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By Johnny Lucas
The problem is that anything to do with that area of the body is rather delicate and always complicated. The male contribution to conception looks like a triumph of over-building and redundant backups. Billions of sperm spend their formative time hanging out, being cool and then, bang, it's swim for your life. Despite the thousands of jokes made about sexual function, there's nothing funny or more heartbreaking than infertility for a couple who wants to conceive and cannot.
The female contribution is a single egg that must be perfectly formed, cared for and nourished over a long period. Because of this disparity of numbers, most men assume that it is the female half of the equation in which most reproductive problems lie.
Sorry guys, half the problems are ours. According to Dr. David Pomerantz, a teacher and researcher at the University of Western Ontario, 40 to 50 per cent of infertility in couples who ought to be fertile is due to problems in the male. Worse is that although "lots can be done" for female infertility, Pomerantz says that "our track record for the male is absolutely dismal. If there's 'blocked plumbing,' then that has a good chance of being repaired. But too often we see men with normal sperm counts whose semen is not able to fertilize an egg. We just don't know why."
Dr. Pomerantz notes that there is also evidence of decreased sperm counts in some populations but that no one can determine the cause. The book Our Stolen Future, by Theo Colborn, blames chemical pollutants. This finding is often disputed, and tests on men in New York City--not your most pristine environment--have not shown lower sperm counts there. Says Pomerantz: "If anybody knew exactly why sperm counts are declining, we could get onto it and do something about it."
Exposure to heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium or lead is associated with low sperm counts, but these contaminants are also bad for lots else in the body and significant exposure to them is rare these days.
Both Dr. Pomerantz and Dr. Jerald Bain of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto and Medical Director of the Health Institute for Men say that the normal good health advice also applies to sperm production: don't smoke, don't drink to excess, don't use illicit drugs.
And keep cool. Testicles are not on the outside or your body for decoration, they're there because sperm like a lower-than-body temperature.
Hot baths or frequent saunas can compromise sperm production and health. Hot showers, however, are no problem since they don't heat up the whole body. Dr. Bain does not advise boxer shorts rather than jockeys. "I don't know of any evidence to suggest that it makes a difference--unless you're something like a long-distance truck driver, in which case the problem is probably that you're sitting on your testicles." Dr. Bain advises men to choose their underwear for comfort.
Dr. Bain points out a few more reasons why men might have a low sperm count or quality: inflammatory diseases such as mumps or viral illnesses after puberty, or possibly, but rarely in men, hormonal problems. A "plumbing problem" could be a varicose seal in the scrotum above the testicle that impedes the sperm's normal course. Chances of making this repair are good, but not 100 per cent.
Don't expect to see this in the new edition of Trivial Pursuit, but if there is a varicose seal, Dr. Bain says that it's usually in the left testicle--just another mystery in the sperm delivery business.
On a more positive note, sperm count has nothing to do with virility. Men with vasectomies have a zero sperm count without affecting their sexual functions at all. Spermatozoa and testosterone are produced in separate compartments of the testes. Unless there's some disease such as testicular cancer which is affecting both compartments, the testosterone production that determines libido, sexual function, erections and so on is usually untouched by problems relating to fertility.
There is lots on the Net on this topic. A good general starting point is the pages of Dr. Mark Perloe, of Atlanta, GA. or Jim Blair's more opinionated digest of info on sperm count. There's an apparently sincere inquiry from a guy who wonders if masturbating five times a day might possibly affect his chances of getting his wife pregnant. More realistic are the discussions of the effects of radiation and marijuana on sperm production..
Johnny Lucas is a Toronto writer with a fertile mind and no kids
illustration by Scot Ritchie
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