Why Some Guys’ Sperm Quality is at High Risk Right Now
Carl Lambert, M.D., has seen it all after telling his male patients they are the reason their partner can’t get pregnant: despair, desperation, even flat-out denial. But Dr. Lambert, a primary-care doctor who treats couples having trouble with fertility at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, says he never imagined he’d be the one to have those feelings.
In early 2020, after trying for a baby with his wife for two years, he was told by a fertility doctor that his sperm quality wasn’t right for conception. It didn’t matter that he was a physician specializing in infertility. At that moment, he was a man—a Black man at that—and the idea that his sperm was the problem was unfathomable, he says.
You’ve probably read the news about how sperm health has been tanking globally. Back in 1992, a study in the British Medical Journal sounded alarms that we were in a crisis—sperm quality and quantity had been steadily declining for 50 years. Another report 25 years later corroborated the downward trend.
Still, it’s been easy for Black men to think this doesn’t apply to them. After all, nobody talks about it. Focus groups of Black men in D. C., convened by a researcher named Nathan McCray when he was a graduate student at the George Washington University in 2015, confirmed that infertility was seen as a “threat to masculinity” and a “taboo subject in the African American community.” Plus, it’s not like there was a lot of research on infertility in Black men.
Actually, McCray noticed that there was basically none. “Most often, these studies—that’s if they even report on men of color—only have 2 to 10 percent. Men and women of color are pigeonholed into studies on STD or HIV risk. And as a result, you have this kind of [perception] of infertility being a white person’s problem.”
A small study done by McCray and colleagues at George Washington found that it’s very much not. Their research saw that the Black men in their study had even lower sperm concentrations and motility compared with other men.
Why the Drop in Sperm Quality?
There’s no single reason why Black men’s sperm health is in trouble; in fact, there are lots of possible explanations. Many stem from environmental racism—institutionalized policies and practices that disproportionately burden certain neighborhoods with hazards like toxic-waste facilities and power plants. Those neighborhoods tend to comprise people with low incomes and people of color and also often have a dearth of readily available fresh food. That leaves many Black men exposed to health threats, including these sperm wreckers:
Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs)
What they’re in: pesticides, building materials, clothing, electronics, and many other products. Although everyone is exposed to such chemicals daily, Black men have higher levels in their bodies. “The accumulation of these chemical exposures is based on where they live, the air they breathe, the occupations they’re marginalized to have,” explains Jasmine McDonald, Ph.D., an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia University. And this consistent and disproportionate exposure to EDCs affects the sperm health of Black men, says Ali Dabaja, M.D., a urologist at Henry Ford Health.
Almost 40 percent of the U. S. population drinks chemically contaminated water, according to a report by the National Resources Defense Council—and much of that water flows through the taps in communities that are primarily made up of people of color. Water is contaminated with substances including BPA, cadmium, and lead. “There’s a direct relationship between water contamination and sperm health,” McDonald says.
Sixty-eight percent of Black Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, which spews heavy-metal pollutants, including mercury, that have been linked to lower semen quality.
Black people are 75 percent more likely than people of other races to live on or near toxic-waste sites—places ridden with substances, including lead, arsenic, and mercury, that compromise sperm health.
One in five Black households is located where it’s hard to buy fresh, affordable food. So people eat more processed and packaged foods—which means more sperm-tanking EDCs. When fresh foods aren’t available, rates of obesity and diabetes also tend to rise, which can raise the risk of less healthy sperm.
Steps Men Can Take
A massive and systematic overhaul of how we treat the planet and the people on it would be a good first move. Until that happens in a significant way, though, the best thing Black men—or all men, really—can do right now is take some small steps to improve sperm health.
Find New Habits
The most important way to give sperm a hand is to quit smoking. Yes, even weed. Smoking cannabis can decrease sperm count and double the chances of abnormal sperm development. Your sperm doesn’t love when you drink alcohol, either. One study showed that even five drinks a week reduced sperm health.
Sperm production may drop when your balls are subjected to heat. Dr. Dabaja recommends avoiding saunas, hot tubs, and hot baths, as well as finding somewhere to put your laptop other than your lap.
Get to Bed
Just as cutting sleep can keep you from functioning well, it does the same for your sperm, especially when you get less than six hours a night. Prioritize sleep, and if you snore or constantly wake up tired, get checked for sleep apnea, which can raise the risk of infertility.
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in high amounts in tuna and salmon, can increase sperm health, says Dr. Dabaja. To shore up your body’s defenses against pollutants in the air, he recommends filling up on antioxidants, including vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium. You can find these even if fresh food isn’t plentiful where you live: Saute frozen spinach or blend it into a smoothie for C, E, and selenium. Canned fish has selenium, too.
Plenty of companies would love to sell you a home sperm-test kit for $50 to $80. But it’s better to spend your money on a co-pay for an actual doctor. Most home test kits give you information about only one aspect of sperm health. A doc can measure many.
Check About an Rx
Dr. Lambert ended up taking the drug clomiphene daily to help boost his sperm production. He also changed his diet, upped his exercise routine, and took steps to manage stress. All these steps prepped him for the IVF process, which worked after about three months: He and his wife now have a 13-month-old son.
This story originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Men’s Health.
Melanie Curry (she/her) is an editorial assistant at Hearst Magazines where she does a little of bit of everything in digital media. Her work has appeared in Men’s Health, InStyle, ELLE, and more. When not writing the day away, you can find her drinking a cold brew at Starbucks, reading a romance novel, or binge-watching the trendiest show on Netflix.
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