects were exposed to light for 1 hour between 5 am – 6 am, and afterward they were allowed to go back to sleep if they felt they needed to. The researchers found that the 1000 lux light for 5 days led to a 69% increase in LH levels, whereas the 5 days of placebo led to a reduction of LH levels back down to the initial starting point levels (12).
Another study conducted all the way back in 1939 in Boston and published in the journal Endocrinology, found something similar (13). In the study, they used UV light and shone it mainly on the subject’s chest and stomach for 5 consecutive days. At the end of the 5 day period, they found that testosterone levels had increased by 128%.
After a rest period of 5 days, they found that testosterone levels had returned almost to the baseline that the subjects had started with at the beginning of the experiment. However, then they moved the light exposure to the testicles of the subjects and repeated the 5 days exposure. At the end of the exposure, they found that this time testosterone levels had increased 200% and that it then took 10 days for these levels to return to baseline levels!
How much Vitamin D and sunlight do you need?
The studies certainly indicate that both low vitamin D levels and low light exposure could keep testosterone levels low. So really how much vitamin D and light do you need?
Recommended sunlight exposure per day
The Endocrine Society recommends 15 – 30 minutes of direct sunlight per day. We would also recommend that there is direct light exposure as soon after waking up as possible. Also, it should be direct sunlight, as sunlight through windows can significantly reduce the intensity of the light.
Of course, direct sunlight can be difficult to get depending on where in the world you live especially during winter, and for those that struggle there are light lamps available that are relatively cheap.
We would recommend looking for a lamp with 10,000 lux and aiming at least initially for 30 minutes of exposure per day. Judging how you feel based on that, decide whether you should adjust the amount any further, either up or down.
Also for testosterone supercharge, you can try increasing light exposure to the testicles, either through some naked sunbathing (probably best to be careful where you try this), or when using a lamp.
Recommended vitamin D intake per day
For Vitamin D levels, the US Endocrine Society recommends between 30 – 50 ng/ml of vitamin D (14), measured in the storage form (25(OH)D), which is the standard form used on vitamin D tests. Do check you have the right units when you are looking at your tests. Ng/ml are the usual units in the US, whereas in Europe they normally use nmol/l.
It can be a little confusing, but to get nmol/l from ng/ml, you times the ng/ml figure by 2.5. So 30-50 ng/ml is 75-125 mol/l.
In terms of daily amounts of vitamin D needed, Michael Holick, one of the foremost experts on Vitamin D has recommended 2000 IU per day for adults and 1000 IU per day for children (16).
(1) Thomas G. Travison, Andre B. Araujo, Amy B. O’Donnell, Varant Kupelian, John B. McKinlay, A Population-Level Decline in Serum Testosterone Levels in American Men, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 92, Issue 1, January 2007.
(2) Holick MF, Vitamin D Deficiency, N Engl J Med. 2007; 357 266-281
(3) Blomberg Jensen M, Nielsen JE, Jorgensen A, Rajpert-De Meyts E, Kristensen DM, Jorgensen A, Skakkebaek NE, Vitamin D receptor and vitamin D metabolizing enzymes are expressed in the human male reproductive tract Juul A, Leffers H. Hum Reprod. 2010; 25 1303-1311
(4) Blomberg Jensen M, Nielsen JE, Jorgensen A, Rajpert-De Meyts E, Kristensen DM, Jorgensen A, Skakkebaek NE, Juul A, Leffers, Vitamin D receptor and vitamin D metabolizing enzymes are expressed in the human male reproductive tract, H. Hum Reprod. 2010; 25 1303-1311
(5) Wehr E, Pilz S, Boehm BO, Marz W, Obermayer-Pietsch B. Association of vitamin D status with serum androgen levels in men. Clin Endocrinol (Oxf) 2010;73:243–248.
(6) Lee DM, Tajar A, Pye SR, Boonen S, Vanderschueren D, Bouillon R, O’Neill TW, Bartfai G, Casanueva FF, Finn JD, Forti G, Giwercman A, Han TS, Huhtaniemi I, Kula K, Lean ME, Pendleton N, Punab M, Wu F. Association of hypogonadism with vitamin D status: the European Male Ageing Study. Eur J Endocrinol. 2011
(7) Katharina Nimptsch, Elizabeth A. Platz, Walter C. Willett, and Edward Giovannucci, Association between plasma 25-OH vitamin D and testosterone levels in men, Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 2012 Jul; 77(1): 106–112.
(8) S. Pilz, S. Frisch, H. Koertke, J. Kuhn, J. Dreier, B. Obermayer-Pietsch, E. Wehr, A. Zittermann, Effect of Vitamin D Supplementation on Testosterone Levels in Men, Horm Metab Res 2011; 43(3): 223-225.
(9) N. M. Biswas, R. Biswas, L. H. Mandal, Effect of continuous light on spermatogenesis and testicular steroidogenesis in rats: possible involvement of alpha 2u-globulin, Nepal Medical College journal : NMCJ, 1 March 2013
(10) Daniel Nedresky; Gurdeep Singh, Physiology, Luteinizing Hormone
(11) D.F. Kripke, S.C. Risch, D. Janowsky, Bright white light alleviates
depression, Psychiatry Res. 10 (1983) 105–112
(12) In-Young Yoon, Daniel F. Kripke, Jeffrey A. Elliott, Shawn D. Youngstedt, Luteinizing hormone following light exposure in healthy young men, Neuroscience Letters 341 (2003) 25–28
(13) ABRAHAM MYERSON and RUDOLPH NEUSTADT, INFLUENCE OF ULTRAVIOLET IRRADIATION UPON EXCRETION OF SEX HORMONES IN THE MALE1, Endocrinology 1939 25: 7-12,
(14) Holick MF, Binkley NC, Bischoff-Ferrari HA, Gordon CM, Hanley DA, Heaney RP, et al., Evaluation, treatment, and prevention of vitamin D deficiency: an Endocrine Society clinical practice guideline. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2011;96(7):1911-30. doi: 10.1210/jc.2011-0385.
(15) Sunil Wimalawansa, Extra-Skeletal and Endocrine Functions and Toxicity of Vitamin D, Journal of Endocrinology and Diabetes, 3(3): 1-5.
(16) Michael F. Holick, PhD, MD, VITAMIN D: A D-LIGHTFUL SOLUTION FOR HEALTH, J Investig Med. 2011 Aug; 59(6): 872–880.