An Alarming Drop in Sperm Counts

sperm

I remember reading Margaret Atwood’s book A Handmaid’s Tale back in high school, and for whatever reason, it just didn’t resonate with me.  Maybe it was because our class had recently read other dystopian books like 1984 and Brave New World and I was tired of looking at the future through such a negative lens.  Or, maybe I just didn’t buy the premise that fertility and childbirth could one day become so precious and rare.   Whatever the reason, the plot of the book failed to move me.

Fast forward to the present, and Margaret Atwood’s vision has begun to seem prescient.  Just like in A Handmaid’s Tale, the western world is currently experiencing a decreased fertility rate.  And just like in A Handmaid’s Tale, this is largely blamed on women.  While it is true that many women are now delaying motherhood until their career is more established, and this makes it more difficult for them to successfully conceive, studies show that 40% of the time, the fertility problem lies with the male, not the female.

The news for men has recently gotten even worse.  A recent meta-analysis published last year in the journal Human Reproduction Update found that total sperm count among men is declining.  In the last 40 years, the sperm count in North America, Europe, and Australia has more than halved, and the rate of decline appears to be increasing.  Sperm counts among men in South America, Africa and Asia are more stable, but since less data has been collected in these countries, this cannot be confirmed with confidence.

Genetics alone cannot explain such a rapid drop in sperm production.  And because the decline is starker in western countries, it suggests a link to our more toxic, chemical-laden environment.  Pesticide use, hormone-disrupting chemicals, poor diet, stress, smoking, and obesity may all be involved.  Until further studies are done, it is difficult to determine which may be the most likely culprit.

In the meantime, there are steps we can all take to minimize these effects.  To prevent potential hormonal disruption from pesticides and plastics, both men and women should be sure to wash their fruits and vegetables in a 1:1 mixture of vinegar and water before eating.  The acetic acid in vinegar helps to dissolve hormone-disrupting pesticides from the skin or fruits and vegetables better than soap and water.  Also, food should never be cooked or heated in plastic containers.  To avoid contamination with phthalates and other chemicals, always microwave food in glass bowls instead.

Ideally, we would also stop smoking, and follow a diet rich in vegetables and whole grains.  Regular exercise will not only help to keep weight down, but will also better regulate hormone production.   Additionally, some regular liver and gallbladder cleansing would also be performed.  Because the liver is the organ which breaks down and removes excess hormones from the body, by keeping it in good health, we can prevent hormone from becoming dysregulated and imbalanced, which is the most common cause of infertility.   The men we have treated have seen their sperm count increase when they do regular liver and gallbladder cleansing.

According to Hagai Levine, public health researcher at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, “sperm count is the canary in the coal mine”.   When men see their sperm count decline, it doesn’t just mean they have reduced fertility.  It means that men, in general, are not doing well.  A 2015 study published in the journal  Fertility and Sterility not only found that infertile men have a higher risk of developing diabetes and heart disease, they also had a higher rate of mortality, in general.  As a species, our fertility problems may not yet be as great as those in A Handmaid’s Tale, but they are very troubling.  If we want to live in a cleaner, safer world, we may one day have to make some big changes.

 

 



About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000.  She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.

Your Childhood Shapes Your Response to Stress

teenagers

At the end of my first year of university, my room-mate organized a sky-diving expedition.  She and a few of her friends had decided to celebrate the successful completion of their courses by jumping out of an airplane, just for the fun of it.  She wondered if I’d like to join in.  I didn’t even have to think about it.  My answer was a resounding “NO!”, which only made her smile.  Clearly, my room-mate and I had very different levels of tolerance for stress.

Recent studies have shown that our tolerance for stress is shaped, at least in part, by how well we were parented as children.  In a recent paper published in the journal Developmental Science, Elizabeth Shirtcliff and her colleagues showed that teenagers who experienced “positive parenting” were more resilient, and had better cognitive, behavioural, and psychological development as adults than those whose upbringing was more negative.

The stress level of study participants was measured by recording the amount of cortisol in their saliva during each visit.  Often called “the stress hormone”, cortisol is secreted by your adrenal glands in quantity whenever you are under stress, so a high level of cortisol would seem to be bad.  However,  the positively-parented adeolscents from this study had higher cortisol levels than the others.

This runs contrary to what we’ve long been taught about stress and cortisol production – which is to keep both as low as possible!  However, it doesn’t run contrary to what Hans Selye wrote in his classic book, “The Stress of Life” back in the 1950’s.   In this book, Selye describes two kinds of stress:  eustress and distress.  Distress, of course, is the more negative kind of stress that results from fear, anxiety, or difficult circumstances, and from which can come a host of chronic health conditions, particularly if the stress if prolonged.

By contrast, eustress is the more beneficial kind of stress that we experience when enjoying a roller coaster ride, starting a new job, buying a home, or pushing ourselves to keep a deadline.  One easy way to differentiate between distress and eustress is in the attitude it provokes.  Eustress is stress that challenges us, but doesn’t overwhelm us, while distress can crush us, devastate our mood, and crumble our self-esteem.  The teenagers in Dr. Shirtcliff’s study may have had higher levels of cortisol, but it increased their ability to successfully manage life, rather than sabotaging it.

The good news is, if the major difference between distress and eustress is merely one of attitude, then approaching our daily stresses from a different angle could change it from life-destroying, to life-affirming.   In the December issue of Prevention magazine, psychologist Alia Crum has provided some suggestions for turning a negative stress into something more positive.

One method is to verbally acknowledge why you’re stressed.   For example, if you’re stressed from overwork, then rather than dive for the chocolate ice cream as soon as you get home, you should name your stress.  Naming the stress switches it from an emotion-driven response in the amygdala of your brain to the planning centre in  your frontal cortex, allowing you to feel more control over the situation, so you can plan how to overcome it.

You can also try re-framing your stress.  If you have the jitters because of an upcoming social function, try labelling it as excitement, rather than as stress.   Excitement also increases cortisol production, but in a more positive way.  This can give you more confidence and increase your preformance during the event.  Thirdly, you can use your stress to promote action, rather than worry.  If you weren’t invited to a party, you can plan your own social event instead, even if it’s just tea with a neighbour.

Of course, daily meditation is one of the best ways to counteract the effects of stress.  It not only activates your parasympathetic nervous system, helping to calm you down, but with time, it can also subtly begin to re-wire your brain.   After meditating daily for just six weeks, participants in a recent study had greater density of grey matter in their brains, along with improved attention, cognitive performance, and better emotional regulation.

Your cortisol level, and your subsequent ability to handle stress, may have become set according to your childhood environment, but this new research provides hope.  Stress may be unavoidable, but if we can approach it with a different attitude,  its impact on our health can be managed.  Our brains and our bodies are not set.  They’re constantly in flux, with a strong ability to change and grow, even in adulthood.   Like me, you may not ever develop a desire to jump out of an airplane, but by managing our stress a bit better, we can still dial up the level of adventure in our lives and experience more joy.

 



About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000.  She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.