More than one in six couples in Australia experience delays in conceiving. While the common perception is still that women are largely at fault when there are fertility problems, medical researchers are stating unequivocally now that the male carries at least 50% of the responsibility.
In fact, since 2004, a flurry of research into male fertility has had alarm bells ringing. Researchers in the US, Europe and Australia have estimated at least a 50% drop-off in male potency since our grandparents time and have even identified Sick Sperm Syndrome, a phenomenon that has raised many questions about whether the decline in male fertility is really is getting worse and what, in our modern lifestyles could be causing it.
As early as 2005, Professor of Developmental Biology at Queensland University, Peter Koopman said when discussing declining male infertility, “A little like global warming, what we will see with fertility is that things will reach breaking point…We’re starting to see a precipitous decline in fertility and if that continues over the next 10, 20, 50 years, it will be impossible for men to reproduce naturally. And I think that is a grave situation for the human race and for our quality of life.”
Research has identified a number of reasons why this decline is happening. Firstly, with our new understandings of trans-generational genetic mutation, it is now acknowledged that a son can not only inherit his father’s bad habits, but also the damage done to his father’s reproductive capacity as a result of that bad habit. For example, if a father develops lung cancer, DNA damage in his spermatozoa also occurs. As a consequence of that DNA damage, there is a four-to-five fold increased chance his children will develop childhood cancers of various kinds. So his children are genetically weaker that he was.
Moreover, the newer technologies being used in IVF clinics around the country to offset the dramatic reduction in the amount of sperm available due to the recent rapid decline, is to isolate a single sperm to fertilise the oocyte(woman’s egg). This effectively bypasses Nature’s brilliant plan of having the strongest sperm win the conception race, thus ensuring a stronger offspring. Technicians are doing the selecting based on their limited perceptions of the strongest sperm. Natural selection is being compromised and babies are being born genetically weaker than their fathers.
Secondly, not only is there a decline in the quantity of sperm, but also research is demonstrating that the rise in male infertility is directly linked to the increase in testicular cancer particularly amongst young men in their twenties. And one of the main reasons is environmental toxins which damage the sperm when it is in the vulnerable ’production line’ phase, increasing vulnerability to cancer but also impacting on the potency of the sperm itself.
It is during this production process within the testes of the male that genetic material is being packed into the microscopic head of the sperm. This cargo is designed for delivery at the crucial moment when it binds to the oocyte, after its victory swim up the vaginal canal of the woman.
A range of specific and non-specific environmental toxins have been cited as responsible for little or no sperm production, slow sperm or non-functional sperm, during the production line phase which means effectively that the chances of being a victor sperm are minimal at the least and impossible in most cases.
Studies on male fertility over the past twenty years by the Queensland Fertility Group was based on the job that the study participants do, indicating the level of environmental toxicity that the workers were exposed to, according to the clinic’s scientific director Keith Harrison.
"The sperm count did not differ significantly between our study group and the controls but, in general, the sperm of the study group was more feeble and less active, so it has a lower fertility potential," said Dr Michele de Rosa, a researcher at the university.
Levels of testosterone and other hormones in the men, who were exposed to pollutants for about six hours a day, were normal, but sperm motility, or ability to swim, was lower, which could affect its ability to fertilise a female egg.
"Our study demonstrates that continuous exposure to traffic pollutants impairs sperm quality in young and middle-aged men," Dr De Rosa said.
The researchers said the toll workers had been exposed to higher levels of nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides, carbon monoxide and lead than the other men in the area. They identified nitrogen oxides and lead as the most likely causes of sperm damage.
Furthermore, the effect of chemical intoxication can impact more than production of sperm in the adult male. It can impair embryonic development. For example, although the issue of oestrogens in the environment is contentious, many chemicals can produce oestrogen effects in animals and especially on developing foetuses. Exposure to some pesticides and plastics at high enough levels can disrupt male hormones, particularly in the developing foetus. If this damage has happened to the male embryo during gestation, it will take at least 20 to 30 years for that damage to be identified, which is when the now adult male attempts to reproduce himself. Many of the hazardous chemicals cited have not been around for long enough to determine the degree of damage to the DNA. Laboratory testing on animals however, do not paint a promising picture for male fertility.
As well as environmental toxins there is also a concern about the toxic effect that pharmaceutical drugs are having on male fertility. The concern is that while pharmaceuticals may be tested rigorously for their sematic toxicity (do they make your hair fall out or cause kidney or liver poisoning?) there is little effort given to studying their reproductive toxicology. Anti-depressants have been cited as compromising the health of the sperm.
"If you look at normal sperm counts and motility, the standard measures of fertility, you saw no changes, but if you looked at sperm DNA, the genetic material in more detail you actually found dramatic changes in almost half of the men, normal men, who are on this drug," he said.
Paroxetine is sold in Australia as Aropax. Millions of prescriptions for various anti-depressant drugs are written in Australia every year.
In the face of all this doom and gloom, is there any glimmer in the darkness? Well, it seems that if men are prepared to take the pill, there may well be.
A tablet (ah-ha – a pill for men?) containing vitamins C and E, folate, zinc, lycopene and garlic oil has been found to help protect a man's sperm from damage caused by smoking, toxins and infections.
The study conducted in Australia found that the success of pregnancy doubled in the infertile couples who took the pill.
So in real terms what does all this mean? Well, according to current figures, even the most fertile of couples having unprotected sex at the right time of the month have just a 1 in 4 chance of conceiving that month. So getting pregnant isn’t as easy as our mothers warned us. And given that the proportion of abnormally low semen volume, sperm concentration and motility, increases significantly with the age of the male, along with women’s tendency to put off wanting to have children until they are older, it seems that we are fast heading to a future where having children will be the exception rather than the norm.
However, the problem of male fertility is not easily resolved. The male biological inscription determines that men are often the last to admit that there is anything wrong with them. That is why it has taken so long to even recognize that half of the current fertility crisis rests with men, and is not just the domain of the female. Women have carried the larger part of responsibility for contraception for fifty years now at great expense to their procreative power (the pill decreases fertility) their emotional stability (studies show the pill causes depression) and their birthright to pleasure (the pill has been proven to permanently decrease libido). Men have had no need for chemical interference in their hormonal functioning because it was always assumed that women would bear the load.
The problem of rising infertility rates in the human species must be addressed if we are to bequeath future generations the endowment they are entitled to: that of the right to evolve. In the opinion of those observing the downward spiral of our reproductive power, we may well be heading to a future where reproduction is so compromised that humanity is on the path to devolution: that is each generation is becoming less healthy than the one before.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine the axiom for health and wellbeing is moderation in all things, including moderation. Lifestyle it seems is a major contributing factor to rising rates of infertility. This is something we can all do something about. Eating well, regular exercise, resting and recuperating in balance with work and social activities, a regular detoxification program and taking supplementation if there is a deficiency are all easy ways to bring our bodies and minds into the balance required to create healthy sperm and eggs.
Balance also means bringing the opposites into a state of equilibrium. So, as men and women, gender polar opposites, come together to take responsibility for a challenge, there is where wholeness lies. Let us work together to create a healthy future for our children