Male fertility: hard facts vs flaccid myths
Sunscreen and non-stick frying pans are the latest in a long line of spurious reasons given for a decline in male fertility, but how worried should you be?
Sunscreen and non-stick frying pans are the latest in a long line of spurious reasons given for a rise in male infertility…
The publication of a new study from the Department of Growth and Reproduction at Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen, Denmark, linking male infertility to phthalates – plastics used in shower curtains and car dashboards – and PFCs, chemicals found in non-stick pans have hit the headlines in the midst of Men’s Health Week.
But for Paul Serhal, male fertility consultant and Medical Director of the London-based Centre for Reproductive and Genetic Health, such “scare stories” surrounding sperm health are a distraction from the real causes for concern.
Myth: Chemicals kill male fertility
“Although there are issues over the influence of plastics and chemicals on health and wellbeing, this study linking plastics compounds and sunscreen chemicals directly to low sperm count is far from conclusive,” Serhal argues. “None of these elements are likely to be the root cause of problems for couples desperate to conceive.”
Instead, Serhal insists that such factors as age, diet, bad habits such as smoking and carrying excess weight are much more likely to hamper the potency of a man’s sperm. “Having an egg for breakfast in a non-stick pan, protecting your skin with factor 20 or driving a car with new upholstery – none of them is a realistic risk to sperm quality.”
Hit: Heat hurts healthy sperm
“Your sperm-producing testes ‘hang’ outside of the body for a reason,” explains Nick Raine-Fenning, Consultant Gynaecologist with Nurture Fertility (nurturefertility.co.uk). “That’s where they’re kept coolest.”
Prolonged exposure to excessive heat has been shown in numerous studies to have a negative effect on sperm DNA. For every one degree excess rise in temperature, sperm production can drop by as much as 40%. Whilst temporary overheating – taking the odd sauna for example – isn’t a major cause for concern, regular overheating is. “If you’re driving for most of the day, then sat with a computer in your lap for an hour and having hot bathsevery day, you’re raising that risk significantly,” warns Raine-Fenning.
Myth: It’s all down to the rise of the MAMILs
MAMILs (Middle-aged Men in Lycra – in case you were wondering) may be rife these days, but their saddle happy hobby isn’t haven’t the adverse effect on fertility that was once feared. Today’s more ‘fertility friendly’ bike saddles are cutting the risk of constriction in that area for one. “Also, in my experience, cyclists are prone to adhere to a lifestyle that’s much healthier for thier sperm count,” says Serhal. Recent research backs up this observation. A 2014 study of 5,000 male British cyclists by University College London found no association between cycling and infertility.
Hit: Foods make your fertile
Eating foods high in antioxidant content is crucial to strong sperm DNA. “Dietary antioxidants consumed via vitamins C and E, folate and zinc lead to fewer ruptures in sperm DNA strands,” says Raine-Fenning.
In men over 40, the influence of diet on the health of sperm appears to be even stronger. Studies reported in the journal Fertility & Sterility show that men who consumed 700 milligrams of vitamin C a day had 20 per cent less sperm DNA damage than those who took in less of the vitamin.
Myth: Seasonal sex creates stronger ‘swimmers’
Men’s Health Week (15th-21st June) began with a breaking study from theUniversity Hospital of Parma, Italy, suggesting that sperm is twice as resilient during the summer months and that this seasonal variation made men more fertile from June to August.
“No, no, no,” insists a sceptical Serhal. “Whilst there are times when a woman’s body is more receptive to conceiving, and the ages of couples can be a contributing factor to fertility, there is no direct link between the time of year that you have sex and the chances of conception.”
Serhal argues that men and women are as fertile in the winter months as they are in the summer. “It’s more likely to be lifestyle factors such increased sexual activity during the holiday season that’s the reason for any perceived rise at this time,” he adds
Hit: Release more sperm to raise the quality
The ‘sacred sperm’ approach to boosting fertility – abstaining from sex and retaining your seed in order to increase the chances of at least one scoring a direct hit – is a theory that’s been shown to be flawed.
IVF research carried out in the UK and Australia shows that sperm motility– its ability to travel through the female reproductive tract and fertilise the egg – deteriorates the longer it’s left in situ. “Infrequent ejaculation is definitely a contributing factor to infertility,” says Serhal. “I advise clients to ejaculate at least two times a week to clear out the sperm which has had its DNA fragmented so it’s replaced by new, more potent ones.”
By Rob Kemp