How to Enhance Your Fertility (and help to ensure a healthier baby, too)
Sperm from a man's body unites with a woman's egg to create a totally unique and genetically irreplaceable human life. It's an amazing process. Yet most men know very little about what contributes to reproductive health -- or conversely, what undermines it. We seldom think about our fertility or the health of our sperm...except perhaps during sexual activity. Yet science tells us we should consider our fertility and be protective of it. Indeed, there are things we can do to safeguard our reproductive health...and the well- being of our future children. It all starts with being more knowledgeable about our health in general, and about behavioral choices and environmental hazards that can adversely affect our reproductive well-being.
Infertility Isn't Just The "Woman's Problem" Anymore.
It used to be, and not so long ago, that if a couple was unable to conceive, the woman was the "infertile one." Now it is generally recognized within medical circles that the problem lies with the man in 35% of cases (some say a couple's inability to conceive is due to male conditions 40% - 50% of the time).
This is an incredible statistic, when you consider that the average, healthy male releases somewhere between 120 million and 600 million sperm each time he ejaculates, and manufactures an estimated 400,000,000,000 sperm in his lifetime. It would appear that men have it made in the reproductive department, but this is not always the case, and sometimes things go haywire.
The most common reason for infertility in the male is the inability to produce adequate numbers of healthy sperm. Infertility in men may also be caused by problems delivering sperm into the vagina, as occurs in impotence or in disorders affecting ejaculation, including inhibited ejaculation and retrograde ejaculation (when ejaculate is forced backward into the bladder). It may also be caused by failure of the testes to descend into the scrotum, by diseases or severe physical injuries which damage the sperm-producing structures, or by antibodies to the sperm found in either the male or the female.
Obstacles To Fertilization
A number of problems can prevent fertilization from taking place, and many of these can indeed originate with the male. The major cause of male infertility is an inability to produce enough healthy sperm.
All of the unwanted pregnancies occurring each year in the U.S. might lead you to believe otherwise, but for fertilization to occur, all systems have to be A-OK, on-line, and fully functional. For example, your sperm must be present in sufficient volume, it must be active, it must not be clumping together, it must be relatively normal in shape and size, and it must not be adversely affected by sperm antibodies either in the man or in the woman. Further, it must be able to penetrate the barrier of the woman's cervical mucus and overcome staggering odds to ever even reach the fallopian tubes and go on to meet the egg. When the couple can't conceive despite repeated attempts, your doctor may recommend a semen analysis to assess male factors which might be preventing fertilization. Your sperm will be put under the microscope, literally and figuratively.
Delivering The Specimen
You will be asked to provide a semen sample by masturbating into a clean, large-mouth, glass jar or plastic specimen cup, or by ejaculating into a special condom without spermicide during intercourse with your partner. The important thing is to keep the sample warm (men are often asked to carry the container under their armpits), and get the sample to the laboratory for analysis quickly. Most fertility experts want your semen within an hour, preferably sooner.
What Is Semen Made Of?
As mentioned previously, the average, healthy man will have anywhere from 120 million to 600 million sperm in a single ejaculation. Besides sperm, semen contains water; simple sugars (to provide fuel for sperm); alkalies (to protect sperm against the acidity of the male urethra and the vagina); prostaglandins (substances that cause contractions of the uterus and fallopian tubes, and are thought to aid in the sperm's passage to the womb); vitamin C; zinc; cholesterol; and a few other things. While semen can transmit a variety of diseases, including the AIDS virus, healthy semen doesn't contain anything that's harmful or bad for the health.
What Does A Semen Analysis Analyze?
The complete semen analysis includes:
- Volume of the semen
- Sperm count (the amount of sperm in a certain volume of semen, also known as the sperm concentration or sperm density)
- Sperm size and shape (morphology)
- Sperm motility (percentage of actively moving sperm)
New, computer-assisted sperm analysis may help assess sperm motility more accurately. Using a computer in combination with the microscope, a technician can assess how rapidly sperm move and how straight they swim. Other factors that infertility specialists look at include the quality of the seminal fluid in which sperm swim, and the sperm's ability to survive in and move through cervical mucus, as well as its ability to penetrate and fertilize an egg.
What's The "Norm" In Semen?
- Volume: 3 milliliters (2 to 6 mL range considered normal)
- Concentration: 20 million sperm or more per milliliter
- Motility: 50% of sperm still active after two hours
- Normal forms/appearance: 60% of the sperm
- ejaculate normally liquefies within an hour
- pH: 7 to 8
How To Enhance Your Reproductive Health
Stop smoking. Smoking is linked to low sperm counts and sluggish motility, and recent findings suggest a 64 percent increase in miscarriage when both partners smoke or when just the man smokes.
Give up marijuana. Long-term use of marijuana in men results in a low sperm count and sperm that exhibit abnormal patterns of development.
Stay off the sauce. Chronic alcohol abuse damages the intricate plumbing of the male reproductive system, reducing a man's ability to produce normally formed sperm cells.
Ease up on intense exercise. Men who exercise excessively may be reducing their sperm count due to the heat that builds up around the testicles during strenuous exercise.
Up your C. Low vitamin C levels may cause sperm to clump together, rendering as many as 16 percent of all men infertile.
Check into your antibiotics. Some groups of antibiotics have been shown to affect sperm quality temporarily by decreasing count and motility. These groups are nitrofurans (nitrofurazone or nitrofurantoin) and macrolides (erythromycin).
Stay clear of environmental poisons and hazards. These include pesticides/insecticides, organic solvents, lead, ionizing radiation, heavy metals, and toxic chemicals.
Check your nutrition. If you're malnourished or not getting enough of the right foods and nutrients, your sperm count could suffer.
Keep your scrotum cool. Watch out for excessive heat in the scrotal area. Wear loose-fitting underwear (not tight jockey shorts), and avoid tight-fitting jogging pants. Avoid hot tubs, hot baths, saunas, or hot work environments.
Abstain, but not too long. Brief periods of sexual restraint (three to six days) seem to increase both the volume and potency of semen. Prolonged abstinence, on the other hand, will result in a higher volume of older sperm, which exhibit decreased motility.
What Can Hurt Your Fertility And Your Chances Of Fathering A Healthy Child?
Your fertility is often a reflection of your general health. If you are healthy and abide by principles of good healthy living, chances are your sperm will also be healthy, provided you haven't sustained permanent damage to your sperm-making equipment in the past (through trauma or infection, for instance), or weren't born with a disorder or structural problem that could prevent you from producing viable sperm. The following list of "threats" to male fertility, while certainly not all-inclusive, will help you to avoid injurious substances, situations, and behaviors:
- Smoking (smoking significantly decreases both sperm count and the liveliness of sperm cells)
- Prolonged use of marijuana
- Use of other "recreational" drugs (e.g., cocaine)
- Chronic alcohol abuse
- Use of anabolic steroids (which can cause testicular shrinkage and infertility)
- Overly intense exercise (excessive exercise may lower your sperm count by producing higher levels of adrenal steroid hormones, which lower the amount of testosterone in the body. This testosterone deficiency, in turn, decreases sperm production)
- Inadequate vitamin C and zinc in the diet
- Some groups of antibiotics (e.g., nitrofurans and macrolides)
- The antidiarrheal drug sulfasalazine
- The anti-fungal medication ketoconazole
- Azulfidine, a drug used to treat ulcerative colitis
- Varicocele (a varicose vein in the testicle that produces too much heat, which harms and kills sperm)
- Infections of reproductive system structures, such as prostatitis, epididymitis, and orchitis
- Infectious diseases that affect the testes, such as mumps in adulthood
- Trauma or injury to the testes
- Exposure to DES (diethylstilbestrol) during your mother's pregnancy, which can cause testicular and epididymal abnormalities and decreased sperm production
- Tight underwear or jogging pants
- Hot tubs, saunas..anything that raises the temperature of your scrotum, including overheated vehicles and hot work environments
- A testosterone deficiency
- Exposure to environmental hazards such as pesticides, lead, paint, radiation (x-ray), radioactive substances, mercury, benzene, boron, and heavy metals
- Chemotherapeutic (cancer-treating) agents
- A blockage or structural abnormality in the vas deferens
- Damage to the spermatic ducts, usually due to a sexually transmitted disease such as gonorrhea or chlamydia. Also, passing a sexually transmitted infection onto your partner may render her infertile
- Malnutrition and anemia
- Excessive stress
Can Damaged Sperm Result In Birth Defects?
Researchers now suspect that reproduction and fetal development may be affected if the biological father has been exposed to lifestyle or occupation hazards, such as smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, taking non-prescribed drugs, and being exposed to toxic chemicals.
Good Advice For Couples Trying To Conceive:
Stop smoking, drinking, doing drugs, and taking any unnecessary medications at least three months before you start working on getting pregnant. Scientists used to believe that if sperm were damaged, they could not fertilize an egg; therefore, only the "fittest" sperm would carry on the species --some call this the "macho sperm" theory. Research now shows sperm are vulnerable and that even when damaged, they may still fertilize an egg. Some toxins may alter the sperm's chromosomes, which carry genetic information. If this happens, the results may range from infertility and miscarriage to stillbirth, birth defects, learning disabilities, and even childhood leukemia and kidney cancer. It is therefore wise for men who want to have children to change unhealthy lifestyle habits and, when possible, protect themselves from hazards and toxins in the environment and workplace. Sperm develop over a three-month period; that means your mature sperm today may have been affected by how you lived 3 months ago. The message: if you plan to have a child, quit smoking, drinking, using recreational drugs, etc., and wait three months before trying to conceive a child with your partner.
Reprinted with permission from Dialog Medical, dialogmedical.com.
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