Fertility Blog

Male Infertility: Actions That Make a Difference

Sperm are clearly sensitive to environmental conditions. It is possible, through changes in lifestyle and activity, to improve sperm health. The studies available to evaluate environmental effects are unfortunately limited, but they offer insight into sperm sensitivity and ways to optimize their performance. Temperature The scrotum where sperm are produced is 2 degrees lower than core body temperature. Raising the temperature by a few degrees results in a decline in sperm count and motility. Men suffering from cryoptorchidism, where the testicles are located above the scrotum, closer to central body temperatures, frequently suffer from low sperm counts. Infertile men tend to have a higher scrotal temperature(1), a characteristic that seems to be genetically determined(2). Common illnesses and every day activities can be sources of an increase in scrotal temperature. Acute fever associated with illness causes a significant decline in sperm quality(3). In one study, total sperm count decreased within two weeks after a fever and required 79 days to return to normal. The DNA component of these sperm showed high levels of DNA fragmentation. Researchers in France installed temperature sensors to nine volunteers, and recorded scrotal temperatures while driving(4). Scrotal temperature increased gradually over several hours, peaking 2.5 degrees higher at three hours. Another study showed that scrotal temperature was lowest while standing naked, and highest while clothed, seated, with legs crossed(5). Higher scrotal temperatures have been associated with use of a laptop computer(6). A group in Germany looked at scrotal temperatures with a variety of underwear(7). As expected, tight underwear increased the temperature more than loose or no underwear. The effect was most pronounced while walking and less noticeable while sitting, since sitting temperature was somewhat elevated regardless of type of underwear worn. The common sense approach is to avoid activities which can increase scrotal and testicular temperature, use loose-fitting underwear, and provide adequate ventilation to the scrotum. Exposure to hot tubs or saunas should be avoided. Take showers rather than baths, because heat conductance is lower when the testicles are not immersed in hot water. Sitting or driving for extended periods should be minimized. Stress The effects of stress on sperm are complex. Under conditions of extreme stress, sperm counts decline. Analyses of prisoners awaiting sentencing have shown complete suppression of spermatogenesis on testicular biopsies(8). A study of semen characteristics after the Slovenian war in 1991 showed a reduction in sperm count and motility, and a reduction in the proportion of male children born(9). In 1995 a strong earthquake of magnitude 7.2 on the Richter scale occurred in Kobe, Japan killing 5,502 people. Sperm motility declined immediately, with low motility lasting for months(10). The sperm of a man who lost his home and his father had still not recovered 10 months after the earthquake. Stress associated with fertility therapy affects sperm and sexual function. Sperm parameters may decline in patients undergoing in vitro fertilization(11). Male fertility patients have a higher incidence of erectile dysfunction, ejaculatory disorders, loss of libido and a decrease in the frequency of intercourse(12). One study of infertility patients showed an increase in burnout in male patients(13). Unfortunately, studies of the effect of stress reduction on sperm are rare,(14)(15) so the treatment of stress has not been conclusively shown to improve sperm parameters(16). In spite of the lack of clear data, stress reduction therapy is recommended for fertility patients and may reduce problems with sexual dysfunction. Exercise The risk of developing male fertility problems appears to increase with the intensity of exercise. Intense exercise, such as endurance running, will lower levels of luteinizing hormone (LH) and testosterone.(17)(18) Studies of semen characteristics have shown variable results. DeSouza(19) developed the concept of a training volume threshold, in which running more than 100 km or 62.14 miles per week was associated with decreased levels of testosterone and sperm motility. A detailed prospective study comparing competitive cyclists and triathletes with sedentary controls(20) was unable to show any suppressive effect of competitive exercise on FSH, LH, or testosterone levels. Although those with the highest levels of training had higher levels of circulating testosterone at baseline, these levels did not change with training. Competitive cyclists developed lower sperm motility during competition, however, motility values returned to normal following competition. The best advice regarding exercise and sperm is moderation. While attempting conception, it is not advisable to undergo high intensity sports training. Good nutritional standards should be always be maintained when following an exercise program. An existing maintenance exercise program may be continued without concern for its effects on sperm. Diet is a difficult topic to study in isolation, so fertility data is limited. A recent study of beef consumption showed that maternal consumption(21) of beef resulted in lower sperm concentrations in sons. The proportion of men with low sperm counts was three times higher in the sons of women that consumed high levels of beef. Lifestyle, pesticide exposure, and xenobiotics (chemicals found in organisms that are foreign to them) were all considered potential factors. Heterocyclic amines (carcinogenic chemicals formed from the cooking of muscle meats), which are estrogenic, may also play a role(22). Alcohol has long been associated with male reproductive dysfunction. Impotence, infertility, and male secondary sex characteristics are all affected by chronic alcohol use. Testosterone levels are lower, sperm production is reduced, and FSH and LH levels are affected(23). A study of chronic alcoholics demonstrated low levels of pituitary and testicular hormones, and significantly decreased sperm concentration and morphology(24). Sperm chromosomes are altered in men that consume alcohol(25). Little data exists on the moderate consumption of alcohol. Data from the Ontario Farm Family Health Study did not show an adverse effect of alcohol consumption(26). In another study, alcohol or cigarette consumption did not alter sperm parameters, but when patients both smoked and drank alcohol a significant reduction in seminal volume, sperm concentration, percentage of motile spermatozoa, and a significant increase of the nonmotile viable gametes were detected(27). Smoking tobacco affects sperm parameters, with reduced sperm counts, motility, and morphology reported in several studies(28)Caffeine studies have revealed inconsistent effects on sperm, with at least one study showing no effect(29). Caffeine has been used as a sperm stimulant, increasing the motility prior to insemination. There does not appear to be any substantial adverse effect of caffeine on sperm. Common Medications The list of medications with effects on sperm is long, and worthy of review. Noteworthy medications are the SSRI anti-depressants (Cipramil, Lustral, and Effexor were the reported medications), which were associated with near-azospermia in a case report(30). Ibuprofen (Advil, Nuprin) does not seem to cause adverse effects on sperm(31). Vaginal lubricants can interfere with sperm. FemGlide, Replens, and Astroglide lubricants demonstrated a significant decrease in motility, whereas Pre-Seed did not affect motility or DNA integrity(32). Treatments for erectile dysfunction may have an effect on sperm motility. A significant increase in sperm progressive motility was observed after sildenafil (Viagra) administration as compared with baseline; in contrast, a significant decreased motility was observed after tadalafil (Cialis). Antihypertensive drugs have numerous effects on sperm. Beta-blockers and diuretics have been associated with impotence. Calcium channel blockers (nifedipine, Procardia) have been associated with infertility(33). If you are on heart medications, review them with your physician. Reports on the effects of marijuana use on sperm are conflicting. Early studies had poor controls, later studies showed reductions in testosterone and sperm quality(34) while other studies showed no effect on testosterone levels in chronic heavy smokers(35). A recent study revealed a direct effect of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, on sperm motility and fertilization capacity(36). The conclusion of the study was that “the use of THC as a recreational drug may impair crucial sperm functions and adversely affect male fertility, especially in those who are already on the borderline of infertility.” Conclusion Sperm are a biological substance, produced in a complex interplay of genetic predisposition, specific temperature and pH, and in association with specific cells and secretions. If the system is insulted, problems will often arise. The sheer numbers of sperm in an ejaculate provide a wide margin for maintaining fertility even after such insults occur, but repeated attacks on the reproductive system can ultimately result in male fertility problems. Philip Chenette, MD References:1. Zorgniotti, A.W. and Sealfon, A.I. (1988) Measurement of intrascrotal temperature in normal and subfertile men. J. Reprod. Fertil., 82, 563–566.

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Posted on August 2nd, 2007
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