Male infertility is not often talked about, but it is more common than you might think.
It is estimated that 1 in 6 couples will have trouble trying to conceive. It is often assumed that the cause of infertility is the woman, but about a third of the time, it is the man who is infertile. Often, it’s both partners who have suboptimal fertility which exacerbates the challenges of conceiving.
The good news is there are many things you can do to increase your chances of conceiving, especially if you are a man.
Male infertility can be linked to sexual function or sperm count, motility, morphology and /or vitality. Many men seem to think if they have ‘poor swimmers’ there’s nothing they can do about that. This is far from true.
If a couple decides to go down the IVF route, men often believe that once they make ‘their deposit in a cup’ their job is done. That may be so but there is a lot that can be done in the months before making that deposit, to dramatically improve your sperm quality and therefore increase your chances of a successful outcome.
Assisted fertility is not cheap, and it can be emotionally and physically draining, so you want to make sure you are giving it your best shot. Whether it’s natural conception or assisted, it is imperative that both partners optimise their chances of conceiving a healthy baby.
Unlike a woman who is born with all the eggs she will ever produce; a man produces sperm every day. In fact, it takes 64 days for a male to regenerate his sperm. So, if today you changed some of the lifestyle factors that are causing your sperm to be low quality, you could see healthier, vital sperm in 2 months’ time.
While infertility is not always treatable, there are many things you can do to boost your chances of conceiving. There is a lot of information about regular exercise, healthy diets and supplementation but I want to discuss the lesser-known factors that can affect male fertility.
1. Avoid Saunas and Spas
Sperm is very sensitive to heat, that’s why the testicles are located outside the body. If the testes get too hot, this can lower sperm count or kill sperm. This means saunas, hot tubs and spas are a no-go zone when trying to conceive. Excessive heat can kill sperm and lower sperm count. Fortunately, this is only temporary and your sperm will go back to normal levels if you stay out of the sauna.
2. Don’t be a ‘Mamil’ (middle-aged man in lycra)
While there is no strong data on this it makes sense to avoid long bike rides. Not only are you constricting the testes, but those tight-fitting lycra shorts could also be creating a toasty, warm environment that is not beneficial for sperm. It’s definitely not the time to take up bull riding either.
Many experts even go so far as to suggest wearing loose boxer shorts rather than briefs to keep the boys cool.
3. Don’t carry your phone in your pocket
This piece of advice is often met with a lot of scepticism, but the data doesn’t lie. A 2020 review of the studies conducted on both humans and animals over the last 17 years concluded:
“… spermatozoa exposed to EMR emitted by mobile phones had reduced motility, structural anomalies, and increased oxidative stress due to overproduction of reactive oxygen species.” (Okechukwu CE 2020)
Many studies show that sperm is affected by thermal and non-thermal mechanisms. When you carry your smartphone in the front pocket of your pants you are placing it in very close proximity to your testes. Your phone is continually emitting radiofrequency radiation even when it’s not in use. If you insist on carrying your phone in your pocket, put it on aeroplane mode. Oh, and it goes without saying that laptops should never go on laps!
4. Avoid Pesticides and other industrial chemicals
There is an abundance of evidence showing the negative effects industrial chemicals such as pesticides have on many organs and systems of the body, including the reproductive system. Occupational exposures are often hard to avoid for many men who work in industries that expose them to environmental toxicants such as organic solvents, paints, benzenes, toluene, xylene, herbicides and heavy metals such as lead.
Often trade workers may take shortcuts where health and safety are concerned and leave themselves vulnerable to these toxic chemicals.
Pesticides are hormone disruptors. They have an estrogenic effect on the body and interfere with testosterone production, they can cause DNA damage to the sperm and lower the sperm count. These chemicals can affect sperm morphology, concentration, motility and vitality. It’s extremely important to take every measure to limit your exposure, especially whilst trying to conceive.
Other precautions you can take around pesticides:
- Wear the appropriate PPE
- Ventilate areas with a high chemical concentration
- Use safer nontoxic products (if that option is available).
If you think this doesn’t apply to you because you work in an office, think again. These chemicals are everywhere including our air, water and even food.
Did you know that your diet is a primary source of pesticide exposure? A 2020 study measured participant’s urinary levels of the most notorious herbicide, Glyphosate on a conventional diet and then after 1 week of being on an Organic diet. They found a 70% reduction in urinary Glyphosate on an organic diet.
Eating mostly certified organic food will help improve your sperm quality.
5. Alcohol and drugs
Some drugs can contribute to infertility and not just illegal drugs. This might seem like a no-brainer but it’s such a part of our culture that it deserves a special mention.
We all know that mum should avoid alcohol when she’s pregnant but what about before conception?
It’s not just mum who might want to cut back on drinking, if dad drinks too much it can negatively impact his sperm and sabotage your chances of conceiving. Light drinking-1-2 drinks a day does not seem to affect sperm, but binge drinking is a no-no.
Fortunately, smoking cigarettes is not as popular as it used to be, but marijuana smoking and vaping seem to be increasing in popularity. All smoking is bad for fertility for men and women. Vaping is the least studied of all but what we do know is that besides nicotine, there are other harmful substances that disturb the hormonal balance and negatively affect the morphology and function of the reproductive organs. Marijuana lowers libido and sperm production and it can be tainted with pesticides, mould and heavy metals. If you are planning on bringing a baby into the world it is a good time to give up smoking.
Many men take over the counter medications to improve performance, energy, strength or sex drive without considering the health impacts these seemingly harmless supplements might have. Take testosterone for eg, taking exogenous testosterone actually stops you from naturally producing testosterone. This causes a drop in testosterone in the testes and lowers your sperm count. It can take 6-12mths for sperm levels to return to normal after taking testosterone. Anabolic steroids have a similar effect.
Other things to consider are antibiotics, opiates, pain medications, anti-depressants, antifungals and even hair loss treatments, which can all interfere with testosterone production, sperm quality or sexual function. Did you know that animal studies conclude that regularly taking paracetamol can have a detrimental effect on sperm parameters and DNA integrity?
Check with your practitioner about the effects on fertility, that any medications you are taking could have.
Infertility can be a difficult topic for many of us to come to terms with, and whilst it’s not always treatable, there are many things you can do in your everyday life to make sure you are giving your body the best possible chances of conceiving.