by William D Petok, PhD, AFA Mental Health Advisory Council
With Father’s Day fast upon us and June officially designated as Male Reproductive Health Month it makes sense to take a look at the current state of affairs for men who want to reproduce and are having difficulty with the process. A cursory view of popular periodical literature would leave you thinking that the state of male reproductive health must be great since there isn’t much popular material written about men and their fertility. In truth, about 30% of all infertility is male factor and another 20% is combined male-female factor. The net outcome is that about half of all infertility is related to male factors. But no “poster child” has come forward to promote greater awareness of the problem men can face. Medical developments that include Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI) and microsurgical techniques that can repair damaged vessels necessary for sperm transmission or retrieve individual sperm have been in existence for some time now. But improving fertility and taking steps to preventing infertility can be undertaken by a man without high tech intervention.
For starters, men should consider fertility testing. Evaluation of male factor fertility parameters is non-invasive and less costly than it is for female factor. Ruling out a male factor problem can move the process along and perhaps save a couple valuable time and financial resources. A recent article in the Baltimore Sun (http://www.baltimoresun.com/health/ct-x-at-home-sperm-test-20120502,0,5545266.story) reports on a new diagnostic kit for home use that may change the way we think about male factor testing. The kit, which quickly determines a man’s sperm count, can offer a quick insight into one important parameter of male fertility. It evaluates total sperm count and can provide a starting point. While it does not give information on 2 other important aspects of sperm quality, morphology – the shape and form of the sperm, and motility – the motion of sperm, “It may provide (an opportunity for) both physicians and couples to take a closer look at ways for men to step up to the plate and optimize their reproductive potential,” according to Dr. Robert Brannigan, a urologist at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Sperm health can be improved by an awareness of what to avoid and what to include in your normal routine. A heart- healthy diet that includes fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains seems obvious for many reasons. And tobacco and excessive alcohol use are no-no’s. Regular exercise that includes cardiovascular workouts sounds like a no-brainer. But did you know that anabolic steroids and illicit testosterone supplements are bad for sperm production? Last month Dr. Stanton Honig reported on this issue for the AFA (http://www.theafa.org/article/public-enemy-1-for-male-fertility-anabolic-steroids/) He noted that these substances can trick the body into reversing the normal hormonal processes involved in sperm production rendering a man infertile. Sperm quality can recover after discontinuation of anabolic steroids, sometimes as soon as 3 months, but it may take longer depending on the length of use.
And there are other things to avoid. Chemicals (perfluoroalkyl acids) in nonstick cookware can have an adverse effect on male fertility. Glymes, chemicals used in carpet cleaners, inkjet cartridges and some paints should be avoided as they seem to play a role in increasing miscarriage rates. You can use nontoxic solutions like vinegar and baking soda to remove stains. BPA, Bisphenol A, has been found to influence sperm quality as well. These chemicals are found in canned foods and some No.7 plastic. Fresh or frozen foods will avoid them and drinking from food-grade stainless steel or glass will protect you. Flame retardants, pesticides, PCBs and nitrates have all been implicated in reproductive problems. Phthalates are plasticizing chemicals found in vinyl products and products containing artificial fragrances. Men with higher levels of phthalates can suffer from abnormal sperm or DNA damage. For more information on these everyday chemicals that can impact sperm health see Rodale Press’s article on the topic (http://www.rodale.com/9-everyday-chemicals-could-be-screwing-your-fertility?page=1).
On the other side of the coin, genes that appear to influence sperm quality have recently been isolated by University of Chicago researchers. It is speculated that it may be possible to produce a male non-hormonal contraceptive within the next 5-10 years. However, others caution that the research will be slow and painstaking and no guarantees are in the offing. (http://www.nhs.uk/news/2012/05may/Pages/male-contraceptive-pill.aspx)
So guys, while you may not be seeking the spokesperson role there are definitely things to consider doing in order to take your part of the fertility equation into your own hands.
Dr. William Petok is a psychologist in private practice in Baltimore, Maryland, specializing in sexuality, infertility, and marital therapy.A past-chair of the Mental Health Professional Group of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, he currently serves on the Board of Directors of the American Fertility Association. For further information, visit http://www.drpetok.com.