Burnout and Low Testosterone in My 20’s
This is a cautionary tale of the workaholism, sleep deprivation, and the burnout I went through that left me with very low testosterone in my 20s. I was 28 to be exact, and had testosterone levels of a 60-70 year-old man. Here’s how it can happen to a seemingly healthy guy with a pretty typical schedule.
Do yourself a favor and don’t make my same mistakes. But if you have, recover from burnout and low testosterone naturally. Patience WILL pay off.
burnout and low testosterone in my 20s
At the time of writing this post, I have been sleeping more than 8-hours a night for a year and a half. My life, body, health, mindset, marriage, our digital nomad status… everything, has completely changed for the better. The scary thing is that I never thought of myself as “burned out.” I felt that my daily life was pretty typical. Waking up at 5 AM, working out, eating breakfast, spending the day driving in my car for my sales job, having lunch and dinner with customers, driving back home, and in bed by midnight.
Nothing too out of the ordinary, right? I could have ridden that adrenaline train for years longer. However, once I had some medical and blood tests done and learned how low my testosterone levels were, I accepted that I was burned out. I am so thankful I stopped depriving myself of sleep and got a grip on my health.
Many people are on the same path that I was on, or even further down the road, and I hope my burnout and low testosterone story encourages them to change their trajectory.
Growing up – My Workaholic Beginnings
I have shown signs of workaholism since I was a young boy. As a tinkering perfectionist, TV and video games never felt productive to me. I needed to be playing with a toy car, practicing flips on the trampoline, or juggling a soccer ball. I got that trait from my grandpa who, instead of relaxing at the cabin on the weekend, would produce work — cleaning engines in the garage, picking weeds in the garden, straightening the dock, and blowing leaves off of the property. Guess who was always the first to help him? Me.
This continued into college. I studied hard for my engineering degree but managed my time obsessively. I wanted to have it all: the good grades, the nights out, and even time for fishing. I was the full meaning of “work hard, play hard…” a mantra that I took to a whole new, unhealthy level.
My Life In Corporate America
Out of college, I worked at two corporations as a materials engineer. My same obsessiveness and perfectionism came out at work, and it helped propel me through various promotions until I finally landed a sales territory management role for Texas and Louisiana. This is where I really shone. My goal achieving to-do list grew and my 40-hour work weeks started creeping up towards 70 hours. Still, I maintained my workouts and my social schedule, so without noticing, I began to sleep less and less.
It’s hard to pinpoint the start of my burnout. Remember when I said that I am a perfectionist? In retrospect, I did this because I care a lot about my reputation. If I claim to be a fisherman, or a health coach, or a high-performing salesman, I feel compelled to demonstrate a high level of expertise.
Often times work would totally consume my mind, my day, and even my dreams at night. Things that I used to value more than anything, like social outings and hobbies, took the back seat because I was working like a dog. On top of all of this, I added in a side-gig (now full-time job) as an online health coach to help myself and others stay accountable to fitness. I was a walking version of the Benjamin Franklin quote, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.”
Each weekday, my alarm clock was set for 6 hours of sleep. I had to get up, workout, and work the side job before starting my day job. Usually, the early morning work in my coaching job continued throughout the weekend. The hours would fly by before I would realize that I hadn’t eaten anything all day. By nighttime, there was no energy left to socialize. Honestly, this should have been my first red flag.
Still, I let it slide. The hours continued to pay off in the areas I monitored. The extra hours invested in my career boosted my bank account and my reputation at both jobs. Although the results never slowed down, my health did. That was the area that I was not monitoring well.
Chronic Stress and Sleep Deprivation
On the outside, I was a very fit, thriving 28-year-old. In reality, I was chronically stressed, dangerously sleep deprived, and officially burned out.
Had I not been exercising daily, eating a clean and well-balanced diet, and in-tune with my body for the prior three years, I may have written off my rapid health decline as aging or slowing metabolism. However, I knew something was seriously off.
Symptom #1: Unmanageable Fatigue
Every morning when I woke up, I never felt well rested. Before my workout, I’d take a pre-workout energy supplement. Between that and my workout, I could get through a couple of hours in the morning. Then I would hit the road for a customer visit and stop at the first Starbucks on my route.
Before an important customer meeting or presentation, I would drink 5-hour energy to get in the zone. Multiple times in the afternoon, I would drink coffee. More often than not, the coffee did nothing. I was behind the wheel for up to 12 hours a day for my job, so this was scary. When coffee failed, I had to pull over (usually at a gas station) and take a 15-20 minute power nap in the front seat of my car.
Symptom #2: Bizarre Allergic Reactions
After I had some bizarre allergic reactions, I started journaling about my health. It was strange. I would wake up 2-4 times a week with tingly and inflamed lips, which eventually went away after some time.
I journaled every night and morning, tracking sleep location, food/drink consumed that day, where that food was cooked… everything. I was meticulous and I experimented with gluten-free and dairy-free diets in hope of sleeping better and not having puffy lips. Nothing made a difference and I didn’t find any patterns to my episodes.
Symptom #3: Physically Sick Due to Work
As I mentioned earlier, even my dreams were focused on my work. When I wasn’t working, I was thinking about it and in hindsight, it was controlling my life. I started getting stomach aches and feeling physically sick when something wasn’t perfect in my job, even things out of my control like delayed shipping or a price increase. I was in too deep and my sleep deprived self wasn’t able to handle these stressors.
Uncovering The Truth
As part of my health coaching job, I read up on the latest news, research, and books on a variety of health topics. One crossed my path covering sleep deprivation. I knew I probably didn’t sleep enough and never woke up feeling rested, so I got a blood test done to check my vitamin D levels. In parallel, I decided to visit with two different sleep doctors to see what they thought.
The first doctor dismissed me because I didn’t have an apparent sleep disorder, like sleep apnea. The second doctor, though, shared an interesting nugget. He said, “If you have only been sleeping 6-hours a night for just one year, that adds up to 30 full days of sleep debt.” Wow, I had been sleeping 6 hours a night for 3 years. I needed a three month nap (I know, it doesn’t work like that).
Around this time, I had a conversation with my friend Jon. He told me that he had a testosterone test done recently that showed he had low T. He said it was more common than people thought. So, when I went to the doctor to re-check my vitamin D, I asked to get my testosterone tested. My doctor scoffed and told me that I didn’t need it. I was young, fit, healthy, and didn’t exhibit any low T symptoms. I let it go.
Could It Be Low Testosterone?
Still, it nagged at me. Everything nagged at me. After learning about my severe sleep debt from my sleep doctors, I had read up on the subject. I learned that testosterone is produced while you sleep, so I decided that needed to be a data point benchmarked. At a different doctor’s office, I requested a blood test to check my testosterone levels.
When the results came back, both the doctor and I were shocked. I had very low testosterone level of 290 ng/dl, the typical range for a 60-70 year-old man! I was 28 years old, muscular, and lean, eating almost no processed foods. He said he was baffled because I was nothing like his typical low-T patients (overweight, poor nutrition, drinkers etc.) A retest confirmed that the results were valid.
This was the last straw. I accepted that I was officially burned out with very low testosterone in my 20s. Not cool.
The Decision To Change
This was when I made the decision to change. To reverse burnout and low testosterone, I immediately started sleeping 8-hours a night or more. To naturally boost my testosterone, I began lifting heavier weights, eating more meat, doing bedtime yoga, taking natural testosterone supplements, and conducting sleep improvement experiments.
In the short term, I only felt slightly better, and my bimonthly testosterone tests showed only small improvements. I continuously rejected the recommended solution of testosterone replacement therapy (weekly shots… for the rest of my life), horrified of what that could do to my body. Testosterone replacement meant that my body never needed to produce its own testosterone again. Convinced that there was a better and more natural way to get my body up and running again, I had work to do.
As any engineer would, I dove into the research and stumbled upon some interesting methods, including nutritional balancing.
What Is Nutritional Balancing?
Nutritional balancing is a method that involves a hair tissue mineral analysis. The hair test requires you to submit a hair sample to the lab for a biopsy (hair is the best material since it holds 3 months worth of history). The results identify key nutrient mineral levels and their ratios (if you want to do your own reading, the best source is Dr. R. L. Wilson.)
Well, I was all about data so I sent in my hair samples and made an appointment to meet with the lab.
In my whole lifetime of doctor’s appointments, I always went through the same routine of checking all of the “no” boxes in their check-in questionnaire. No, I don’t take any medications. No, I don’t smoke. No, I don’t have a family history of medical conditions. It always made me feel proud and healthy.
But clearly, I wasn’t healthy, and this was the first doctor’s visit in my life that left me feeling like I had significant room for improvement to reach my peak health. It was refreshing.
My Hair Test Results
The results of my hair test were in. The doctor explained that my nutritional profile matched that of the “Four-Lows Mineral Pattern.” It meant that I was deficient in all four main minerals — magnesium, calcium, potassium, and sodium. Between the results and description of my burnout and low testosterone story, he warned that my adrenal gland was on the verge of shutting down.
He explained how, in this case, most doctors would prescribe a steroid to wake up the adrenal gland. He said this was a bandaid solution and that over time, stimulation makes your adrenal have even less function. This made logical sense to me. It sounded familiar too.
Kind of like how testosterone replacement therapy would weaken the bodies ability to produce testosterone naturally, steroids would reduce the adrenal gland’s ability to function naturally. Instead, he suggested that we “put my adrenal gland to sleep.”
Putting My Adrenal Gland To Sleep
I trusted my doctor and his recommended supplementation schedule to lift my body out of the “Four-Lows Mineral Pattern.” However, Alex and I had just quit our jobs to move to South America and pursue our business (the side gig I had been working on) full time.
Before leaving, I bought what I needed for my daily vitamin plan and headed to Ecuador. Each night, I took my vitamins, and while I slept, so did my adrenal gland. It was the calcium vitamin that made me I slept like an infant. Literally, for three months while living in Ecuador, I slept for 12-13 hours every night. This is precisely what the doctor said would happen. Every day, I could feel my body healing from the damage of burnout. I knew I was on the right path.
Now, 1.5 Years Later…
The vitamins helped, but what really made all the difference was sleep. And patience. When you choose to overcome burnout and low testosterone the natural way, it takes your body considerable time to repair itself.
I can’t even begin to explain the difference this recovery has made in my life. All three of my symptoms, along with symptoms I never thought to correlate are gone (like my low testosterone, acne, stomach aches, and even allergy to cats and dogs).
My sleep has gone from 13-hours a night at the very beginning to 8-10 hours a night. I never feel fatigued, and drink one coffee a day only because I like the taste. Most importantly, I am much happier, less stressed, and am more creative with my work than ever.
I am grateful that I took my burnout and low testosterone symptoms seriously and was in a place where I could notice them in the first place. When I hear of friends complaining about aches, pains, and getting old, I immediately distrust that it’s the aging process. Now I have my body healthy and functioning from natural healing, and I’m not going to risk it again.
Burnout especially, but even low testosterone for men in their 20s, is a more common story than we think. I see my friends in medical school working longer hours than me. Or recently, while on vacation with a friend, I noticed that he continued to work throughout the holiday, missing group activities, and then sleeping only 3-4 hours a night.
The Burnout Test
Below is a list of questions that I found on Tim Ferriss’s blog. All of these are red flags for burnout. With the exception of the ninth question, I would have said “yes” to every single question, every single day.
1. Do I feel guilty or anxious when I’m not working?
2. Have I stopped playing with my friends?
3. Do all of my daily activities revolve around building a more successful career?
4. Am I always sleeping fewer than eight hours per night?
5. Am I consuming stimulants multiple times per day to hide my exhaustion?
6. Do I sit still and stare at screens for most of my waking hours?
7. Do I interact with people primarily through screens?
8. Am I indoors all day long, depriving myself of fresh air and sunlight?
9. Do I depend on alcohol or drugs to cope with social situations outside of work?
If you feel like you’re reaching a burnout point, have low testosterone, or can answer “yes” to the questions above, reach out to me in the comments below or at [email protected]. I know how you’re feeling and the extent of how damaging this can be to your health. Let’s talk about your burnout recovery.