Naturopathic Care for Male Factor Fertility Issues
Around 15% of all couples are unable to conceive naturally, and male factor issues are thought to contribute to around half of these incidences. Whilst the only medical treatment for male factor infertility involves ICSI (IVF where an individual sperm is selected and injected into the egg to increase the chance of fertilisation), this is far from a solution for many couples. At the end of the day the only way to address poor semen parameters is to take a broader look at your overall health.
Sperm health is considered by andrologist’s to be an early biomarker for men’s long-term health outcomes. Research has shown that men with poor semen analysis results are more likely to develop type two diabetes, cardiovascular disease and are even more likely to die at a younger age. This is simply because it is a reflection of the man’s health. If we look at this fact alongside the statistics that have shown us that sperm counts have halved in the past 50 years, we’re potentially looking at a fairly unhealthy bunch of blokes walking around on this planet.
I believe that it is important for men to understand that their health affects their fertility. It’s actually pretty straight forward: everything you already know is bad for your health, is also detrimental to your chance of conception. Being overweight, smoking, drinking too much, having a junk food diet or living with chronic nutritional deficiencies will all negatively affect your sperm health. But unlike long-term health outcomes, these impacts are immediate. And likewise rectifying these issues can have almost immediate benefits.
Sperm production takes a little under 3 months. They are some of the smallest cells in the human body, and sperm also have a very thin cell membrane (which is essential to help them to achieve their work of effective movement through the female reproductive tract and egg fertilisation). These two factors combine to make them particularly vulnerable to the impacts of oxidative stress, which causes DNA damage. Unlike most other cells, they don’t have the capacity to repair their own DNA, so once the damage is done, a sperm is entirely useless. Because nature is pretty clever, and works dam hard to make reproduction possible against all odds, it has come up with a way of overcoming these hurdles- men produce thousands of sperm with every heartbeat, so that millions are released at each ejaculation. This way only a small proportion have to be any good to achieve pregnancy, but these days we’re seeing more and more semen analysis results that prove that this margin is often too slim. Even in a very good sample we would only expect 10% of sperm to look any good, but far too often we’re seeing 4% or even less. And the research shows us that this results in prolonged time to conception, increased miscarriage rates and poorer success with IVF and ICSI.
So, this all sounds like a disaster doesn’t it!? What are we going to do!? Sperm are pretty much useless, and all our men are going to die young!! Of course there’s something that can be done about it and that is to educate ourselves about things that directly effect fertility.
Let’s go through a few of these now…..
Diet & Nutrition
It’s not rocket science, but we now have research that confirms that consuming a junk food diet correlates with poorer male fertility. And unsurprisingly we can also prove that eating a diet high in fruits & vegetables, nuts & seeds, whole-grains, good fats and quality proteins also correlates with higher fertility. So your dietary decisions work both ways- they can either be therapeutically beneficial or harmful- the choice is yours. We work with our patients not just to improve their nutrition through diet, but also to identify and reverse any long-term deficiencies that may be playing a part. It’s easy to do, and it’s remarkably effective.
It’s impossible to discuss diet and nutrition without addressing the issue of supplementation. Whist ensuring a high-quality diet and nutrient-dense foods play a major role in achieving an ideal nutritional profile, there are sadly common deficiencies that are difficult to address without further support. For example, zinc plays an integral role in all areas of testosterone and sperm production, but Australian soils, and therefore our population, are commonly deficient in this vital mineral. Our pathology reference ranges are markedly lower than countries such as the US. This is not because Australian’s require less zinc to achieve optimal health than American’s! It is because these ranges reflect the ‘average’ of the population, not the ‘ideal’.
When choosing supplements it’s important not to just take a random selection from the supermarket shelf, and start consuming ad-hoc. To ensure safety and therapeutic benefit, supplementation should be thoroughly considered on an individual basis, and prescribed at appropriate dosages for correct lengths of time. Only high quality supplements should be used, as they ensure both safety and therapeutic benefit. Unfortunately the majority of over-the-counter supplements do not meet these standards. For example, we believe the level of mercury allowed in fish oil supplements by the TGA is totally unacceptable, and these supplements can potentially create more harm than benefit. The naturopaths at Fertile Ground Health Group recommend only the highest quality and most effective supplements. Each prescription will differ, depending on the patient’s diet, test results and overall health.
Research shows us that sperm DNA damage is increased by smoking and substance abuse at any level, and by alcohol and caffeine consumption in excess. But what is excess? That’s something that needs to be decided on an individual basis, taking the whole person and health picture into account.
The same goes for exercise- some exercises may be harmful, whilst others are beneficial to fertility, but this will again depend on individual requirements. We can help you to formulate a plan that will balance your lifestyle with your fertility outcomes.
Simply speaking, the greater a man’s waist measurement and body mass index, the greater the chance he and his partner will have trouble conceiving. Even with the use of IVF, and even when the semen analysis is shown to be normal, researches have shown that fertilisation, embryo quality, pregnancy rates and the chance of miscarriage are all affected by a man’s weight. Of course weight loss is easier to discuss than it is to achieve, and we recognize that there are many varying factors that may contribute to an individuals weight loss challenges. We know through experience that the best way to achieve sustainable weight loss it to work on a one-to-one basis, ensuring a thorough and individualised approach.
This is considered to be the single most likely cause for the halving of sperm counts in the past 50 years. And we know this because it’s not just happening in the human male- it’s happening in many other species who have also had similar exposures. Put simply, many of the chemicals (including pesticides, plastics, fragrances & flame retardants) we are regularly exposed to (through diet, personal care products, cleaning products & furnishings) have an oestrogen like effect in the body, and therefore negatively affect a mans testosterone levels and sperm producing capability. There is still a lot to learn in this area, but the research is consistently confirming it’s something we all need to take seriously. Learning to identify where these exposures are occurring and employing simple strategies to minimise them are main areas of focus when we are working with guys.
The take home message on this topic is that you are NOT powerless. There is plenty that can be done to help to optimise male fertility, and it’s really not that difficult (and it’s certainly not invasive!). And the only side-effects you’ll likely encounter are noticeable improvements in energy, stress, sleep and overall health! We do our best to help to identify the likely causative factors in every man’s circumstances, and then tailor the treatment plan specifically to his individual needs. Of course compromise will often be a factor, but balancing this with a treatment plan that will achieve outcomes is key to compliance and results.
Rhiannon Hardingham is a highly experienced fertility naturopath, educator and writer. Underpinning Rhiannon’s work is a passion for health and a belief that every child deserves the best start in life. Thorough and approachable, Rhiannon’s commitment to understanding each person as an individual is much appreciated by her patients. She practices Wednesday to Saturday at Fertile Ground Health Group.
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