Lower sperm counts can relate to environmental and lifestyle factors, many of which can be managed to treat male infertility.
How many times have you heard that you are what you eat? It’s simple but true–we’re only as healthy as our choices.
Similarly, there is evidence that men’s sperm are only as healthy as their habits, which includes the environment around them. This may sound like bad news, but these things can often be controlled. If we want to.
It’s estimated male factors contribute to up to 40 percent of all cases of infertility. Commonly diagnosed causes of male infertility include abnormal sperm cells (sperm cells that are oddly shaped and/or do not move properly), low sperm count and problems with ejaculation. There is evidence, according to a recent announcement by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, sperm counts have been dropping in North American and European men.
These declines seem to be an issue worldwide. Many potential culprits are lifestyle factors such as nutritionally lacking foods, low activity levels and increased obesity rates. This trend toward lower sperm counts is concerning, and though many men are still within the “normal” spectrum, an increasing number of men have been referred to fertility specialists. Like ASRM, I encourage men hoping to conceive to do the things they can to better their overall health and improve their sperm quality.
Male infertility doesn’t come out of left field
I get it, a diagnosis of male infertility can feel like a kick in the you know where. Our society often treats infertility as a women’s health issue, but this couldn’t be any further from the truth. I’ve seen the most masculine of men break down and cry over this diagnosis, as they see it as a reflection of their gender identity, even though it isn’t. (We actually see male fertility issues as very normal, and fixing this in a supportive place that can offer solutions is important to moving forward.)
Once medical and genetic causes have been ruled out, it can be incredibly shocking to learn that your sperm are abnormal or your sperm count is low due to certain aspects of your life. Top causes include diet, prescription and recreational drug use, alcohol consumption and certain types of exercise, all of which can affect the quality and quantity of sperm.
So how much do these really put a man’s swimmers at risk of “drowning?”
Despite how much opportunity alcohol has created for pregnancy, when deliberately trying to conceive, more than one drink per day doesn’t help. Research shows that alcohol can lower testosterone levels, cause erectile dysfunction and decrease sperm production. The medical literature also suggests that the more often a man drinks and the larger the amount, the worse the effect on the quality and quantity of sperm he can produce. I often advise my patients (both male and female) that they must reduce their alcohol consumption prior to attempting to conceive.
Not only is smoking one of the leading causes of illness in the United States, research has found that men who smoke tobacco have lower semen volumes, lower sperm counts and fewer motile sperm compared with men who do not smoke. Some studies show smoking can lower “take home baby rates” by as much as 40 percent. If you want a baby, would like fertility care to be more effective (so lower cost), and hope to be around a long time for this child, stop smoking.
Illicit or recreational drug use
Similar to tobacco products, use of marijuana can decrease the sperm concentration in a man’s semen. One study suggests that marijuana use just once a week can reduce sperm concentration by over 50 percent. Cocaine use can also cause a hormonal disruption that affects sperm count. And then there’s meth, acid, heroine, narcotics and Ecstasy, which are proven or suspected of affecting your sperm quality.
Anabolic steroid use
Steroids are an incredibly common cause of male factor infertility. About 3 million men in the U.S. use anabolic-androgenic steroids. I often see some of these guys who have taken steroids thinking that increased testosterone levels, muscle mass and libido will improve their fertility. Unfortunately, this is a false assumption and backwards: anabolic steroids can seriously decrease sperm production and male fertility. I’ve seen men where testosterone caused their numbers to decrease from several hundred million total motile sperm to zero. It can take 3 to 12 months for sperm production to begin again after a man stops taking steroids, and sometimes the sperm never recover.
Being overweight or obese
An increased body mass index (BMI), particularly over 30, can increase the risk of infertility up to threefold (for reference, a man who is six feet tall and weighs 180 pounds has a BMI of 25). Increased body fat causes the body to convert testosterone into estrogen, resulting in decreased sperm counts. Increased fat deposits near the scrotum can also increase the temperature of the testes and decrease sperm counts.
Use of certain prescription medications
A recent study found that 65 drugs approved by the FDA can affect sperm production and maturation. Prior to attempting to conceive, men and women should both see their primary doctor to discuss their prescriptions, their overall health and well-being. As previously noted, though testosterone supplements (similar to steroids) can be prescribed by a doctor to treat some conditions, they can meaningfully decrease sperm counts. Another medication we often see affecting sperm is the calcium channel blocker class of blood pressure medication, which can interfere with sperm binding to an egg. Gout medication (colchicine) is another notorious source of lowering sperm counts.
The ball is in your court
You may feel defeated after a doctor tells you that your love of beer and Hot Cheetos isn’t helping you play ball. But the chance to have an ace is still there!
For starters, and I know this can be tough, stop consuming tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs. Their effect on your overall health and the health of your sperm is simply not worth it.
You can start by making small tweaks to your diet. Trade processed meals for balanced meals prepared at home. Balanced diets rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats like chicken, or plant based proteins like eggs and nuts can help you achieve weight loss and provide much needed nutrients to your reproductive system.
You can also boost your mood, testosterone and improve your fitness levels by starting to exercise regularly. Moderate physical activity, like taking a walk during lunch or after dinner, can jump-start an active lifestyle.
Get a running start at Positive Steps
We understand how frustrating infertility can be for both partners. We are with our patients every step of the way through testing and treatment, regardless of whether those are lifestyle changes (which can be challenging), low tech/low-cost solutions, or advanced fertility treatments.
Not only do we offer innovative fertility testing for women experiencing infertility, we offer comprehensive fertility care for men experiencing male-factor infertility. Get started on your path today, contact us online or call 888-4PR-SCPE (477-7273) to ask Dr. Parry a question.