Nine Common Actions and Habits That Can Lower Men's Sperm Count
© 2022 Health Realizations, Inc. Update
Though you may not think about your (or your partner's) sperm count very often, it can obviously become center-stage when trying to have a baby. While a normal sperm count is 20 million or more sperm per milliliter of semen, many factors can decrease this amount to 10 million or fewer sperm per milliliter of semen, which indicates low sperm concentration.
Low sperm count is one of the leading causes of male infertility, and about 10 percent of Americans of reproductive age experience infertility (that's about 6 million couples), so this is a major issue.
Whether you are planning to conceive in the near future, or have had trouble getting pregnant in the past, take a look through these common activities that lower men's sperm count (and pass them along to your friends who may also benefit).
1. Exposure to Phthalates
Phthalates are widely used industrial compounds used as plastic softeners and in hairsprays, perfumes, cosmetics, toys, shower curtains, wood finishers, lubricants, certain medical devices and more. These chemicals have been linked to low sperm count, low sperm motility, and an increased percent of abnormally shaped sperm, according to a study by researchers at Harvard School of Public Health's Occupational Health Program.
In fact, men with the highest levels of phthalate exposure were three to five times more likely to have a low sperm count or low sperm motility than men with the lowest exposure.
What's the Problem With Phthalates?
Animal studies on certain phthalates have shown the chemicals may cause a variety of problems, including reproductive and developmental harm, organ damage, immune suppression, endocrine disruption and cancer.
The major concern is that, as these chemicals are so ubiquitous in our environment, no one knows for sure what the long-term exposure, even in small doses, may be doing to humans, and particularly developing infants.
Studies, including one conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and published in Environmental Health Perspectives, found that people have higher levels of certain phthalates in their systems than was previously thought. Humans can be exposed not only through ingestion and inhalation, but also by direct injection and skin contact.
Perhaps most concerning are these chemicals' effects on reproductive health. In a study published in the Environmental Health Perspectives, it was found that pregnant women exposed to common levels of phthalates might have baby boys with smaller genitals and incomplete testicular descent.
The higher the woman's exposure, the more likely the baby's reproductive health would be harmed. The study also reported that changes occurred at phthalate levels found in 25 percent of U.S. women.
In fact, among the women with the highest exposures (this 25 percent of the women), their sons were 10 times more likely to have a shorter-than-expected distance between the anus and the base of the penis, which is an indicator of impacts on their reproductive systems.
While the Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association said the "use of phthalates in cosmetics and personal care products is supported by an extensive body of scientific research and data that confirms safety," the chief of endocrinology at Northwestern University, Andrea Dunaif, said the findings present "strong evidence in humans that this endocrine-disrupting chemical is associated with changes in boys."
Phthalates and Sperm Damage
In a study conducted by Dr. Susan Duty, a post-doctoral scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, and others also found an association between sperm damage and phthalate exposure in adult men. Said Dr. Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network:
"The correlation found in this study is extremely troubling and deserves urgent follow up. The last thing you want is DNA damage to sperm, which can lead to infertility and may also be linked to miscarriages, and birth defects, infertility and cancer in offspring ... The link with [the phthalate] DEP is also a concern because, until now, DEP has been considered one of the least toxic phthalates when examined in other ways. Since everyone in the general population is exposed to phthalates from a variety of sources, the results of this report, if confirmed and verified, identify a significant risk to public health."
2. Smoking, Drinking or Taking Drugs
Men who smoke cigarettes, take drugs like steroids or marijuana, or drink alcohol excessively tend to have a lower sperm count, lower sperm motility and increased abnormalities in sperm shape and function, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM).
3. Intense Exercise and Mountain Biking
Extreme exercise (like running a marathon or participating in a triathlon) has been linked to low sperm count because it can overheat the testicles. Meanwhile, mountain biking has also been linked to low sperm count.
About 90 percent of mountain bikers who rode more than two hours a day, six days a week (or 3,000 miles or more a year) had lower sperm count, decreased sperm motility, and scrotal abnormalities, according to a study. On average, extreme mountain bikers had one-third the sperm count of non-mountain-bikers.
4. Hot Tubs (and Other Excessive Heat Exposures)
Exposure to high heat, including going in hot tubs or saunas, has been found to lower sperm production because of the excess heat in the scrotal area, according to ASRM.
Exposure to excessive heat, such as that from saunas, hot tubs, wearing tight underwear -- even sitting for too long -- are well-known contributors to low sperm count.
5. Wearing Tight Underwear
Though often considered a myth, it's true that wearing tight underwear can contribute to decreased sperm production, according to ASRM. This effect occurs because of the extra heat produced.
6. Sitting for Long Time Periods
Also due to excess heat production, sitting for long time periods (such as at your job) can also decrease sperm production.
7. Exposure to Pesticides and Solvents
Men who are exposed to high levels of pesticides or chemical solvents tend to have lower sperm count and lower sperm quality than men who had low exposure, according to a study published in Human Reproduction.
8. Using a Mobile Phone
Though there is some controversy surrounding this one, a study by Hungarian scientists found that the using a mobile phone, and even just keeping it in a pocket while the power is on, has a negative effect on sperm. Those who were classified as heavy mobile phone users had sperm counts up to 30 percent lower than those who did not use a mobile phone at all.
"The prolonged use of cell phones may have a negative effect on spermatogenesis and male fertility, that presumably deteriorates both concentration and motility," the researchers said.
9. Taking Certain Prescription Medications
Certain medications have been linked to low sperm count. These include some antidepressants and drugs for heart disease and high blood pressure. Likewise, treatments for cancer, such as radiation and chemotherapy, are known to frequently damage sperm-producing cells (for this reason, men about to undergo these treatments are sometimes encouraged to bank their sperm).
Harvard School of Public Health
American Society for Reproductive Medicine
Human Reproduction 16(8):1768-76
Our Stolen Future: About Phthalates
Environmental Working Group Report: Phthaltes
Sperm Damage Linked to Phthalate