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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Fertility experts discourage cannabis use when conceiving

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By Theresa Tanner EVERCANNABIS Writer

Data tracked by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the highest numbers of births in the United States occur in August and September. Count back nine months and we can deduce that the most popular time of conception is during the winter holiday season.

It’s not surprising. The weeks from Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day are a time of celebration for many families, with lots of indulgent food and spirits, good cheer and general merriment.

Plus, it gets dark so early and it’s too cold to go outside. What else is there to do? And there will be even less to do this year, with COVID-19 safety measures still impacting plans for travel and events.

Some couples might consider the winter holidays as a last hurrah before taking the plunge toward pregnancy and parenthood, preparing for a number of lifestyle changes that may need to take place.

Fertility specialists recommend that couples trying to conceive avoid caffeine and alcohol, stop smoking, maintain a healthy body weight and diet, and stay active while avoiding overly strenuous workouts.

Refraining from drug use is also on the list, but legalized medical marijuana has led some consumers to see it as a necessary medicine and therefore safe to use.

While researchers have linked cannabis use during pregnancy to low birth weight, attention issues, and other cognitive and behavioral issue in children, what are the impacts of cannabis on fertility?

Dr. Brenda S. Houmard is a board-certified OB-GYN and Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility Specialist at Seattle Reproductive Medicine (SRM)’s Spokane clinic.

“The effects of cannabis in pregnancy are better known,” Houmard said in a phone interview. “When it comes to exposures – environmental exposures, social exposures, medications – if there isn’t direct research on those agents in fertility, we fall back to what we know about those exposures in pregnancy. So most of the time, we counsel patients that are seeking fertility to follow the same guidelines that they would follow in pregnancy,” she said. Which means, no cannabis.

And that goes for both male and female patients.

One of Houmard’s colleagues, Dr. Thomas Walsh, is a physician at SRM in Seattle and Bellevue with expertise in male infertility. He is also a board-certified urologist at the Men’s Health Center at the University of Washington Medical Center, and a professor at University of Washington School of Medicine, Department of Urology.

“If you’re trying to conceive, then cannabis is not something you should be using regularly,” said Walsh in a phone interview.

Walsh says that there is evidence that cannabis can impact the amount of sperm a man produces, the quality of the sperm, and its ability to fertilize an egg.

“Humans have natural receptors for cannabis, that’s why we feel the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the intoxicating agent in cannabis),” he said, then compared the impact of cannabis on sperm to the pre-flight safety briefing that flight attendants give on airplanes.

“In case of an emergency on a plane, a lighted walkway will appear to guide passengers to the exit. Sperm also have a ‘lighted walkway’ that are, in part, the cannabinoid receptors. If those receptors get overwhelmed with extra THC, the system becomes saturated and the sperm doesn’t know where to go.”

In fact, the negative impact of cannabis on sperm was so evident that it has even been researched as a potential form of male contraception.

The knowledge that cannabis affects sperm is not new, says Walsh.

“Men who use cannabis are higher risk for developing testicular germ cell cancer. We’ve had that knowledge for well over a decade.”

“What’s new is we now have the ability to ask patients about cannabis use because it’s legal (in Washington). Past or current use is a common intake question,” said Walsh. “With legalization, there was an assumption of safety. That may be false.”

One question researchers want to address is the long-term effects of cannabis use on fertility. While scientists can see a powerful impact on active use, there are still questions about how previous cannabis use, even years ago, may impact fertility.

With statewide legalization, opportunities for more research are becoming available, but there are still limitations.

“Since it’s still not federally legal, funding for research is limited,” said Walsh.

In the meantime, both Walsh and Houmard recommend that couples trying to conceive attempt to balance their whole health.

“The general feeling among physicians in fertility is that cannabis use is not a good thing. People who are trained as OB/GYN and urologists are united in the opinion that the use of cannabis during fertility is not helpful, and it may be harmful,” said Houmard.

“If you’re capable from abstaining from cannabis, that’s the best course of action,” Walsh said, noting that sperm production in males is a three-month process, so couples need to plan. “Healthy living, regular exercise, stress reduction – do all those things in advance of when you want to conceive.”

Theresa Tanner is the Health & Culture editor of EVERCANNABIS. Born and raised in Spokane, she enjoys good food and drink, pop culture podcasts, and relaxing at the lake.