Did you know that one out of every six couples fails to conceive within six months of trying and, in nearly 50% of cases, the underlying cause has to do primarily with men’s fertility? Indeed, fertility rates are dropping alarmingly among men in the Western world, and a review of studies from the Human Reproduction Update may give some insight as to why.
Researchers reviewing data gathered since the 1970s on men's fertility found that sperm counts have dropped by 60% in the last 40 years, and sperm concentration has dropped by nearly 45%. Why the sudden decline? It looks like the Western lifestyle may be to blame.
Studies indicate that many of the most common lifestyle factors in our society have adverse effects on men's fertility, including chemicals, pesticides, and pollution; as well as stress, a diet high in alcohol, caffeine, and processed foods; and struggles with weight. While we've known for a long time that none of these are particularly good for men's health, the link between our modern way of living and fertility is newer—and what's particularly interesting is the role that bacteria play in male reproduction.
Bacteria and Male Fertility: The Seminal and Gut Microbiomes
For men to have the best chances of reproduction, their bodies need to be able to produce healthy sperm in appropriate numbers. New research indicates that the seminal microbiome––an ecosystem of bacteria found in semen––may have much more to do with the process than initially thought.
Similar to the gut microbiome, the newly discovered seminal microbiome is made up of a mix of beneficial and non-beneficial bacteria, among other things. Men with seminal microbiomes dominated by beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillus tend to have much higher sperm counts and much healthier sperm. L. reuteri appears to be particularly important, with one study inidicating that mice given L. reuteri supplements not only had increased sperm count and testicular mass, but their reproductive organs stayed healthier as they aged.1,2
But when certain unwanted strains like P. acnes get out of control, it appears that they can affect the production of sperm cells and possibly even change the physiology of female partners' reproductive tracts to make them less conducive to conception3. Shocking, right?
While studies are ongoing as to the exact extent that the seminal microbiome plays in conception, other correlations between microbial health and fertility are clear.
For instance, research has shown that the gut microbiome can also play an important role in maintaining a man's fertility, especially in these three ways:
• Supporting hormones. Your gut bacteria are responsible for the maintenance of many hormones, including those important for reproduction, like estrogen (too much lowers your sperm count and increases oxidative stress on your reproductive system) and testosterone (too little and your sex drive and sperm production drops). Plus, maintaining a balanced gut microbiome can help keep your cortisol levels in check––cortisol is a hormone that's released when you're stressed, and having it regularly coursing through your body messes with your hypothalamus, pituitary, and testes, making it difficult for them to release the hormones needed to maintain your fertility.4
• Healthy weight management. Similarly, the health of your gut microbiome has an impact on your ability to manage your weight. With a good balance of beneficial bacteria, it’s much easier to manage and maintain your ideal physique. Since carrying too much weight affects your reproductive hormone levels, an imbalance in your gut bacteria could be having an extended effect on your fertility, as well as your figure.5
• Supporting digestion. The beneficial bacteria in your gut help to keep your digestive system functioning properly and work to maintain your intestinal walls—which, when they're healthy and strong, can both absorb the nutrients your body needs to create healthy sperm (like zinc, vitamin C, phosphorus, folate, and magnesium, among others), and keep toxins and tiny bits of food from making their way through the gut barrier and into your bloodstream. You see, a permeable intestinal wall can put your immune system in a state of high alert, diverting resources away from reproduction, lowering your sperm count, and putting damaging oxidative stress on your sperm.6
Clearly, your bacterial good guys work tirelessly to keep you well, but they can only have the impact they're meant to when they're actually there, thriving in your gut. And, unfortunately, that's where our modern Western way of living sometimes does more harm than good.
The Impact of Modern Life on Male Fertility
Exposure to chemicals, a stereotypical Western diet and lifestyle, and epic levels of stress (especially when combined with the sleep deprivation epidemic) make up three of the top fertility-affecting challenges.
1. Chemicals and Pollutants
Exposure to artificial chemicals is much more common than you'd think: everything from the products we use to clean our houses and the materials in our furniture to the very water we drink and the air we breathe contain chemicals, pollutants, and pesticides. Your delicate gut flora are no match for all these harsh substances, and even low levels of exposure can really mess up your bacterial balance, allowing unwanted bacteria to thrive at the expense of the good guys.
Pesticides and personal care products are particularly concerning when it comes to fertility, since studies show that many of the substances they contain are anti-androgenic, meaning that they disrupt or counteract male hormones, leading to unwanted changes in estrogen and testosterone levels, which in turn can lead to fertility issues.7
2. Less-Than-Ideal Diet and Lifestyle Choices
The composition of your microbiome is heavily influenced by your diet and the amount of exercise you get; unfortunately, many of the staples of our high sugar, low fiber Western diet feed unwanted bacteria and deplete beneficial ones. In fact, one study found that just drinking beverages sweetened with sugar dramatically lowers sperm motility, even in men with otherwise healthy lifestyles.8
Combine that with other gut-unfriendly practices, like leading a relatively sedentary lifestyle and spending a lot of time indoors, and you've got a recipe for a microbiome dominated by rogue bacteria, making it harder for your good guys to support you and messing with your hormones, weight, and digestion.9
3. Stress and Sleep Deprivation
Stress is at incredibly high levels across the globe. Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Burden of Disease Survey estimates that stress-related conditions will become second only to heart issues in terms of impacting people's ability to work and function by the year 2020.10 Since stress puts your body in permanent "fight or flight" mode, it directs resources away from reproduction, lowering your chances of successful conception. Sleep deprivation is similarly widespread (it's been elevated to "epidemic" status by the CDC) and also lowers the quality of semen, although the mechanisms by which this happens aren't yet entirely clear.11
Support Your Fertility With Clean, Gut-Healthy Living
Any one of these issues––exposure to chemicals, a not-so-fantastic diet, stress, or sleep deprivation––can cause major issues with male fertility on their own, and most men in modern Western societies experience a constant cocktail of all of the above. While that may sound overwhelming, there's actually a lot you can do to protect yourself and your fertility.
One positive first step is simply being aware of what you're putting in and on your body. Take a look at your personal care products, paying special attention to any that contain phthalates, BPA, butyl paraben, and propyl paraben, all of which can be harmful to your system. With so many options out there for healthy, natural skin and hair care, there's really no reason not to make the switch.
Similarly, pay attention to your diet. Even if you already eat a fairly healthy diet, you might be getting more exposure to unwanted substances than you think. For instance, a lot of livestock in the U.S. are treated with antibiotics, which can remain in the meat after slaughter and have been shown to possibly reduce male fertility.12
What's more, many growers spray fruits and vegetables with chemicals to make them ripen out of season or to preserve them during shipping, and that residue can stick on them even after washing. So do your best to stick to local, seasonal, organic food––and make sure you're getting enough zinc, folate, magnesium, vitamin C, L-carnitine, and CoQ10, all of which support male fertility.
It's also a good idea to pay attention to your output. Working out regularly increases the diversity of your gut microbiome, supports hormonal balance, and helps you maintain your optimal weight, all of which are good for fertility. And, exercise can help with stress and sleeplessness by modulating your stress levels and keeping your Circadian rhythm working properly, creating a positive cycle in which you have the energy you need to work out and experience the benefits of movement on your stress response and sleep patterns.
Finally, make sure you're giving your microbiome the help it needs to support your fertility with high quality prebiotic and probiotic supplementation. A good mix of prebiotic fibers will feed beneficial bacteria so they can crowd out the nasties, and a premium probiotic formula can help replenish your gut with beneficial strains. A great place to start is by supplementing with Prebiotic Powder and PRO-Men, a targeted probiotic formula designed for men's unique health needs to support men's energy levels, immune function, digestion, and prostate health.
There's no denying that these are challenging times for male fertility, but there's no reason to give up hope, especially if you can get your bacterial allies on board. So be aware of what's going onto and into your body, give your system the building blocks it needs to support fertility, and be mindful of your microbial health––and you could see a difference sooner than you think!
1. Weng, S., Chiu, C., Lin, F., Huang, W., Liang, C., Yang, T., … Huang, H. (2014). Bacterial Communities in Semen from Men of Infertile Couples: Metagenomic Sequencing Reveals Relationships of Seminal Microbiota to Semen Quality. PLoS ONE, 9(10), e110152. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0110152
2. Poutahidis, T., Springer, A., Levkovich, T., Qi, P., Varian, B. J., Lakritz, J. R., … Erdman, S. E. (2014). Probiotic Microbes Sustain Youthful Serum Testosterone Levels and Testicular Size in Aging Mice. PLoS ONE, 9(1), e84877. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0084877
3. Javurek, A.B., Spollen, W.G., Ali, A.M.M., Johnson, S.A. . . . Rosenfeld, C.S. (2016). Discovery of a Novel Seminal Fluid Microbiome and Influence of Estrogen Receptor Alpha Genetic Status. Scientific Reports, 6, 23027. doi: 10.1038/srep23027
4. Whirledge, S., Cidlowski, J.A. (2010). Glucocorticoids, Stress, and Fertility. Minerva Endocrinologica, 35(2), 109–125.
5. Håkonsen, L.B., Thulstrup, A.M., Aggerholm, A.S., Olsen, J. . . . Ramlau-Hansen, C. (2011). Does weight loss improve semen quality and reproductive hormones? results from a cohort of severely obese men. Reproductive Health, 8(24). doi: 10.1186/1742-4755-8-24
6. Azenabor, A., Ekun, A.O., Akinloye, O. (2015). Impact of Inflammation on Male Reproductive Tract. Journal of Reproductive Infertility, 16(3), 123–129.
7. Kortenkamp, A., Faust, M. (2010). Combined exposures to anti‐androgenic chemicals: steps towards cumulative risk assessment. International Journal of Andrology, 33(2), 463-474. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2605.2009.01047.x
8. Chiu, Y.H., Afeiche, M.C., Gaskins, A.J., Williams, P.L. . . . Chavarro, J.E. (2014). Sugar-sweetened beverage intake in relation to semen quality and reproductive hormone levels in young men. Human Reproduction, 29(7): 1575–1584. doi: 10.1093/humrep/deu102.
9. Lalinde-Acevedo, P.C., Mayorga-Torres, J.M., Agarwal, A. . . . Maya, W.D.C. (2017). Physically Active Men Show Better Semen Parameters than Their Sedentary Counterparts. International Journal of Fertility and Sterility, 11(3): 156–165.
10. Kalia, M. (2002). Assessing the economic impact of stress[mdash ]The modern day hidden epidemic. Metabolism, 51(6), 49-53. doi: 10.1053/meta.2002.33193
11. Jensen, T.K., Andersson, A-M., Skakkebæk, N.E. . . . Jørgensen, N. (2013). Association of Sleep Disturbances With Reduced Semen Quality: A Cross-sectional Study Among 953 Healthy Young Danish Men. American Journal of Epidemiology, 177(10), 1027–1037. doi: 10.1093/aje/kws420.
12. Schlegel, P.N., Chang, T.S., Marshall, F.F. (1991). Antibiotics: potential hazards to male fertility. Fertility and Sterility, 55(2), 235-42.
Rachel Allen is a writer at Hyperbiotics who's absolutely obsessed with learning about how our bodies work. She's fascinated by the latest research on bacteria and the role they play in health, and loves to help others learn about how probiotics can help the body get back in balance. For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.