Infertility is a problem impacting the lives of 15% – 20% of the population in the United States. Infertility can affect couples of child-bearing years at any point, from 15-45, however it’s most common in couples over 35. While many may see infertility as a woman’s issue, that’s not the case. Studies show that infertility causes are shared among men and women. In over a third of all couples, the male partner’s infertility played a role in the inability to conceive.
What is Male Infertility
The main symptom of male infertility is the inability to fertilize a partner’s egg, and conceive a child. In most cases there are no other symptoms, or signs that are obvious, indicating any underlying issues. As long as a man is ejaculating normally, he may assume his sperm is healthy and finding its way to the intended target.
Unlike women, who are born with all of the eggs they will have for their lifetime, a man produces new sperm every 64 days. The number, health, and motility of the sperm can be affected by many different causes, from the temperature of the scrotum to one too many drinks to an undiagnosed condition. That’s why it’s essential to examine the reproductive health of the father, as well as the mother.
The Process of Fertility in Men
When it comes to healthy male fertility, the process can be complex. There are 4 factors governing a man’s ability to successfully fertilize his partner’s egg. These are:
- Healthy sperm production: At least one of the testicles must be functioning normally in order for a man to produce healthy sperm. Additionally, the production and balance of hormones, such as testosterone, is necessary for healthy sperm production.
- The ability of semen to carry the sperm: Sperm mixes with semen and is ejaculated into the woman for fertilization. Inadequate semen production, or a blockage preventing the sperm from reaching the semen, can contribute to male infertility.
- A normal sperm count: If you are not producing enough sperm (at least 15 million/mL per ejaculate) your odds of impregnating your partner are very low.
- Sperm function: Sperm must be able to move, and function, normally in order to reach, and penetrate, your partner’s egg.
Causes of Male Infertility
Not unlike female infertility, male infertility can be related to temporary health issues, prior medical treatment, such as surgeries, or an autoimmune condition, to name a few. That’s why it’s so important to get to the room cause, and treat it. Some of the more common reasons for male infertility are:
- Varicocele: This is the most common cause of male infertility. The veins within the testicle, which drain blood, can become swollen, hampering fertility. This can cause a spike in testicle temperature, which reduces sperm quality. Varicoceles can be treated, improving quality, production and function or the sperm, which improves the odds of pregnancy, especially when used in conjunction with IVF.
- Infections: Sexually transmitted infections, and infections that cause inflammation, can impair fertility in men. Scarring in and around the reproductive anatomy, can interfere with sperm production, and block the flow of sperm.
- Hormone Imbalances: Imbalances in the hormones necessary for reproduction may cause infertility. This can come from testicular dysfunction, or problems associated with other hormonal systems, such as the pituitary gland, thyroid, hypothalamus, or adrenal gland.
- Medications: There are certain medications that can impair sperm production, as well as cause erectile problems. Cancer treatment, hormone replacement therapy, long-term steroid use, acid reflux medications, and certain medicines used to treat ulcers, and even anti-fungal medication, can have a bearing on male fertility. Many medications, including blood pressure meds, can cause a low libido, or erectile dysfunction.
- Medical Conditions: Celiac disease, an inability to tolerate gluten, can contribute to male infertility. Immune system abnormalities raise the odds that antibodies will misidentify sperm and attack them. Tumors, in or around reproductive organs, or hormone producing glands, as well as methods used to treat the tumors, can impair male fertility. Finally, undescended testicles, which can be a birth defect, will impair sperm health and production.
- Age: Although many men father children well into advanced age, it comes much more difficult after age 40. As hormone production fluctuates, and other health issues arise, even IVF can become challenging for older fathers. The risks such as autism, birth defects, developmental issues and miscarriages also increase with advanced paternal age.
- Environmental and Lifestyle: Working in overheated conditions, around radiation (such as an x-ray machine), working with industrial chemicals, and heavy metals, reduce the production and function of sperm. Your lifestyle also has a bearing on your reproductive health. Cigarette smoking, marijuana usage, excessive alcohol consumption, poor diet, obesity, stress, and depression take a toll on your overall health, including the fertility of both men and women.
Hope for Male Infertility
There are certain therapies and procedures to restore fertility in men, depending on the cause. IVF is the surest way, once sperm production and quality are restored, to conceive. For those who aren’t able to produce sperm, third party donor sperm is a wise choice.
Anytime a couple has difficulty becoming pregnant they experience feelings of isolation, frustration, and stress. Infertility can also lead to depression, and affect relationships in a negative way. If you and your partner have been trying to conceive for a year (6 months for those over 35), without success, you need to find out the reason your attempts have been unsuccessful, and what your options are to grow your family.