If you and your partner are having trouble conceiving, or if your doctor has said your sperm count is low, you may wonder what that says about your health in general. How does your health relate to your fertility?
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The fact is, semen quality — or a lack thereof — directly relates to your health and well-being, so you’ll want to pinpoint what’s causing problems even if you’re not thinking of having children right now.
The general understanding is that whatever is healthy for your body is also healthy for optimal sperm quality, according to Ashok Agarwal, PhD, Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Clinical Andrology Laboratory and Sperm Bank, and Nicholas Tadros, Clinical Fellow in Andrology and Male Infertility, Department of Urology, Cleveland Clinic.
On the other hand, if you’re exposed to something unhealthy — such as a high degree of environmental pollution — poor semen quality and infertility may result, he says.
So how do you know if you have a problem?
“If you are unable to conceive after more than one year of regular unprotected sex or if your partner has repeated miscarriages (and she is not infertile), schedule a doctor evaluation,” Dr. Agarwal says. Your infertility could point to three general problem areas.
1. Lifestyle choices
Exposure to high temperatures or other lifestyle factors can cause poor sperm quality. Anything from tight underwear to endocrine-disrupting compounds (from chemicals found in pesticides and some plastic containers, for instance) can impact your health. Here are some examples.
Do you spend a lot of time in hot tubs or saunas? Do you routinely use your laptop computer on your lap (and carry your smartphone in your front pants pocket)? Too much exposure to heat (and radiation from cell phones) is unhealthy for your sperm.
Are you significantly underweight (BMI less than 18.5) or overweight (BMI greater than 30)? Do you routinely use legal or illegal drugs that affect fertility? Do you have trouble getting enough sleep? These factors all take a toll on your health (and sperm health).
Dr. Agarwal suggests these steps you can take right now to help ensure healthy sperm — and better health in general — if your problem relates to your lifestyle:
- Follow a healthy diet/maintain a healthy weight
- Get enough sleep and manage your stress
- Use protection to avoid sexually transmitted diseases
- Get plenty of exercise
- Limit your intake of caffeinated and sugary drinks as well as processed meat
- Don’t smoke
- Protect your testes from exposure to heat and chemicals
- Avoid testosterone and testosterone-containing supplements
2. Other health conditions
There are also several other things a low sperm count could say about your health, Dr. Agarwal says. “However, it is generally difficult to point to a specific sign or symptom that men should look for besides infertility,” he says.
You may have a problem in your hypothalamus or pituitary gland. (These structures help control how your hormones work.) Testicular disease or disorders that affect whether your sperm get to the uterus successfully also sometimes cause infertility. Varicoceles, an abnormal dilation of veins in your scrotum can elevate the temperature of your testes and, in some cases, cause a worsening sperm count.
Sperm production is sometimes inefficient, or a blockage or obstruction also may cause issues.
It’s not a “condition” exactly, but sperm health declines with age, so if you’re 40 or older, that can have an impact on fertility.
With some of these conditions, you may also see signs of hypogonadism (when the body doesn’t produce enough testosterone), including:
- Loss of concentration
- Decreased sex drive
- Erectile dysfunction
3. Genetic abnormality
Dr. Agarwal says infertility sometimes points to genetic abnormalities such as:
- Klinefelter syndrome: A condition in which a male is born with an extra copy of the X chromosome. Symptoms include weaker muscles, greater height, poor coordination, less body hair, smaller genitals, and potential bone health problems.
- Kallmann syndrome: A rare condition in which puberty either does not start or is not completed. These patients usually have a lack of a sense of smell.
- Cystic fibrosis: A disorder that damages the lungs and digestive system. Many patients need lung transplants at an early age.
- Kartagener syndrome: A chronic lung disease where patients usually present with recurrent lung, sinus and ear infections.
You should know that you can pass some genetic mutations to your children. So it’s important to explore the problem with your doctor so you know what the chances are of passing it on to future generations.
What are your treatment options?
In addition to lifestyle changes, several medical and surgical options are also available, depending on what is causing your infertility.
- Antioxidants. These are commonly used to maintain the proper oxidant balance in the body and ensure healthy sperm development.
- Surgery. A simple surgical procedure can correct a varicocele. “This is the most common correctable cause of infertility, occurring in about 40 to 70 percent of infertile men,” Dr. Agarwal says. Other surgeries can help repair sperm transport blockages or harvest sperm directly from the testicle.
- Reproductive assistance. Patients with a long duration of infertility sometimes opt for assisted reproduction options, which include insemination and in vitro fertilization.
“Male infertility and sperm health is a complicated topic,” says Dr. Tadros. “If you have any questions or concerns you should contact your doctor to discuss them further.”