Fertility Talk: Male Epigenetics
Ladies, if you’re on a conception journey you may feel like a great deal of the burden to succeed is on you. In part this is true! The female reproductive system is a complex, delicate and nuanced symphony of contributing factors including nutrients, hormones and anatomy that all must play together in just the right way for a successful conception to occur, sometimes requiring many months of preparation. So it makes sense that much of the focus in fertility pursuits is on women. But let’s not forget the male factor! This represents half of the necessary genetic material after all, and while the act of contributing may seem relatively quick for men as compared with the female side of the equation, much of what happens in advance may be more relevant than you think.
A basic semen analysis looks at the quantity and quality of both the sperm and the fluid medium. It provides a closer look at total number of little swimmers, what percentage have normal morphology or shape, and how vigorously and well they are at moving about. This may seem like the most crucial part for ART where sperm typically get washed and sorted, but there’s a lot to be gleaned from testing the seminal fluid as well. Factors typically looked at include volume, pH, sugar levels, coagulation properties, presence of white blood cells. In fact, the seminal fluid plays a remarkable role in interacting with a woman’s immune system, transmitting signals that facilitate implantation. As you can see, it’s not just the genetic material that is relevant—the day-to-day state of a man’s general metabolic health is reflected in the semen package.
Consider that sperm take roughly 2.5–3 months to fully mature. Myriad metabolic, physical, environmental and spiritual aspects of a man’s life influence developing reproductive capacity during this time. Modern research is delving into the ramifications of lifestyle and other epigenetic factors as they affect natural fertility and ART outcomes. We’re seeing more and more how deeply a man’s overall health and habits have a bearing on semen quality, and that the health of sperm plays a vital role in improving fertility as well as in the development and long-term health of the child.
While there are some aspects of both male and female fertility that are out of our control (such as age), there are many contributing factors that are within reach. In a nutshell this translates to healthy habits that limit unnecessary exposures to environmental toxins, with diet playing a pretty big role. For example, consuming a lot of sugar can slow down sperm, with one study showing daily consumption of a single sugar sweetened beverage reducing successful conception by 33% on average. Factors like high stress and obesity in men have been shown to alter the genes of offspring. Men who drink alcohol are 44% more likely to have a child born with a genetic heart defect. Men who smoke marijuana a couple of times per week can have an adverse impact on fertility by negatively affecting sperm quality, quantity and motility parameters. Research is growing but remains limited, and most studies demonstrate correlation, which is not necessarily causation. However we can point to a good deal of compelling information for anyone interested in the best possible reproductive outcome. It simply makes good sense that optimizing one’s own health will translate into better reproductive prospects for both men and women.
Developing new habits takes effort, and some preexisting health conditions may take some time to achieve a more balanced state. Places to start might be in addressing food sensitivities, allergies, recurring digestive discomforts or sleep disorders. It pays to be proactive here because making improvements in basic health parameters will factor into how well your body will be able to contribute to the baby equation.
We now understand that social and environmental choices can be used to turn unhealthy gene expressions such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity on or off. This process can also be modulated by neuronal activity such as mood. Dietary nutrients have a role in the regulation (or dysregulation) of biochemical aspects of metabolism such as the methylation reactions that dictate DNA expression. So it’s crucial to not only consume adequate nutrients, but also to be sure you are digesting and assimilating them well. Environmental toxins are another big component of metabolic health, which can cause epigenetic alterations in sperm that may affect embryo development. Endocrine disrupting agents are considered to be chief among them, and others include heavy metals, aromatic petrochemicals, dioxins, fungicides, neurotoxins, and recreational or prescribed pharmaceuticals. Known endocrine disrupters include BPA plastics, phthalates (found in flexible plastics), pesticides, flame retardants, Teflon, triclosan, and common HBA ingredients such as fragrances and parabens. This is a long list! It’s near impossible to perfectly eliminate your exposures to these compounds, but building awareness and making incremental small changes over time can lead to a significant reduction. And that will make a difference in your health as these agents are known to upregulate or otherwise disrupt DNA methylation patterns.
As much as toxic exposures may impart a negative effect, steering toward quality nutrients and lifestyle factors can be beneficial. Exercise. Eat clean foods. Get good sleep. In fact, environmental agents can actually repair epigenetic alterations. Some supplements that can help are antioxidants such as CoQ10, vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and ALA (such as that found in walnuts) to promote sperm metabolism and help protect against oxidative stress that can cause DNA damage. The amino acid L-carnitine can support sperm morphology and motility. Craft your diet to include adequate amounts of micronutrients like zinc for sperm DNA production, folate for sperm health. Include vitamin D3 and healthy fats to support hormones and help manage inflammation. Consult with an herbalist about adaptogenic herbs that may be appropriate for you, as these can be a wonderful addition for anyone coping with the physiological impacts of stressors.
Starting 3 or 4 months in advance of conception is a good timeframe for beginning a process to optimize health, but 6 months is even better. If fertility and healthy offspring is a goal for you, or even if you simply want to improve your overall health, it’s worth rethinking some of your habits and taking a closer look at key environmental factors for men as well as women. Planning a family is a big deal and it’s well worth it to make an effort in advance to help achieve your optimal results. Please reach out to us at Naturna if you’d like input to help guide your way. Successful conception is truly a team effort.
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