When a couple is experiencing difficulty getting pregnant, men’s fertility is a factor about half of the time. To break it down, 35 to 40 percent of the time the problem is associated with the man, in 35 to 40 percent of cases it is associated with the woman, and the remaining 20 to 30 percent is a combination of the two, while a small percentage is due to unknown causes.
Men’s fertility depends on a number of players and processes that need to work in synch. Approximately 200 million sperm combine with semen to form ejaculate. Depending on the man, 15 to 45 million of these sperm have what it takes to fertilize an egg. However, only a small percentage of these sperm (about 400) actually end up in a man’s ejaculate, and then only 10 percent of them will come close to the egg. Finally, only one sperm will fertilize the egg.
Many things can have an impact on the viability of sperm (i.e., number, mobility, shape, size, irregularities) and thus, male fertility. Men who are trying to have a family now or in the future should consider these factors that negatively affect men’s fertility.
Smoking lowers sperm counts.
Smoking tobacco can lower a man’s sperm counts and also make sperm less mobile. Long-term use of marijuana also can lower sperm counts and cause sperm to develop abnormally.
Tightly packed testicles harm sperm.
Men who wear tight underwear and/or tight pants cause their testes to heat up, and that spells disaster for sperm. Testes that are several degrees hotter than they should be will not produce enough sperm, resulting in a low sperm count. If you’re ready to switch to boxers and looser pants, you should know that it takes about 10 to 11 weeks before sperm production gets back up to speed once your testicles are freed up.
Alcohol affects sperm production.
Excessive alcohol use can lower the body’s ability to produce normal sperm.
Abnormal weight reduces fertility.
Men who are overweight or obese typically have a problem with fertility because their hormone levels are out of balance. On the other hand, men who are underweight can suffer with an abnormally low sperm count and poor sperm function.
Excessive exercise lowers testosterone.
Men who engage in endurance or excessive physical exercise cause their testosterone levels to decline, which in turn lowers sperm count. Your best bet for boosting testosterone (and thus preserving viable sperm) when it comes to exercise is high intensity interval training (HIIT).
Environmental toxins take a toll on fertility.
Men who are exposed to pesticides, chemicals, and other toxic substances on the job are especially susceptible to infertility. For example, a 2015 report in Environmental Research noted that “exposure to OP [organophosphate] pesticides may be associated with decreased sperm counts and motility and altered reproductive hormone levels in male partners of couple seeking infertility treatment.”
Chemotherapy can cause temporary or permanent infertility.
Some but not all chemotherapy drugs can reduce sperm counts and/or have a negative impact on the sperm’s ability to fertilize an egg. Use of higher doses of the drugs increases the chances of permanent infertility. Men who need chemotherapy should discuss their options with their physician.
Steroids interfere with sperm production.
Use of anabolic steroids, can disrupt the hormone functions necessary to produce sperm. Damage to the sperm can be temporary; most men see sperm production return 3 to 12 months after they stop taking steroids.
Low nutrient levels scramble sperm.
Infertility may be associated with low levels of vitamin C and zinc, a mineral necessary for proper prostate function. Insufficient amounts of these nutrients can cause sperm to bind together, thus reducing their effectiveness.
Antidepressants may suppress sperm.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often prescribed to treat anxiety and depression. Men who are taking these drugs and who are experiencing difficulty fathering a child should talk to their physician about possibly changing their medication and for semen testing.
Marijuana messes up sperm.
The active ingredient in marijuana, THC, has a negative effect on the production of sperm and testosterone. THC also interferes with the movement of sperm. Men who want to have a family should consider ceasing using marijuana (including medical marijuana) that contains THC.
Opiates use impacts testosterone and sperm.
Long-term use of either prescription or illicit opiates can interfere with testosterone production, which in turn can reduce the quality and number of sperm. However, short-term use of opiates, such as following surgery to manage pain, is not associated with male infertility.
Varicocele is one of the more common causes of infertility.
Approximately 15 percent of men and 35 percent of men with primary infertility have varicoceles, which are abnormally dilated veins in the scrotum. Most men with varicoceles can father children, although the condition is associated with impaired sperm quality and testicular damage over time. Fortunately, varicocele can be corrected with a medical procedure, including a surgical approach called varicocelectomy.
Infections and STDs can halt fatherhood.
Certain infections and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), such as brucellosis, gonorrhea, influenza, mumps, syphilis, tuberculosis, and typhoid can cause the testicles to atrophy and result in low sperm motility and low sperm count. STDs such as chlamydia and gonorrhea can block the epididymis tubes, which leads to infertility, although the tubes can be cleared with surgery.
Hormone disorders can disrupt fertility.
Although they are not common, hormone disorders can result in male infertility. Hyperprolactinemia, or elevated levels of the hormone prolactin, can reduce sperm production. Hypothyroidism, or low thyroid hormone levels, is associated with poor semen quality and abnormal testicular function. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which is found in only 1 percent of infertile men, is characterized by a suppressed pituitary gland. Symptoms include low sperm cell motility, low sperm count, and high levels of immature sperm cells.
So the message is, if you want to start a family or have been struggling to conceive, the lifestyle and other factors above will go a long way to helping you achieve those goals. As you can see, most of the causes of infertility are lifestyle based and are within your control – so start making positive changes today.