Most men don’t give much thought to their prenatal care, but, according to male-fertility experts, what guys do now could make the difference between becoming a dad or not.
Unlike women – who have all the eggs they will ever have when they’re born – men produce sperm all day long. Sperm takes about two to three months to fully mature, so a man’s behavior during the past 90 days will affect the baby he makes today, or whether he can make one at all, said Dr. Sijo Parekattil, director of urology at Winter Haven Hospital, where he specializes in male infertility.
Although society tends to focus on women when couples can’t conceive, about half the time it’s the man’s fault, said Parekattil.
Among the more common sperm-killing behaviors men engage in are keeping cellphones in pants pockets and working with laptops on their laps, which raises sperm temperature.
Other behaviors not conducive to fatherhood are smoking; excessive drinking; frequenting saunas and hot tubs; wearing tight underwear; using recreational drugs, including marijuana; taking male supplements; and getting sick. Studies show that such behaviors can reduce sperm quality and quantity.
Ashok Agarwal, director of the Center for Reproductive Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, has conducted several studies on the effects of cellphone radiation on sperm. In one lab study, he found that the viability of sperm exposed to cellphone radiation for one hour dropped by 11 percent compared with control samples.
His research also found that sperm count, motility and viability dropped more as cellphone exposure went up.
“Cellphones emit radiation, which can potentially harm the sperm in men who carry their phones in their pockets or on their belts,” Agarwal said. “We believe these harmful effects are due to the proximity of the phones to the groin area.”
A bout with the flu can lower sperm count, too, which is why experts recommend that men trying to have children get flu shots. Chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, also take their toll. Obesity can foster low sperm counts because excess fat causes men to produce more female hormones, Parekattil said.
When men take male supplements, including anabolic steroids, their bodies think they’re making too much testosterone and shut down the testicles, which actually atrophy, Parekattil said. Once men stop taking supplements, sperm production can take a year to resume.
“A man’s lifestyle can impact the DNA organization inside the sperm and the surface properties of the sperm, which are critical for penetrating the egg, fertilizing it and helping the embryo get to full term,” said Dr. Michael Witt, a urologist and male-fertility specialist who divides his time between Winter Park, Fla., and Atlanta.
Avoiding these sperm-unfriendly behaviors and conditions are sometimes all men need to do to give their sperm a boost, Witt said.
Besides having a better understanding of how lifestyle and anatomical stresses can affect sperm, men trying to become dads also benefit from another advance in male infertility: in-home sperm-test kits.
Although the home tests aren’t as sensitive as those in the urologist’s office, they’re a lot more convenient and less embarrassing than giving a sample at the doctor’s office.
A normal sperm count is about 40 million motile sperm per ejaculation, according to the World Health Organization. Most men produce that well into their 70s. However, of those men who have problems with infertility, about 10 percent to 15 percent make no sperm, and an additional 30 percent have low sperm.
Among all men, about one in seven has a varicocele, in which excess blood vessels impair the count and quality of sperm, Witt said. Surgery to remove the veins often restores fertility.
Like 15 percent of American couples, Clay and Wendi Harris of Orlando, Fla., couldn’t have a baby, despite trying for five years.
“We were tested seven ways to Sunday” to look for the cause, Clay Harris said.
After five failed rounds of in vitro fertilization, they had just about given up. Then tests showed that Harris, 38, had a sperm count in “the midrange.” However, Witt reviewed Harris’ sample and thought the sperm quality would improve if he had varicocele surgery.
In November 2010, Harris had the surgery, and afterward, “my sperm count went through the roof. It skyrocketed to 90 million.”
Now, the Harrises are expecting a baby boy in early February.
“When we go for our weekly ultrasound,” said Clay Harris, “we just stare at the baby on the monitor and hold hands.”