Everyone understands that healthy eggs and sperm are required to conceive, right?

So, it shouldn’t be a surprise when couples have trouble starting a family that male fertility plays a role – more often than most people realize. In fact, male factor infertility is the primary medical issue in about 25% of infertility cases and a contributing factor another 25% of the time.

For years, it has often been assumed that problems getting pregnant were all about the female half of the couple. Thanks to extensive media coverage of research, sperm issues and the role of male infertility are now mainstream topics. Still, it’s often left up to women to initiate discussion and testing for their partners.

A major reason for male infertility – approximately 50% – is a low sperm count. And up to 90% of male infertility cases are due to low sperm count, or poor quality sperm or both. Poor quality sperm may be misshapen, poor swimmers, have damaged DNA and more. Additional causes of male infertility can be attributed to a range of conditions including anatomical problems, hormonal imbalances, and genetic defects.

Experts believe a low sperm count may sometimes be related to an elevated temperature in the testicles – the temperature in the groin area should be a couple of degrees cooler than the rest of the body for optimum sperm function. Reportedly, every degree above normal results in an approximate 40% decline in sperm quality. Exposure to excessive heat occurs in many ways – with jobs such as firefighters and welders, setting your laptop in your lap, too much time in the hot tub and more.

Exposure to chemicals may also pose a risk to sperm development. The relationship was recently raised in a New York Times column by Nick Kristoff titled, “Are Your Sperm in Trouble?” Kristof cited human and animal studies that suggest endocrine disruptors, found in plastics, cosmetics, couches, pesticides and many other products, is affecting sperm and male fertility across the globe. While admitting there is still disagreement about the scale of the problem, and that the data aren’t always reliable, Kristof advocates for more aggressive regulation of these chemicals, noting that most have never been tested for safety in US products. Kristoff’s column was disputed in Forbes by contributor Geoffrey Kabat, for among other things, reaching conclusions based on several anecdotal studies. Kabat, an epidemiologist, also suggests evidence points to other factors far more damaging than trace chemicals.

While this debate continues, there are so many things men can do to improve their own fertility. We know lifestyle habits have a major impact on male fertility. Research shows that smoking, use of marijuana and other drugs, being overweight, drinking excessively, a high stress level, and poor sleep quality, all negatively affect male fertility. Even eating certain foods, including high consumption of bacon can have a negative impact. Sperm issues may also reflect serious and chronic underlying medical conditions including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

So, healthy lifestyle habits can make a difference. All men with an interest in their reproductive health should practice good lifestyle habits with respect to sleep, diet, exercise, taking daily antioxidants, and avoiding environmental and pharmacologic toxicants. Some men may also be interested and might benefit from a sperm test ordered by their physician or an easy-to-use home test available over the counter and via the Internet.

If couples are interested in starting or adding to their family, it’s important to get men to pay more attention to their own reproductive health as well as being involved and supportive of the same for their partner. And, it’s good to know that pursuing lifestyle habits that positively improve the quality and quantity of your sperm and avoiding those that don’t, can deliver the ultimate benefit – having a baby!

Time for a chat with your loved one? And, tie on those running shoes?

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