Infertility occurs in about 15% of couples, and in roughly a third of these couples, male infertility is usually the main issue. It occurs due to low sperm production and abnormal function or blockages of sperm. There are several medical and environmental factors that can lead to male infertility, including overheating of the testicles. High temperatures can damage sperm production and function.
Happy sperm tend to thrive in an environment that is 4-6 degrees cooler than the male core body temperature (an average of 97-99 degrees), which is why testicles are equipped with the cremaster muscle. When the body gets too cold, the cremaster muscle contracts to pull the testicles closer to the body, and when the body gets too warm, the cremaster muscle relaxes to let the testicles hang low.
When sperm are exposed to elevated temperatures, they begin to die, which leads to low motility. Prolonged heat exposure can have a damaging effect on the sperm production process, which will cause the body to produce fewer sperm.
So what can be done?
Factors that affect sperm health
Fertility can be determined by several factors, including quantity, movement and structure. “Sufficient” fertility is likely if a single ejaculation contains at least 15 million sperm per milliliter. Too little sperm in a single ejaculation will make conception more difficult because there are fewer available sperm to fertilize an egg.
Motility is the movement in which a sperm travels through a woman’s cervix, uterus and fallopian tubes in order to reach and fertilize an egg, ideally operating at a 40 percent rate or better to be considered fertile.
As for how sperm look — the structure or morphology — “normal” sperm have oval heads with long tails, a structure that works together to facilitate and boost a smooth journey from start to finish. The more sperm that have the normal structure and shape, the better the fertility.
And when prolonged heat exposure slows down the production process, it can lead many sperm to become abnormally shaped.
Boxers vs. briefs
The ongoing debate about boxers versus briefs can be determined by a key factor — heat.
Studies have shown that men who wear boxers have higher sperm counts than men who wear briefs. The tight fit that comes with wearing briefs is what ultimately contributes to lower sperm count. Testicles need to “breathe” to function properly, and when heat is thrown into the mix, the combination of tight briefs and increased temperatures can lead to low-functioning sperm, because the testes are unable to hang freely at a temperature that is ideal for fertility.
Making a choice between something as simple as boxers versus briefs is one of the cheaper, more simple options for dealing with fertility struggles and can have a real impact on sperm health, especially in the hot Southern Nevada weather.
Producing healthy sperm
There are several steps that can be followed in order to increase chances of producing healthy sperm.
Maintaining a healthy weight and a healthy diet and consuming plenty of fruits and veggies that are rich in antioxidants can help keep sperm healthy. Another factor is practicing safe sex and protecting against sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia and gonorrhea — which can cause infertility in men.
Stress management is key for a variety of health reasons, with infertility being one of them. Stress oftentimes leads to decreased sexual function, which then causes an interference with sperm-producing hormones. Exercise and physical activity can help to increase levels of antioxidant enzymes, which help to protect sperm and keep them functioning efficiently.
Dr. David Ludlow is a physician with Urology Specialists of Nevada.