Fertility: the lowdown on sperm
Fertility expert Dr Andrew Murray gives us the lowdown on sperm, and highlights factors that affect men’s fertility fitness.
When we think of fertility problems, much of the time the focus is on women. Female fertility seems so complex compared to men, with ovulation, periods, Fallopian tubes etc. Men, well they just have to point and shoot!
But is it as simple as that? What about the bullets?! It is now well documented that men’s sperm counts are declining. In fact, research from Fertility Associates has shown, that in the past 20 years, the average concentration of sperm in our donors has halved. The scary thing is we don’t actually know why. Theories include environmental factors, such as oestrogens from the contraceptive pill getting into the water supply, pesticides on our fruit and veges, through to laptops and mobile phones irradiating our blokes’ testes. There’s really no proof, and the good news is that the ‘average’ count in the general population, although lower, is still considered fertile!
WHAT IS BAD FOR SPERM?
Think of sperm as DNA delivery vans. The sole purpose of a sperm is to deliver the male’s DNA to his partner’s egg. A sperm count simply counts how many vans you have, and how fast they drive. Sperm DNA is the cargo inside the van. Risk factors for damage to the cargo include smoking (both tobacco and cannabis), heat, obesity, alcohol excess, previous testicular surgery or injury, and interestingly, long-distance cycling. Cannabis smokers tend to have very poor sperm motility – it’s almost like the sperm are stoned too. The DNA damage is due to ‘free radicals’ damage, and the scary thing is this damage can lead to not only fertility issues, but also miscarriages, and an increase in the risk of cancer developing in the children of any ‘successful’ pregnancies.
Sometimes the delivery vans are bent out of shape. Many sperm are misshapen; in fact only four per cent need to be of normal shapes, but this is also associated with reduced fertility. At Fertility Associates we don’t just count your vans and how fast they move. We can also assess the shape (morphology), and in partnership with the Malaghan Institute, we also measure DNA damage. A thorough sperm assessment like this is $350, but well worth it to know what’s going on.
EFFECTS OF AGEING
Men also have a biological clock. Unlike women, who are born with a finite number of eggs, men continue to produce sperm their entire lives. However, although there are the Mick Jaggers, Hugh Hefners and Donald Trumps of this world out there – all examples of older dads – there can be some risks associated with older paternity. Studies have shown that the risk of children developing autism or schizophrenia may be associated with older paternity. Miscarriage risk is also increased, particularly when combined with older maternal age. This is likely due to an increased risk of DNA damage as men get older.
More recently, research has focussed on telomeres. These are the little caps on the end of our chromosomes (much like the ends of a shoelace – called aglets) that are involved with preserving chromosomal integrity and contribute to DNA length and stability. As we age, in most of our cells, telomeres usually shorten with each cell division. Paradoxically, in the sperm cells the telomeres get longer and the offspring of older dads are born with longer telomeres. Intuitively, you would think this would be helpful, but in fact German researchers Gideon Sartorius and Eberhard Nieschlag at the University of Domagkstrasse, in Muenster, published a literature review in 2010 in which they concluded that older paternal age at conception negatively influences the overall fitness of offspring. Beyond telomere interactions, increased age in males correlates with decreased sexual activity, infertility, increasing miscarriage rates and deflated male hormones, such as testosterone, in the body.
SO, WHAT TO DO?
The factory where sperm are made (the testes) is sending out new models every 72 days. This gives us an opportunity to ‘modify’ the production line.
To reduce the impact of ‘free radicals’, a diet high in anti-oxidants will help. Think of colourful fruits and vegetables – greens, reds, blues – they all contain heaps of vitamin C. Foods like peanuts, brazil nuts and almonds contain both zinc and vitamin E which also help. Cooked tomatoes contain a powerful anti-oxidant called lycopene, which is also useful for this problem. There are also commercial preparations containing all of these that can be taken as a supplement.
Sperm fitness can also be improved by addressing excess weight. There’s no advantage having a big roof over the tool shed! If he can’t see his manhood when he looks down – there’s a problem. It’s got to be said: “Get off the couch, get that laptop off your nuts, and get moving!!”
Avoiding excess alcohol, stopping smoking and kicking the weed into touch are also important, and ideally these things should be addressed before starting to try and conceive.
Men need to be aware of their biological clocks too. So much of the messaging around this has focussed on women, but men shouldn’t leave it too late either.
If you’re having problems conceiving, don’t assume it’s the woman – find out what kind of bullets he’s firing!
Dr Andrew Murray is Medical Director of Fertility Associates Wellington. He is also a senior lecturer at Wellington School of Medicine and has a private gynaecology practice.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 44 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW