Whoever said making babies was easy? The ins-and-outs of male infertility

People often say that men have it easy when it comes to making babies: one wild night in the sack and you’re good to go! Unfortunately for some men, it’s not so simple.

Men's Health

Sonia Chartier

15 August 2016

If you’re having unprotected sex and your partner doesn’t get pregnant the first time around, don’t worry: for 80% of young, healthy couples, it takes around six months. Of course, the time it takes to conceive will differ between couples and depend on their respective ages and certain health factors, including smoking.

Infertility is defined as a couple’s inability to get pregnant after one year of sexual relations without contraception. Around 15% of couples are unable to conceive within that period. In one third of cases, the cause is linked to male factors. In another third of cases, the causes are linked to female factors. And in the remaining third, it’s a combination of both. Unfortunately, doctors don’t always know the cause. However, there are certain obvious risk factors: lifestyle and dietary choices have a proven and often determining impact.

While less overt and radical than in menopause, low fertility and decreased sexual function also affect men as they age. For a couple to conceive, the following conditions must be met:

  • The man needs to produce healthy sperm; for that to happen, at least one of his testicles needs to work normally and his body needs to produce testosterone (and other hormones).
  • Next, the sperm need to be transported, mixed with semen and ejaculated by the penis.
  • There has to be enough sperm in each “batch” of ejaculate, over 39 million to be specific; go ahead and count ‘em if you like, but you’d probably be better off having it done by a lab.
  • Good sperm motility is also a must, as it allows the lucky contestant to penetrate the ovum.

The reproductive process can be affected by all kinds of issues at any number of stages.

And before you can even begin to worry about your sperm and their travel plans, you need to have the ability to achieve and maintain a sufficiently firm erection. An enlarged prostate and some of the medications used to treat it can affect erectile function.

Certain conditions underlying male infertility require medical intervention. The most common one, a varicocele, is a dilation of the veins of the spermatic cord—basically a varicose vein in your scrotum. Varicoceles affect blood circulation, causing a decrease in sperm production. In fact, a wide range of problems can affect male fertility, including retrograde ejaculation (when sperm is ejaculated into the bladder rather than out of the body through the penis), infections, tumours, hormonal imbalances and celiac disease. All these conditions require medical intervention.

Furthermore, major environmental factors, including endocrine disruptors, can lower fertility. Endocrine disruptors, which infere with hormones, are found in our immediate surroundings in the form of pesticides, plasticizing agents and fire retardants (used in furniture, carpets, new cars, and so on). Exposure to pesticides, radiation, heavy metals and other industrial chemicals lowers sperm count and quality.

Heat also affects sperm production, but only temporarily. So if you’re in “procreation mode,” avoid saunas and hot tubs! You’re actually better off taking cold showers, which stimulate blood flow and erectile function. Less romantic, but… whatever works!

Emotional stress, especially over a long period, can also impair sperm production. And having trouble getting pregnant can in itself be a significant source of stress… quite the vicious circle!

While some risk factors are beyond your control, you can still influence other factors by adopting a healthy lifestyle. You should avoid:

  • Smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke
  • Drinking: alcohol lowers sperm count while negatively affecting erectile function and testosterone levels
  • Drugs: anabolic steroids, cocaine and marijuana decrease sperm production
  • Overweight and obesity impair sperm production and cause hormonal changes
  • Overheated testicles: avoid saunas, hot tubs and holding your laptop computer on your lap…

To put all the odds in your favour, make sure to include the following nutrients in your diet, which have an especially positive influence on male fertility: zinc, omega-3, L-arginine and vitamins B, E and C.

Whatever you do, don’t stress out! There’s nothing worse for a couple than feeling like they “have” to have sex. Best just to enjoy it!