Spermaggedon?! Boys and mothers of boys - this one is for you
This one is for the boys, mothers (and prospective mothers) of boys. Sperm counts have fallen - a lot. In fact, the latest research is pointing to the average sperm count in the west falling by more than half in just 40 years. Not good.
Why? What on earth is going wrong?
This issue has (thankfully) started to get a lot more attention in the mainstream press. In fact, there have been two recent articles in particular in Time and New York Magazine (links at the bottom) so It has started to come out. However, what’s interesting is that this subject seems to be even more taboo than women’s health (which is odd - as it most definitely takes two to tango).
Either way, I have a feeling this is going to be something we start to hear more about….
So: what do you need to know?
What is causing this?
Who is most affected? (Pregnant mothers this one is for you…)
What can you do about it?
Well there is good news and bad news here….
The good news is that adult male sperm is pretty regenerative - for example it has been shown that following certain cancer treatments and low-dose irradiation (if the spermatogonial stem cells are not destroyed), sperm production can reappear after months or years (1). Good news.
The not so good news, is that research is suggesting that certain exposures have a real impact not only on sperm counts, motility but also on risks around testicular cancer. Even worse, if exposure occurs at key development times (ie. during pregnancy) the effects can be permanent.
Why are sperm counts falling?
Like most things - we aren’t totally sure, and it is likely a combination of various factors. For men, it is likely to be a lot of the same factors impacting women’s and society’s health overall. You know the list by now: Technology, stress, pesticides, plastics, other endocrine disruptors, over medication, lack of exercise, even the changing role of men and women could be partly to blame.
However, one thing there is more evidence around is that hormones remain key - here is what the science is saying:
Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (click here to learn more about what they do and how they work), have been linked to all kinds of issues. When it comes to men however, it has been linked to what is known as Testicular Dysgenesis Syndrome (TDS). What is this? Well it encompasses a number of conditions, but, one thing it does include is low sperm quality.
What are these Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs)?
In short your hormones can be potentially disrupted by various sources: pesticides, artificial hormones in food, phytoestrogens (think Soy) and even hormones in our drinking water from the contraceptive pill. Plus of course the man-made EDCs (BPA/Phtalates etc). The science around the impact on men (interestingly), is much less prolific than for women with a lot of animal studies but far less human.
However, a couple of key things that you should know:
Mothers of sons: exposures to too many hormone disruptors during pregnancy can potentially have a very real and lasting effect:
‘during sexual development, exposure to certain chemicals can disturb this hormonal balance, and even short-term exposures can cause adverse and permanent changes to the reproductive system.’ (1)
We know that early development sows the seeds of a person, but what we have learnt is that when it comes to issues around male reproduction - the very earliest stages matter.
One very recent study (in rats) showed that developmental exposure to certain EDCs had long-lasting effects, including significantly decreased sperm counts in adulthood. Ok so this study was in rats - but the results were so strong (across all sorts of different exposures and levels) that the researchers concluded:
‘As effects were evident in all exposure groups, these findings cause concern that human exposure to paracetamol, environmental anti-androgens as well as environmental estrogens may contribute to the low semen quality seen in many human populations today.’
This was backed up by the collection of studies that were analysed and compiled by the Endocrine society:
‘chemical exposures to the developing testes, particularly those that influence spermatogonial stem cells or Sertoli cells, can cause irreversible changes that result in permanently low adult sperm numbers…this causes concern that pregnant women today are not sufficiently protected against endocrine-disrupting effects of chemical exposures. (2)
The issue of exposure during pregnancy has been very well researched in animals. In fact, exposure to phytoestrogen either during pregnancy or in very early life can have a very real effect with strong links shown between exposure and reproductive abnormalities in boys.
So, clearly if you’re pregnant or want to be pregnant you have another reason to err on the side of caution and avoid EDC exposure (and too much Soy) where you can (click here for ten easy ways to reduce you’re exposure).
What about in adults?
At the moment the science is not conclusive in humans, but, there is clearly something going on here which cannot be explained by genetics alone. Once again, there are links between EDC exposure and sperm quantity, quality and motility in animal studies - so being cautious around this and avoiding exposure where you can is not going to hurt.
So, what about the fuss around soy?? Is there any scientific basis?
‘Xenoestrogens have been suggested to play a role in a variety of male reproductive disorders including possible declines in sperm concentration’ (3)
What is an Xenoestrogen? Anything that imitates estrogen - either synthetic or naturally (including PCBs, BPA and Phtalates)
Natural estrogens include phytoestrogens (which are planet estrogens - ie. like those found in soy) and Isoflavones which are found mainly in soy beans, chick peas and soy-derived products.
The potential link between phytoestrogens and semen quality is not new - but the research around it has been growing - however, it too is not entirely conclusive. Isoflavones are generally considered to have weak estrogenic activity - but - they have been shown to bind strongly to certain membranes and to ‘exert non-genomic actions potentially deleterious to male fertility.’
The largest study in humans (so far) examining the relationship between phytoestrogens and semen quality concluded the following:
The association was stronger at the higher end of the sperm concentration distribution suggesting that soy food intake may have stronger associations among men with normal or high sperm concentrations than among men with low sperm concentration.
Soy food intake was more strongly inversely related to sperm concentration among overweight and obese men.
So - if you have a normal sperm count to start with and/or you are overweight you are potentially more likely (according to this research at least) to be effected by too much Soy consumption.
One common push-back is if Soy is such an issue we aren’t seeing more problems in Asia where the consumption on average is higher?
The study did address this and research has in fact found physical differences in male reproductive organs (that were statistically significant) and has also argued that there may be a link to higher fat tissue (the western population statistically has more!) which may amplify the effect. If you want to read more - check out the full study. Link is below.
Once again, it is important to note that the science is not 100% conclusive, but, there is enough doubt here so why take the risk? Less exposure is probably a smarter approach. So - guys: watch your exposure to EDCs (click here for easy ways to avoid) and say no to too much soy particularly if you’re pregnant.
Further reading and references:
AXELSTAD M, HASS U BOBERG J: Reduced sperm counts in rats exposed to human relevant moistures of endocrine disrupters. Endocrine Connections. 2018 Jan 7 (1) 139-148
GORE AC, CHAPPELL VA, ZOELLER RT: EDC-2: The Endocrine Society’s Second Scientific Statement on Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals. Endocrine Review. 2015 Dec: 36(6): E1-E150
CHAVARRO JE, TOTH TL, HAUSER R: Soy Food and isolfavone intake in relation to semen quality parameters among men from an infertility clinic. Human Reproduction (Oxford): 2008 Nov: 23(11): 2584-2590
New York Magazine:
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