Sperm counts

Ben Birt
Monday, September 1, 2008
Image: Getty

Life isn't always easy for modern men. The lines between the once distinct roles society assigned to men and women have become blurred and there is now an attack being mounted on that essence of masculinity — sperm.

A growing body of research shows that the average sperm count in the western world has declined by around fifty percent since 1940.

Of course, the world population is rapidly pushing towards seven billion and if you are one of those doing their bit for the environment by deciding not to have children, then the disturbing phenomenon of decreasing sperm counts will not worry you much.

For those who do plan to use their sperm, there is no need to rush out the door to impregnate the nearest willing female while you still can. The following threats to your precious little soldiers might be alarming but the solutions should put the danger in perspective.

Mobile phones
Headlines such as "Mobile phones rot your balls" are enough to make many men think twice about where they keep their phone. Scientists at the University of Szeged in Hungary found a link between mobile phone use and sperm counts of up to thirty percent lower than normal. Keeping the phone switched on in a hip pocket was enough to have a negative effect on sperm numbers. Yet not all scientists agree with the report. Hans Evers from the Academic Hospital in Maastricht in the Netherlands claims the report "raises more questions than it answers." Solution: the cautious approach would be to keep your phone in a different pocket.

We've heard the horror stories of laptops catching fire because of faulty batteries, but they don't need to get that hot before they can start to affect sperm numbers. A study at State University of New York, USA, published in the journal Human Reproduction, found that an increase in scrotum temperature of 2.8 degrees Celsius was enough to have a negative effect on sperm count. The extra heat is generated partly through the laptop itself but mostly through the sitting position required to hold the computer there. Solution: no need to go looking for a lead shield for protection. Putting the laptop on a desk will do just as well.

Car seats
Although heated car seats in cold climates were the focus of research published in the journal Fertility and Sterility, it is also thought that the heat generated by prolonged sitting, such as when caught in a traffic jam, is enough to negatively affect sperm numbers. Solution: if you have to drive for a long time, get out of the car to stretch your legs every so often. Or use alternative transport — it'll help the environment and your sperm count.

An unlikely candidate perhaps, but if your idea of style is tight-fitting pants, it may be time to ditch the drainpipes and go back to baggy. Once again, heat is the danger. Solution: try looser fitting pants and underwear or go commando and let it all hang a bit more as nature intended. It might be more comfortable, too.

Depending on who you believe, either "real men eat soy" or soy "seriously lowers sperm counts". Perhaps both are true, but a Harvard University (USA) study found that the sperm counts of men who ate the most soy was about a third lower than those who ate none. The Soyfoods Association of North America points out that Asian men have traditionally eaten significant amounts of soy and yet have been highly successful at producing offspring. Solution: soy or no soy, the benefits of a balanced diet are hard to argue against.

Researchers from the University of Southern Denmark discovered that men with a body mass index over 25 had a 22 percent lower sperm concentration and a 24 percent lower total sperm count than men of a healthy weight. In addition, the Harvard University scientists looking into the effects of soy on sperm conceded that many of their test subjects were also overweight. Confusingly, a more recent study presented at the US Endocrine Society's 90th annual meeting in San Francisco found there was no link between obesity and sperm count. Solution: even if the link is uncertain, there are plenty of other reasons to shed a few unwanted kilos.

Smoking and drinking
Smoking tobacco has long been linked to lower fertility in men and marijuana use has also been found by scientists at Buffalo University (USA) to lower sperm counts. Alcohol works by killing sperm-generating cells, so regular drinking means fewer sperm. Solution: don't smoke, drink in moderation.

Industrial and chemical pollution have played a leading role in lower sperm counts in men over the last 50 years, according to a report in the environmental journal The Ends Report. Solution: this is a problem without an obvious solution as these chemicals are literally everywhere, even the Arctic. Ongoing pressure on governments to reduce pollution seems like a good idea.

There is a proven medical link between stress and lower sperm counts. According to research in the journal Endocrinology, stress hormones overwhelm cells that make testosterone, which is vital in sperm formation. Solution: visit your GP and maybe even arrange a sperm count test. After all, according to one fertility specialist: "It's the only test I know that guarantees an orgasm."

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