By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
When a business colleague recently forwarded me an article from the New York Times about the continuing decline in male fertility, all I could do was sigh.
“Sperm Count in Western Men Has Dropped Over 50 Percent Since 1973, Paper Finds,” the headline read.
I’ve had my eye on this trend for a while now. Fifty years ago, infertility was predominantly a women’s problem. But lately we’ve seen the tables turn, with the problem affecting more and more men.
Why the change? The authors of the study didn’t really speculate, but I will.
Sperm + Toxins = Infertility
To me, the answer to why we’re seeing more male fertility problems is a no-brainer. It’s the insane number of toxins in our environment.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 10,000 times—we live in a sea of chemicals. They’re in our food, water, air, personal care and household products, homes, neighborhoods, and even our electronics. And guess what? The three organs in the body that are most vulnerable to toxins are the heart, brain, and reproductive system.
So it’s no surprise to me that we’re seeing an upswing not only in fertility problems, but also in neurological diseases and cardiovascular issues.
When you look at the data, there’s evidence of falling sperm counts in men for several decades. Some research suggests that this could be the long-term influence of chemicals known as “endocrine disrupters,” and I agree. These substances—which include chemicals like phthalates—are present in a lot of common household items, food containers and packaging, and personal care products. Exposure has been shown to affect how our sex hormones function, and in the case of male sperm, these toxins can change their shape and their ability to swim, which makes them less able to find and fertilize the female’s egg.
Another major issue I see is the electromagnetic radiation emitted by our phones, computers, wifi, and other electronics. These frequencies (EMF) have been shown to have similar debilitating effects on sperm. That can’t be helping the young men who grew up carrying a cell phone in their pocket and who now have their eyes on starting a family.
Protect Yourself (and Your Future Children)
What can we do to stop the downward trend?
First, we need to understand that this research is a wake-up call for all of us—and, figuratively speaking, we need to pick up the phone.
The best thing you can do is take steps to help you produce healthier sperm in the future. My heart patients will tell you that I’m fond of saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That’s true—and it’s true with fertility as well. You don’t want to do things that cause you to create sperm that don’t swim or reproduce well.
Here are the three biggest things you’ll want to do…
1. Avoid Known Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals
There are a lot of chemicals that can affect our hormones, but you can get familiar with the worst offenders by reading a free guide from the Environmental Working Group called “Dirty Dozen Endocrine Disruptors.” I’d start by learning about phthalates, PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals), and glycol ethers.
Then I’d commit to doing these two things—
- Go organic—with your food as well as household and personal care products. I can’t emphasize this enough. Processed and packaged foods, in particular, continue to be a major way of ingesting these toxins. In fact, phthalates were recently found in boxed macaroni and cheese! If you want the best odds of having a family, buy organic and follow a plan like my Pan Asian Modified Mediterranean (PAMM) diet. It will help you cut out the “bad stuff” that could be causing harm. But don’t stop there. You’ll also find endocrine disrupting chemicals in a lot of plastics, soaps, cleaners, shampoos, and detergents. Be especially wary of anything with an artificial scent—phthalates are a common ingredient in those fragrances.
- Ditch your nonstick cookware. While we’re on the topic of food, make sure you go as green as possible with your pots, pans, plates, glasses, and food storage containers. A lot of products are getting better in terms of their makeup and the likelihood they’ll leech into your food, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Go with glass or stainless steel when you cook and pack up leftovers, and avoid using non-stick pans, especially ones that are scratched from use.
2. Be Smart With Your Cell Phone
Even though we’re bombarded with EMF from virtually all directions day and night, I still worry most about the radiation we absorb from cell phones. Not because I have some kind of grudge against them, but because we carry our phones everywhere with us—usually on or very close to our bodies—and that makes them a uniquely dangerous source of EMF exposure.
I’m a pragmatist, so I’m not going to tell you to give up your cell phone. But I will tell you that if you want to protect your fertility, you need to learn how to be productive with it, without being self-destructive.
Here are a few tips that I follow when I use my own phone—
- Unless you’re texting or on a call, try to keep it in airplane mode. When your phone isn’t constantly seeking and receiving a signal, it emits less EMF and poses less of a risk (though it’s still not risk free – off is your safest bet). If you discover you’ve missed a call, simply call the person back.
- Don’t hold your phone while you’re using it. Place it on a table or other nearby surface and go to speakerphone instead. This helps prevent exposure to the increased level of radiation that’s emitted while a call is connected.
- Don’t put the phone in your trouser pocket—especially the front pocket. If you’re having fertility issues, that’s the last place you want to carry something that damages sperm! Unfortunately, a lot of men respond to this tip by placing their phones in a shirt pocket instead. Don’t do that, either. You don’t want cell phone radiation near your heart any more than you want it near your testicles.
- Carry your phone in a jacket pocket so it’s not directly against your body. And when I say jacket pocket, I mean side pocket. This is the best place for your phone because you’ll get an inch or so of separation between the device and your body.
3. Keep Your Laptop or Tablet Off Your Lap!
As tempting as it may be to sit on the couch with your laptop resting on your upper thighs and use the Internet via a WiFi connection – Don’t! About 5-6 years ago, Argentinian researchers conducted a study with 29 healthy men and found that 4 hours of WiFi radiation exposure via a laptop computer resulted in decreased sperm motility and DNA damage. This led them to speculate that “keeping a laptop connected wirelessly to the internet on the lap near the testes may result in decreased male fertility.” That was enough for me, given what we know already about how cell phones affect sperm…My advice is simple: use your laptop or tablet on a table or desk – not your lap – and, if possible, use an Ethernet connection instead.
As the father of three of my own children, who are now grown with kids of their own, I can tell you that nothing has given me more joy in my life than they have. Becoming a parent is truly one of life’s greatest gifts. I hope you’ll protect yourself so you can experience these joys as well.
- Avendaño C, et al. Use of laptop computers connected to internet through Wi-Fi decreases human sperm motility and increases sperm DNA fragmentation. Fertility and Sterility. 2012 Jan;97(1):39–45.e2.
- De Iuliis GN, et al. Mobile phone radiation induces oxygen species production and DNA damage in human spermatozoa in vitro. PLoS One. 2009 Jul 31;4(7):e6446.
- EMF Research. EMFs + Male Fertility.
- Environmental Working Group. Dirty Dozen Endocrine Disrupters. Accessed August 27, 2017.
- Falzone N, et al. The effect of pulsed 900-MHz GSM mobile phone radiation on the acrosome reaction, head morphometry and zona binding of human spermatozoa. Int J Androl. 2011 Feb;34(1):20–6.
- Freeman DW. Laptops damage sperm? What wi-fi study shows. CBS News. Nov 29, 2011.
- Gorpinchenko I, et al. The influence of direct mobile phone radiation on sperm quality. Cent European J Urol. 2014; 67(1): 65–71.
- Hueiwang AJ. Exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals and male reproductive health. Front Public Health. 2014;2:55.
- Jørgensen N, et al. Recent adverse trends in semen quality and testis cancer incidence among Finnish men. Int J Androl. 2011 Aug; 34(4pt2): e37–e48.
- KleanUpKraft.org. Testing Finds Industrial Chemical Phthalates in Cheese.
- Levine H, et al. Temporal trends in sperm count: a systemic review and meta-regression analysis. Hum Reprod Update. 25 Jul 2017. Accessed August 31, 2017.
- Roni CR. The chemicals in your mac and cheese. New York Times. 12 Jul 2017. Accessed August 31, 2017.
- Salam M. Sperm count in western men has dropped over 50 percent since 1973, paper finds. New York Times. 16 Aug 2017. Accessed August 27, 2017.
- Zalata A, et al. In vitro effect of cell phone radiation on motility, DNA fragmentation and clusterin gene expression in human sperm. Int J Fertil Steril. 2015 Apr-Jun;9(1):129–36.
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