Most men are completely in the dark when it comes to their fertility. Unless they’ve specifically gotten someone pregnant, they probably don’t know whether they are fertile.
Often, it isn’t until a visit to the doctor’s office after months of fertility struggles that they finally found out something is wrong with their sperm – a diagnosis that can be incredibly frustrating. But what causes low sperm counts, and is there anything that can be done about it?
Sperm generally grow best at a temperature that’s cooler than that of the human body. This is why the testicles are located in the scrotum, which sits away from the body, as it allows the testicles to stay at a lower temperature. Occasionally, when men have thickened veins that bring too much blood flow to the testicles (referred to as a varicocele), the excessive amount of blood increases the temperature of the testicles, causing poor sperm quality and poor sperm counts. Additionally, any abnormal growth or mass on the testicle can also affect sperm counts.
What we do in our daily lives can also affect the quality and count of our sperm. Excessive heat – caused by Jacuzzis, saunas, steam rooms, working at a dry cleaner or any other environment that increases the body’s temperature -- has been shown to affect sperm in a negative way. Also, underwear such as “tighty whities” or tight, fitted boxer briefs can affect the testicles, and therefore sperm production, as well. Too much bicycling and spinning have also been shown to put pressure on the testicles, potentially leading to sperm issues.
It has been known for years that women who are overweight have a lower fertility rate. However, new research has shown that weight-related fertility issues aren’t just a thing that women have to worry about, as excess body weight can negatively impact a man’s sperm count. Adipose tissue (fat) has been shown to convert itself to estrogen, and extra estrogen in a man’s body is proven to negatively impact sperm count and sperm quality. Large thighs and legs also put a lot of pressure and heat around the scrotum and may therefore increase the temperature of the testicles, which as I mentioned earlier, can lead to low sperm counts. Excessive body fat and low muscle mass also keeps testosterone levels below normal levels, leading to poorer quality sperm.
Smoking – along with the excessive consumption of alcohol, caffeine, and most illegal drugs – negatively impacts both sperm count and sperm quality. In addition, some prescription drugs can negatively impact your sperm. It is always important to discuss the use of any kind of drugs with your doctor if you are trying to conceive.
Finally, there is an area of our lives that we little control over that plays a large part in our fertility: our genetics. Unfortunately, some men with fertility issues simply struggle due to genetics, and not a treatable condition. Some men are born with undescended testicles (which can lead to low sperm counts in the future, even if they are corrected at birth or at infancy), while other men are just born with low sperm counts for unknown reasons. There are also some chromosomal abnormalities that men can have that can cause severely low sperm counts. Likewise, men can be born without crucial parts of their reproductive anatomy, such as the vas deferens, which is the tube that allows the sperm to get from the testicle to the path of ejaculation. If this tube is missing, the sperm cannot be ejaculated.
Luckily, low sperm counts are one of the most treatable areas in the field of infertility. With technology allowing for intracytoplasmic sperm injection, also known as ICSI, the best sperm, which can be found even in men with low counts, are directly injected into a female egg, making an embryo and allowing for conception to be achieved. Even for guys that have zero sperm counts, there are testicular sperm aspiration procedures, which allow sperm to be suctioned and extracted from the testicles and to be used with the IVF procedure. The use of some sperm-friendly lubricants, such as Astroglide TTC, can also promote a friendly environment for sperm to reach the uterus – which is helpful when every swimmer counts.
If conception has not occurred for a female under the age of 35 after one year of attempting, or after six months for a woman over the age of 35, it is very important for the female partner to get an evaluation and for the male to have a semen analysis. Knowing if sperm counts are low is important, because treatment options might be able to help you conceive. Good luck!
Images are for illustrative purposes only.