Is Male Fertility in Danger? A Look Into the Alarming Trend of Dropping Sperm Counts
The concept of a sperm count is not something guys think about much.
In fact, unless you’re actively trying to conceive with a partner, there’s a good chance you don’t think about it at all. Which isn’t unreasonable — a lot of the time, if guys are spending any time worrying about what they’re ejaculating, they’re more concerned with the size of their loads than how many sperm are in them.
But that could be changing. Recent, reliable data suggests that sperm count numbers are dropping around the world and have been for several decades now.
And while there’s no imminent cause for alarm at a societal level, it can be disconcerting to hear that we’re in the midst of a shift like that, particularly when the exact causes remain somewhat murky, and — as the experts note — there’s no indication of the decline slowing or coming to a halt.
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In order to get a better sense of what’s going on in the world of sperm counts, how it affects our readers and what you can do about it, AskMen spoke to a couple of fertility experts. Here’s what they had to say:
Are Sperm Counts Really Dropping?
“A recent systematic review of 38 different studies found that average sperm concentration has declined annually from 1973 to 2018,” says fertility expert Dr. Alex Robles of the Columbia University Fertility Center.
The meta-study in question, which looked at studies conducted between 1973 and 2018, analyzing data from over 55,000 men in more than 50 countries, shows that sperm counts are down between 50 and 60 percent over the past half-century. While the study concluded there was no change in semen volume, sperm counts are down significantly by just about every measure.
Now, as you may be well aware, it only takes one sperm to fertilize an egg. You don’t need millions upon millions of sperm in order to conceive, and even if sperm counts are down, they’re still, on average, in the tens of millions per milliliter of ejaculate.
But scientists suggest a high sperm count is a sort of fail-safe measure against being unable to reproduce, as even a best-case scenario in terms of sperm count and ovulation may only produce a 10% chance of creating a pregnancy. The lower your sperm count, the more times it may take to be able to conceive.
“The authors of this research stated that sperm counts have dropped so low that it can make conception difficult,” says men’s sexual health and wellness expert Brenden Durell, “and the average couple around the world would need to seek medical treatment in order to conceive.”
Perhaps most concerningly, according to Randall Loy, MD, reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist at the Center for Reproductive Medicine, “there has been no ‘leveling-off’ yet noted in these trends. These findings strongly suggest a dramatic decrease in male reproductive health, which has serious, broader implications beyond fertility.”
Loy also points out that, while the worldwide trend is downward, “there were no significant declines in sperm counts in studies from South America, Asia, and Africa.” However, he notes, this may be due in part to “an absence of such studies from these countries prior to 1985.”
In any case, the drop in North America, Europe and Australia is severe — and backed up by a lot of data.
Why Are Sperm Counts Dropping?
It would be helpful if there was an easy thing we could point to and identify as the culprit, but, as is often the case with public health concerns, there’s no one clear factor to blame here — at least, not yet.
“It’s difficult to pinpoint any specific causes as to why sperm counts are dropping,” says Dr. Robles. “It is likely due to a combination of factors, including environmental and lifestyle factors such as poor diet and exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals.”
“Studies done by scientists at the University of Aberdeen and Hasselt University found evidence of ‘forever chemicals’ impacting the body from early stages of infancy, which can potentially impact fertility later in life,” says Durell, who also noted that air pollution has been linked to infertility by other studies.
Diet can also be a factor — but a potentially tricky one. While eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables would correlate with better overall health, often a significant factor in sperm health, organic produce seems like it’s the way to go. That’s because pesticides may be a significant factor in lowered sperm counts, according to a 2015 study Durell mentioned.
Another surprising possible factor? How tight your underwear is — specifically, whether they are hugging your testicles to your pelvis. This is because, Durell points out, “the body’s average 98.6 degree internal temperature is not an optimal environment for sperm, hence why male testicles are outside of the body.” There’s even been a study done to this effect.
Of course, your lifestyle may not be the only one impacting your sperm count — your mother’s may have, as well, according to Loy.
“Maternal exposure to endocrine disruptors, such as phthalates, or tobacco products during critical windows of male reproductive development may play a role,” he notes, while adding that alcohol and tobacco consumption as an adult can negatively impact your sperm count.
“All in all,” Durell says, “it can’t be concluded that there is one reason but there are many factors that may play important roles in present-day lower sperm counts.”
What Does This Mean for You?
…If You’re an Average Guy
So what does this mean for you? If you’re not actively trying to conceive, maybe not much.
As Durell noted, some guys might be open to the idea of having a lower sperm count, as it means they’re less likely to cause an accidental pregnancy.
But if you’re young and the possibility of having children in the future is something you’re either open to or interested in, it’s not a bad idea to keep this stuff in mind.
“The everyday average dude, providing he cares about his fertility, conceiving with a partner and his personal testosterone levels, gets to be more conscious, proactive and intentional with the environment he creates internally and externally,” Durell says.
There’s also a broader context to consider. After all, no one goes through a public health crisis alone.
“This is a humanity-based topic that needs to be dealt with one man at a time,” he adds. “As a men’s intimacy and emotional health coach, I see this impacting every man, whether his individual sperm counts are low or not.”
“If it’s not you, it may be impacting your best friend, your brother, your co-worker,” Durell points out. “In indigenous cultures, not being able to conceive has a profound impact on the social well-being of the couple and community negatively, according to this case study done in a village in Ghana. It’s highly stigmatized.”
Though infertility isn’t much discussed in the West, Durell notes that infertility is somewhat similarly stigmatized here too.
Finally, a lower sperm count may also be a sign of other health issues, even if you’re not interested in becoming a parent, so it could be something to keep an eye on.
“Declining sperm counts may be an indicator of a man’s overall hormonal health,” says Dr. Robles. “Studies suggest that men with low sperm counts are more likely to have metabolic abnormalities such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.”
…If You’re Trying to Conceive
If you’re actively trying to conceive, or are preparing to, it’s a bit of a different story, as the downward trend in global sperm counts may be affecting you personally in very real ways in the present or immediate future.
“Low sperm counts may negatively impact the chances of conceiving a child naturally,” Dr. Robles notes. “This is the primary reason why we always check a semen analysis in couples who are having difficulty achieving pregnancy.”
Basically, if you’ve been actively trying to conceive and haven’t been having any luck, unfortunately, it may be the case that a lowered sperm count is a factor.
“Most people assume that infertility is a female issue,” says Loy, but he points out that studies show that “up to 50% of infertility cases are a result of male-factor infertility.”
“Because of this,” Loy says, “if a couple is having trouble conceiving, it’s just as important for the male partner to undergo diagnostic testing to determine the cause of infertility. The data around global sperm count and concentration furthers the need for a fertility evaluation to include male partners.”
For men in this situation, Durell says, “There may be some tough literal and or hypothetical conversations that need to be had.
“Guys who are actively trying to conceive with their partners will have to be all-in with lifestyle adjustments to best position themselves for the best sperm concentration,” he notes. “If not already paying closer attention to their partner’s menstruation cycle to work with the optimal window of fertility for the both of them.”
Despite the numbers, Durell believes this can be “an opportunity for patience, understanding and an overall deeper intimacy in relationships, due to the level of importance of working together towards a common goal.”
What to Do If You’re Worried About Your Sperm Count
“If you are concerned about your fertility potential, it is important to seek medical advice from a qualified reproductive and endocrinology expert,” says Dr. Robles.”In most cases, we can perform a comprehensive semen analysis and have the results back within 24 to 48 hours.”
Durell notes you can also purchase self-test kits in order to perform the deed at home, and then mail your sample in for testing.
“A fertility evaluation will give men a clear understanding of their fertility health,” says Dr. Loy. “These are typically done through noninvasive testing,” he notes, including methods like blood tests, urine tests, or even transrectal ultrasounds.
Once you get your results, Durell notes, you’ll be able to understand what your sperm count level is like, which will give you “a better understanding of the action to take.”
“I encourage men who may have a lower sperm count to adopt the mindset that they aren’t broken or lacking,” he says. “It’s an invitation to be more proactive with learning new activities, new foods, supplements and an overall new lifestyle.”
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So what does that look like? A lot of it is basic health stuff — getting good amounts of sleep and exercise, eating healthy, and avoiding things that might negatively impact your sperm count, like alcohol and tobacco, pesticides and certain toxicants, and overly tight underwear.
If you’re in this position, Dr. Loy recommends trying to live “as healthy a lifestyle as possible.”
“A Mediterranean or Asian (Okinawan) diet with less red meat, more high-fiber vegetables, and whole grains would be recommended,” he notes, “as well as at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise daily. There should be limited alcohol (no more than 4 bottles of beer, or 4 six oz. glasses of wine, or 2 two oz. glasses of liquor per week) and no tobacco or other smoke products.”
Those chemicals and other substances to avoid? Loy mentions mercury, lead, and cadmium, as well as pesticides, endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as “Bisphenol A, Phthalates, and polybrominated diethyl ethers,” and air pollution generally.
More broadly, Loy suggests limiting your consumption of deep-water ocean fish, processed foods, eating organic, using glass or stainless steel bottles, not microwaving plastic, and limiting your consumption of canned foods — as well as some unexpected suggestions like not wearing your shoes at home, using roll-on deodorants and colognes instead of sprays, and avoiding “thermal paper cash register receipts.”
Durell, for his part, suggests things like keeping healthy with daily cardio, getting lots of rest, as well as trying herbs such as “ashwagandha, maca root, ginseng, [and] shilajit,” wearing no underwear (or loose-fitting underwear), meditating, and engaging in “healthy competition” in order to stimulate testosterone production.
Ultimately, lifestyle is a significant factor in male fertility health, says Dr. Loy. “Evaluating these areas of your lifestyle can help you determine what can be improved in order to achieve optimal fertility health,” he says.
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