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What's affecting men's sperm health today?

Lifestyle and environmental issues among a host of other reasons are negatively affecting sperm health, consequently leading to infertility

Unhealth lifestyle habits such as smoking and bad diet can lead to poor sperm quality
Unhealth lifestyle habits such as smoking and bad diet can lead to poor sperm quality (Unsplash/Gabriele Stravinskaite)

Sperm health has become a significant concern globally, with an increasing number of men experiencing it. Recent studies show that 30% of overall infertility cases recorded today are due to male infertility. Considered a taboo until recently, a lot of men are now reaching out to healthcare professionals to tide over this medical condition. Lounge spoke to experts to find out the causes, common issues, and the treatments available for poor sperm health. 

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Artika Singh, a public health and gender anthropologist, comprehensive sexuality educator, and founder of Taarini Foundation in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, explains the causes for decreasing sperm health. Genetic factors are definitely responsible for shaping some parts of your sperm and sexual health. However, lifestyle habits have also proven to influence these in a big way. This could include substance consumption, sleep patterns, dietary habits, and even exercise. Lastly, mental health and sexual health work in the form of a closed feedback loop, where they directly affect one another – in good and bad ways.

Sperm health is directly linked to fertility. Healthy sperm with good motility and morphology have a higher chance of successfully fertilizing an egg. Ensuring proper sperm function is crucial for couples aspiring to achieve successful pregnancies. However, due to genetics, lifestyle, and environmental factors, sperm health is significantly affected, explains Dr. Shashant S, fertility and IVF consultant at Ferty9 Fertility Center, Secunderabad. 

According to Shashant, exposure to pesticides, industrial chemicals, radiation in occupation settings, and pollutants can harm sperm quality too. Semen is sensitive to heat. Hence, the prolonged subjection of testicles to elevated temperatures can potentially hinder sperm production. Dr. Nandita Palshetkar, obstetrician, gynecologist and director of Bloom IVF India & President of IVF Society of India (ISAR) adds, “Heat-induced therapies such as steam and sauna increase the body temperature, and prolonged and excessive use can reduce sperm count.”

Certain medical conditions can have a negative impact on the sperm's health as well. Shashant explains, “Hormonal imbalances, as seen in disorders like hypogonadism, diabetes, and thyroid dysfunction can be detrimental to sperm production. Varicose veins in the testicles can induce overheating, disrupting the delicate balance required for optimal sperm development.”

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Common issues
With genetics, lifestyle and environment factors impacting sperm health, experts list out a few common issues their male patients face: 

  1. Lower Sperm Count:  Shashant explains, “Healthy sperm concentrations typically range from 15 million to over 200 million sperm per milliliter of semen. However, men today are complaining of a count of fewer than 16 million sperm per milliliter per ejaculate. This diminished sperm count (oligospermia) can impact male fertility and also overall health.” 
  2. Poor Sperm Motility: Inadequate sperm motility, referred to as asthenospermia, hampers the effective movement and swimming capability of the sperm, diminishing the likelihood of successful egg fertilization. Palshetkar adds, “Today, men face a sperm motility of less than 40%, which reduces the chances of egg fertilisation drastically.” 
  3. Abnormal Sperm Morphology: “This condition refers to the presence of a higher-than-normal percentage of abnormally shaped sperm in a man's semen, which can potentially impact their ability to fertilize an egg,” explains Shashant. About 50% of male infertility cases involve morphological sperm defects of some kind. 
  4. Varicocele: Varicocele is characterized by the enlargement of veins in the scrotum, causing elevated testicular temperatures. It occurs in about 15-20% of males and can adversely affect both the quantity and quality of sperm production and, thereby, affect fertility. 
  5. Erectile Dysfunction: Impotence is a huge health problem in India, with one out of 10 men being impotent, and the incidence is higher in cities. Studies show that about 20% of men facing erectile dysfunction are less than 30 years of age, impacting reproduction. “Though it is not a direct sperm issue, difficulty in achieving and maintaining an erection can impact a man's ability to engage in sexual activity and contribute to larger fertility goals,” says Shashant. 

Sperm health isn't just about fertility. It is a window into overall well-being. Overcoming the stigma and treating it like any other medical condition is the best way to combat it. To begin with, it is essential to make certain lifestyle changes. For Singh, the top three changes are quitting smoking, exercising daily, and practicing mindfulness. 

“The role of mental well-being in improving your sexual health is extremely underrated and unacknowledged. The root cause of the concern isn't always physical; instead, there is an underlying mental distress,” she observes. Shashant adds, “You can combat stress through relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises. Practicing good sleep hygiene by getting adequate and quality sleep of at least 6 hours is also beneficial.” 

For medical conditions such as low sperm count, motility, and varicocele, there are recommended medications, hormone therapies and medical interventions. “What's important is a thorough diagnosis and knowing the root cause of the problem to decide a meaningful treatment process, which may include medication, testing, and even therapy. There is an urgent need for an increase in specialized diagnosis and treatment facilities to help boost recovery and improvement rates,” Singh says.

Shweta Dravid is a self confessed explorer who writes on travel, health, wellness, mindfulness and life truths.

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