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Hedging Your Bets Against Male Infertility

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It takes two to tango, and infertility does not discriminate against men. According to the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), infertility affects both men and women equally. And, unfortunately, male infertility appears to be on the rise.

“I do feel that male infertility is suffering due to environmental factors,” says Marc Goldstein, MD, Director of the Center for Male Reproductive Medicine and Microsurgery at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical Center. “Phthalates, which are ubiquitous in all plastic wraps and products — even IV tubing and bags — are known to have a feminizing effect on male rat fetuses. Even low-level contamination of drinking water from birth control pills excreted in women's urine can have a negative effect.

“Pesticides, products of gasoline combustion, lifestyle changes resulting in elevation of testis temperature — sitting at a desk or computer all day, especially with the legs crossed — have a negative effect,” he continues.

And for those who may have breathed a sigh of relief when Danish researchers published a study in June 2011 that showed no decline in sperm counts over time based on 15 years of data from 18-year-old Danish men taking their military physicals, don’t put your cell phones in your pockets just yet. Dr. Goldstein says the study is not sufficient to refute the increase in male infertility, and he points out the differences in Denmark and the United States.

“Denmark is a small country that is environmentally and — physical activity-wise — healthier than our society,” he says. “However, in Denmark, the incidence of testicular cancer and undescended testes, both risk factors for infertility, has increased.”

The good news is, there are several steps men can take to hedge their bets against male infertility, and while not all of them are backed up by research, they certainly can’t hurt.

Don’t Get the Testes Too Toasty

The temperature of a man’s scrotum (the sac of skin that holds the testicles) averages about 6 degrees Fahrenheit lower than his internal body temperature. The lower temperature is essential for sperm production — when the scrotal temperature rises, sperm production slows.

Many of our modern conveniences can heat things up. Avoid hot baths, hot tubs, waterbeds, saunas, heated car seats, etc. Do not put cell phones in your front pants pocket, even though the effects of electromagnetic radiation on sperm are not well known. And keep laptops on the table rather than on your lap. A 2010 study published in the journal Fertility and Sterility found that when men used laptops on their laps with their knees together, it took only 28 minutes for the scrotum’s temperature to elevate by almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sitting too long at your desk or in a car can heat up the scrotum, too. So get up and move around to cool things off.

And avoid radiation. If you are having X-rays, make sure you ask for a lead shield to protect the groin area.

All the Things that Are Bad for You Are Bad for Sperm, Too

Smoking and drinking are bad for male fertility. “Avoid cigarettes,” Dr. Goldstein says. “Alcohol — less than four drinks per week. No marijuana or cocaine. Marijuana stays in the testes for two weeks, so even using it once every two weeks will have a negative effect.”

Dr. Goldstein advises limiting caffeine consumption to one or two cups of coffee per day.

Lubricants Kill Sperm

Do not use lubricants such as KY Jelly, Astroglide, Surgilube, any other over-the-counter lubricants or even saliva, recommends Dr. Goldstein. However, a small amount of baby oil, whole milk, egg whites or Preseed are OK.

The Things that Are Good for You Are Good for Your Sperm

There is a growing body of research on antioxidants and their value in addressing infertility issues, including erectile dysfunction. So, it’s important to eat your fruits and veggies. “Infertile men have a higher concentration of free radicals in their semen as compared to fertile men,” Dr. Goldstein says. “Free radicals attack and destroy the membrane that surrounds sperm.

“Have good nutritional habits, especially a diet rich in fresh fruits and leafy vegetables —oranges, tomatoes, peppers, leafy greens, any bright-colored fruit or vegetable, as well as fish,” Dr. Goldstein continues. Remember SMASH — salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring — and avoid an excess of animal fat.

In addition, he recommends taking vitamins and suggests the following:

  • Vitamin C: 500 mg/day
  • Selenium: 100 mcgs/day
  • Co Q10 200 mg/day
  • Vitamin E: 200 IUs/day
  • Folic Acid 400 mcg/day
  • Multivitamin that contains no more than 20 mg of zinc and no more than 200 IUs of Vitamin E

“Eat organic when possible and avoid keeping food wrapped in plastic,” he says. Remember those phthalates cause trouble!

Reduce Stress

Stress raises epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine levels, which constricts blood flow. “Seek emotional and/or psychological support,” Dr. Goldstein says. “Consider meditation to reduce stress. Exercise regularly and moderately.”

See a Doctor if You Have Varicoceles

Varicoceles are masses of enlarged and dilated veins in the testicles, and as many as 15 percent of men have them. A recent study lead by Dr. Goldstein also found that varicoceles interfere with the production of testosterone, which can cause serious health problems in men.

“As a result of our study, I recommend that teenagers and men with serious varicoceles be referred to a male reproductive urologist experienced in microsurgical varicocelectomy,” Dr. Goldstein says. “It is much easier to prevent future fertility problems and low testosterone than wait until the damage has already occurred."

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