An estimated 15 percent of couples experience infertility, meaning they have difficulty conceiving a child even while having frequent unprotected sex. Although female infertility is the most widely discussed, male infertility is a factor in more than one third of couples experiencing infertility.
There are many different reasons why men can be infertile, including low sperm production, blockages that prevent the delivery of sperm, and abnormal sperm function. Although some of these issues may be due to injuries or illness, others may be influenced by nutritional deficiencies. Prenatal vitamins are commonly taken by women, but can men take prenatal vitamins?
What are prenatal vitamins?
In the strictest definition of the term, prenatal vitamins are dietary supplements that are taken before conception and during pregnancy in order to support a healthy pregnancy. While prenatal vitamins are most often taken by women and are formulated with the needs of pregnant women in mind, prenatal vitamins are not limited to women only. Recent research has shown that nutrient deficiencies in men can contribute to congenital birth defects in their children as a result of changes to DNA that can impact gene expression. Therefore, prenatal vitamins taken by men while trying to conceive may be able to reduce the risk of certain birth defects, including neural tube defects, and improve fertility if the fertility issues are linked to a nutritional deficiency.
Can men take prenatal vitamins?
Not only can men take prenatal vitamins, they also should. Nutritional deficiencies in men, particularly folate deficiency, have been found to impact fertility as a result of increased DNA damage in sperm. Modifications to the DNA sequence can cause a higher likelihood of experiencing congenital birth defects, including neural tube defects, and may also predispose the children of men with nutritional deficiencies to genetically linked heritable diseases, including heart disease and obesity. Although more studies are needed to establish a conclusive link between nutritional deficiencies, male fertility, and sperm health, prenatal vitamins can be taken as a precaution by men who are concerned about their intake of vitamins and minerals. Couples who have been struggling with infertility may find peace of mind in knowing that by taking a prenatal vitamin, men are taking an additional step to improve the chances of conception.
What factors contribute to sperm health?
When speaking in general about sperm health, we are really describing three main factors that determine how healthy or unhealthy sperm is. Although we often think of fertility issues as primarily affecting women, healthy sperm are essential in the process of conception and in reducing the risk of experiencing congenital birth defects. The quantity, movement, and structure of sperm all impact the overall health of the sperm.
- Quantity: A low sperm count reduces the chances of getting pregnant because there are fewer sperm available to fertilize an egg. Sperm quantity is counted from the semen that is discharged during a single ejaculation, and a healthy sperm count is considered to be at least 15 million sperm per milliliter. Studies have shown that sperm counts in the Western world, including America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, have declined by nearly 60 percent in the last 40 years, which may contribute to the rising rates of infertility that many couples are experiencing in these regions.
What are some common causes of male infertility?
There are many different factors that influence male infertility, and some men may experience infertility as the result of a combination of several factors. The three main categories of causes of male infertility include medical causes, environmental causes, and lifestyle causes.
Medical causes of male infertility
A variety of different health issues and medical treatments can cause problems with male fertility. These include:
- Varicocele: Varicocele is a swelling of the veins that drain the testicles. This is the most common reversible cause of male infertility.
- Infection: Infections can interfere with sperm health, can reduce the production of sperm, and can create scar tissue that blocks the pathway of sperm.
- Ejaculation issues: There are many different types of ejaculation issues, but among the most common is retrograde ejaculation. This occurs when semen is pushed into the bladder during orgasm instead of being released from the penis.
- Antibodies that attack sperm: Men with immune system issues may create antibodies that attack sperm and attempt to eliminate them.
- Tumors: Cancers that impact the release of hormones, such as cancers of the pituitary gland, can directly affect male fertility. Cancer treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy, can also cause male infertility.
- Undescended testicles: Men who are born with one of more testicles that have failed to descend from the abdomen are more likely to experience infertility later in life.
- Hormone imbalances: Hormone imbalances caused by issues with the thyroid, pituitary gland, hypothalamus, or adrenal glands can contribute to low testosterone in men.
- Tubal defects: Men can experience infertility as a result of defects to the tubes that carry sperm, including blockages, injury, infection, or abnormal development.
- Chromosome defects: Inherited disorders that affect the chromosomes, including Kleinfelter’s syndrome, cystic fibrosis, Kallmann’s syndrome, and Kartagener’s syndrome, can cause the male reproductive organs to develop abnormally.
Other medical issues that can impact male infertility include celiac disease; the use of certain medications, such as anabolic steroids, cancer medications, some antifungal medications, and certain other drugs; and prior surgeries that impact how men ejaculate.
Environmental causes of male infertility
Environmental causes of male infertility primarily result from overexposure to certain elements in the environment, including heat, chemicals, and toxins that impact the quantity or function of sperm. These causes include:
- Industrial chemicals: Low sperm counts can result from repeated exposure to benzenes, xylene, herbicides, painting materials, toluene, pesticides, organic solvents, and lead.
- Heavy metal exposure: Prolonged exposure to heavy metals, including lead, can impact fertility.
- Radiation or x-rays: Brief exposure to radiation can cause short term reductions in sperm production, but it usually returns to normal. Exposure to high doses of radiation for an extended period of time can cause a permanent reduction in sperm production.
- Overheating the testicles: Reduced sperm production and function has been linked to continuous exposure to elevated temperatures, such as frequent use of spas or saunas. It is also possible to overheat the testicles by wearing tight clothing, sitting for extended periods of time, and working on a laptop computer.
Lifestyle causes of male infertility
Lifestyle causes of male infertility are usually the easiest to remedy. Therefore, men should pay close attention to their lifestyles in order to reduce their risk of infertility. Lifestyle causes of male infertility include:
- Drug use: The use of certain drugs, including anabolic steroids in particular, can cause a reduction in sperm production as the testicles shrink. Using recreational drugs like cocaine or marijuana may also cause a temporary reduction in the quality and quantity of your sperm.
- Alcohol use: Drinking alcohol excessively or regularly can cause testosterone levels in the body to be reduced, which contributes to erectile dysfunction and diminished production of sperm. People who develop liver issues, such as cirrhosis, from their drinking can also experience fertility problems as a result.
- Tobacco smoking: Regular use of tobacco products has been linked to a lower sperm count in men when compared to men who do not smoke. Secondhand smoke can also have an impact on male fertility.
- Emotional stress: When our bodies are exposed to constant stress, it can cause a hormonal imbalance. Men who regularly experience stress or experience severe stress, including the stress associated with infertility, can suffer from a low sperm count.
- Depression: Men with severe depression are more likely to experience fertility issues than men who are not depressed. Depression impacts sexual function in a variety of ways, and dysfunction can occur as a result of reduced libido, erectile dysfunction, or delayed or inhibited ejaculation.
- Weight: Being overweight or obese can have impacts on the hormones that impact male fertility and can also cause direct impacts to the sperm themselves. In order to minimize the likelihood of experiencing infertility, men who are trying to conceive should maintain a healthy weight.