Ask Surly Amy: Natural Transitioning for FTMs
I figured that this site is probably the most safest and inclusive place for a trans skeptic, so hopefully you can confirm my suspicions!
I’m a FTM that’s sorta in the closet, and is even still on the fence about “formally” transitioning with T [testosterone] and surgery at the moment. However, I heard a lot of fellow trans guys talk about transitioning “naturally” with the help of diet, exercise, and supplements. While I know such a thing will never replace some testosterone, the idea of lightly transitioning to see how I like it is rather lucrative.
This is a bunch of quackery and a placebo for confidence, right?
I bet you expected to hear from Amy. It’s me, Debbie, instead! I haven’t tackled one of these questions before, but since Amy’s been kidnapped by pirates I thought I’d step in. Before I start, I should say this: I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist, and I have no formal training in medicine, nutrition, or psychology. (From the look of it, the authors of the book you linked to don’t either, though.) I can weigh in on your question, but if you’re asking for solid medical advice, you should talk to a trans-friendly doctor.<end disclaimer>
You may wonder why I’m answering your question at all. Long story short, I considered transitioning when I was in my early 20s. I researched everything I could; subscribed to relevant newsletters; attended trans-themed lectures, events, and (sadly) memorial services; and participated in the WeXist Support Group, a “[f]riendly, non-political support group for transmen, female-to-male transexuals (FTM), and anyone who was assigned female at birth with gender identity issues or questions.” Good times. At some point I realized that I’m personally more interested in breaking down the gender binary than in jumping from one side to the other. (When websites ask me for my gender, I answer based on how I feel at the moment — unless it’s for the TSA, in which case, I’m a woman! Don’t touch my junk!)
I also did bodybuilding and was into supplements for a while. And my sister is a bodybuilder and former personal trainer.
This isn’t about us, though. When it comes to gender identity and transsexualism, where you want to go, who you want to be, and how you want to do it is up to you, of course. But since you asked, here are some of my thoughts on the links you sent.
So there’s a book, Natural Transitioning: an FTM alternative:
Natural Transitioning™ was founded by Tristan and Sicily Skye and is what they label the process of transitioning from female to male (FTM) by raising the testosterone levels your body naturally produces, without injecting testosterone or other methods. This book contains years of research on the 3-step NT plan: supplements, diet and weight training.
Good, “Natural Transitioning” is trademarked. Wouldn’t want someone else using that phrase illegitimately. Let’s take a closer look at what they’re peddling.
When advertisers use the term “natural,” my skeptic-sense tingles. This plan involves “supplements, diet and weight training.” Diet is natural; lifting heavy things is natural; let’s see what kinds of supplements they’re recommending:
FOURTH 6 WEEKS & BEYOND:
1. Animal Cuts OR Lipo 6X OR Hydroxycut OR Meltdown – or other similar fat burner: Rotate/Cycle fat burners every 6 weeks – do not take the same one for more than 6 weeks or your body will become immune to it.
2. Novedex XT OR Anabolic Signal OR Animal M-STAK OR CryoTest — Adding and cycling in these T boosters will have greater effect, but you will need to monitor yourself closer. You MUST cycle/rotate every 6 weeks. Like the fat burners, do not take the same one for more than 6 weeks. If these “xtras” are proving to have a negative effect on you, stop using immediately.
3. L-Glutamine: Add 1 tbsp. of powder to your drink you take with you to the gym
4. ZMA (or) B-6, Zinc, Magnesium: 3 capsules of ZMA OR 15mg of B-6, 450 mg of Magnesium and 30mg of Zinc — take before bed for best results (or you can choose to split up between lunch and before bed)
5. Tribulus Terrestris (with 40% saponins): 250mg each capsule – take 1 after breakfast, 2 after lunch and 2 before bed
6. DHEA: 50 mg after lunch, 100 mg before bed
7. Milk Thistle: 2 capsule after lunch
8. Dandelion: 2 capsule after lunch
9. Fish Oil: 1 capsule after breakfast, 1 after lunch, 1 before bed
10. Flax Seed Oil: 1 after breakfast
11. Allicin Garlic *if you don’t eat much garlic*: 1 capsule after your meal of choice
12. Multi-Vitamin: 1 capsule after your meal of choice
13. Animal FLEX — esp if lifting heavy in gym
14. Creatine — take as directed — take for 6 weeks, then do NOT take for 6 weeks (cycle on and OFF of this)
Wait, what? Wow. The list includes fat burners, muscle builders, testosterone boosters, estrogen blockers, diuretics, amino acids, essential fatty acids, and vitamins. Sure, dandelions and garlic are natural (although I’ve never seen them in nature in capsule form). But taking fourteen different capsule and powder supplements multiple times a day is pretty far from what most people would consider “natural”. Also, since supplements in the U.S. aren’t as regulated as I wish they were, it’s hard to know what you’re actually taking.
It looks like their advice is to diet like a professional bodybuilder, work out like a professional bodybuilder, and take supplements like a professional natural bodybuilder (while paying attention to your kidney function), and in a few years, you could have a lower voice, some facial hair, and a more masculine appearance — naturally!
So the line they’re drawing between “natural” and “not-natural” depends on whether or not you’re putting the hormone testosterone directly into your body — which is weird, considering that DHEA is a powerful hormone too…so I’m not sure why a twice-monthly shot of T would be considered less “natural” than sticking to this list.
I mentioned natural bodybuilders. Decades ago, some bodybuilders who recognized that there was almost no way they could compete fairly with steroid-using bodybuilders created the natural bodybuilding movement. At their competitions, participants are tested for steroids and other substances that would give them an unfair advantage (although I’d still consider those fake tans to be pretty unnatural).
The trans men in the forum you linked to had their doubts about the effectiveness of Natural Transitioning™ too. Curious about whether the program would even work, I called Denise James, co-owner of United Fitness. She’s an experienced natural bodybuilder, personal trainer, and registered nurse who has been involved in professional bodybuilding for about 30 years.
When I shared the supplement list with Denise, she expressed surprise and suggested that a careful diet and exercise plan would render many of the supplements unnecessary. The list includes bodybuilding standards like L-glutamine, an amino acid often recommend pre- and post-exercise for muscle building and repair; and creatine, which also assists with muscle-building. For natural bodybuilders, DHEA intake is generally limited to 50 mg/day, less than the 150 mg/day listed above.
I asked her if following the prescribed routine would result in masculinization: a deeper voice, increased body hair, etc. She said that women who are natural bodybuilders don’t generally experience those effects, but she’s seen a lot of virilization among women who take steroids.
Hm. So what does Natural Transitioning™ have going for it?
Debatable. Why describe the recommended supplement regimen as “natural” in contrast to testosterone injections? (Some argue that transitioning isn’t “natural” anyway…) And consider that some FTMs undergo hysterectomies, which lowers estrogen production. Some, including Tristan Skye (one of the Natural Transitioning™ authors), choose to undergo “top” surgery (bilateral mastectomy) — does that count as natural? That line between “natural” and “unnatural” is arbitrary.
Eh. Some trans men have medical insurance that will cover at least some of the cost of T, which would certainly be cheaper than purchasing all those supplements. Perhaps lacking insurance would make NT more worthwhile as long as one has a membership to a good gym?
Easy to do?
An injection into the buttocks every two weeks might be a pain in the ass (ha!), but taking up to fourteen supplements multiple times a day while living the regimented life of a bodybuilder requires a heck of a lot of motivation and a crapton of willpower. Most of us don’t have the ability to commit to that.
Avoid being diagnosed with a disorder?
In order for many U.S. insurance companies to cover the cost of testosterone therapy legitimately, a person first has to be diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder, which some trans men might want to avoid. (I don’t know much about the guidelines in other countries.)
Change over time?
You mention in your question that “the idea of lightly transitioning to see how I like it” is attractive. The big changes from testosterone therapy aren’t instantaneous (although many experience oilier skin and acne, a quicker temper, and increased libido relatively soon). Although results vary, three months of testosterone could lead to a slightly lower voice, a bit more fuzz on the face, some longer darker hairs under the chin, and more muscles if one is working out. For many FTMs, the changes from T can’t come quickly enough! And one can always stop injections at any point (although as you know, some of the changes aren’t reversible).
Natural Transitioning™ may effect some major changes over time if you follow the strict regimen, decrease body fat, build lots of muscle, etc. That’s years of commitment to reach the point of possibly having some chin hair and a moderately lower voice.
So as long as you don’t have kidney, liver, or heart issues and can deal with taking testosterone, DHEA, or the other supplements listed, the direction you choose depends on what you want to try to be. Do you want to go through the teenage-boy process very slowly, or get through it as quickly as your body allows? If all a trans guy requires is for his friends, family, and coworkers to treat him as a man, but he’s less concerned with passing in public, he might choose not to do hormones or surgery at all — he might just want to make sure that the people close to him use male pronouns, basically. If he’s looking to pass in the wider world as much as possible and as soon as possible, testosterone is a good way to go. If he wants his body and appearance to be as masculine as possible, with facial hair, more body hair, a lower voice, and a more masculine figure, testosterone is again the most guaranteed way to get there. But if, say, you don’t have insurance but have a good chunk of disposable income, or if you’re not in a hurry about transitioning and can be diligent about working out and dieting, then natural bodybuilding with supplements — I mean Natural Transitioning™ — might seem appealing. (It’ll also make you super-buff!) However, it’s my view that engaging in a pricey long-term supplement experiment on oneself, especially without checking in regularly with an endocrinologist, seems too risky and unnecessary if better alternatives exist.
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