A new study from the journal Fertility & Sterility* has tied male infertility to higher risks of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease when compared to men without fertility issues. The study included data on over 100,000 men from 2001 through 2009, with an average age of 33. But what exactly is at play here? Does the infertility cause these health problems, or is it the other way around? According to the researchers, it’s much more likely that fertility status at a younger age provides a “window” into overall health risk that may not occur until later in life.
The researchers found that infertile men had a 48% higher rate of heart disease and about a 30% higher odds of developing diabetes, even after compensating for obesity and smoking, both of which are known independent risk factors for both infertility and chronic disease. While this study doesn’t establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship between infertility and chronic disease, researchers speculated that hormonal and environmental factors may be involved, either through fetal exposures to the men during their development, or exposures that occur later in life.
While it’s hard to say exactly what may be tying fertility and chronic disease together, it does raise the question as to whether more could be done to improve the health of men during the fertility management process that might extend to better health in their future.
Consider the following:
• In about 40% of infertile couples, the male partner is either the primary or contributing cause, but frequently the analysis of their health doesn’t extend beyond semen analysis.
• Being overweight is also known to be associated with lower sperm count and concentration, but frequently only obese women (whose partners are also often overweight or obese) are encouraged to lose weight and improve their lifestyle prior to conception.
• Once children arrive in the picture, they learn how to eat and whether or not regular physical activity is part of “usual life” from both their parents, not just mom.
Just as many women embrace the preconception period as a time to work on long-desired health goals, men should be encouraged to do the same. Quitting smoking and limiting alcohol and other potentially toxic substances are a good place to start. But living a healthy life goes much further, involving eating less processed food and more of a plant-based diet; reducing to a healthier weight if needed; and taking a hard look at whether we’re committing enough time to regular physical activity. Consider the following tips for adding these health-promoting, potentially fertility-boosting, habits to your routine.
• Oxidation and chronic inflammation are known contributors to genetic damage to cells, including those involved in reproduction. The typical American diet high in processed food, animal fats and sugar is very pro-inflammatory and low in antioxidant nutrients. Opting instead for a more plant-based diet high in a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and fish infuses your body with antioxidants that neutralize oxidation and anti-inflammatories that quell inflammation.
• Losing as little as 5-10% of your weight can lower your risk of diabetes and other chronic diseases, even if you’re still heavier than you’d like to be. Weight loss helps reduce inflammation in the body.
• Infertility treatment is stressful, and physical activity is one of nature’s most natural means of dissipating stress. Exercise also helps counter inflammation in the body.
As the nutritionist for the Domar Center, I always encourage my female patients to bring along their partners, both to help shore up support for healthier habits at home, and get them to consider the role their habits may be playing in their health risks and that of their future family members. Families function as a unit, so the more ears that hear how diet and lifestyle can affect fertility and overall health, the better!
*Increased risk of incident chronic medical conditions in infertile men: analysis of United States claims data, http://www.fertstert.org/article/S0015-0282(15)02087-7/abstract
ABOUT HILLARY WRIGHT
After 12 years as a nutrition-based educator for Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates (HVMA), Director of Nutrition Hillary Wright transitioned to a part-time position at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. She is also the founder of New Vision Nutrition in Arlington, Massachusetts — a private nutrition consulting practice that includes nutrition counseling, public speaking, and teaching nutrition to colleges and institutions. She is a contributing editor and regular writer for the newsletter “Environmental Nutrition” and is currently working with the Arlington Public Schools on grant-funded programs designed to increase nutrition, education and physical activity in the community. Hillary’s clinical interests include women’s health and nutritional management of polycycstic overy syndrome (PCOS).