How to tur­bocharge your lit­tle swim­mers

If you’re over 35, you might not like the an­swer. But sci­ence could help the grow­ing num­ber of men who’ve post­poned pa­ter­nity

Men's Health (South Africa) - - REGULARS & DEPARTMENTS - BY DAN CRANE

WHEN IT COMES TO FER­TIL­ITY

Wand father­hood, we men tend to think we’re in­vin­ci­ble. Af­ter all, Ge­orge Clooney’s look­ing at twin ba­bies in his mid-50s, isn’t he? Like Ge­orge, I put off mar­riage un­til later in life. I was nearly 40 years old when I first got hitched, and 42 when I un­ex­pect­edly found my­self di­vorced. Three years later I re­mar­ried, and not long af­ter the wed­ding, my 32-year-old wife and I were hap­pily sur­prised to find out we were preg­nant. I say “sur­prised” be­cause at 45, I knew that father­hood wasn’t a fore­gone con­clu­sion for me.

Ev­ery­one has a bi­o­log­i­cal clock, and a man’s sperm count and qual­ity di­min­ishes with age, along with his li­bido. (Sorry, guys. The truth hurts.) Worse, many stud­ies link older father­hood with such com­pli­ca­tions as lower fer­til­ity, higher mis­car­riage risk, and an in­creased like­li­hood of autism and bipo­lar dis­or­der in the offspring.

As a chronic wor­rier, I’m more Woody Allen than Ge­orge Clooney. So I’ve looked into these is­sues. Af­ter my di­vorce I even froze my sperm, some­thing I now ar­dently ad­vise ev­ery man in his 20s or 30s to con­sider if he can af­ford it. Retriev­ing sperm is much cheaper and sim­pler than retriev­ing eggs: I went to a lab, en­tered a small room stocked with out­dated porn mag­a­zines, did my busi­ness into a sam­ple cup, washed my hands, and handed the goods over to a tech­ni­cian. That’s it. Stor­age can be a lit­tle pricey, but you can save by buy­ing in bulk. It’s a small price to pay for peace of mind.

When my wife and I started think­ing about kids, I elected to go au na­turel. If we ran into prob­lems, I could al­ways re­trieve my sperm­ci­cles. Luck­ily, we con­ceived with sperm that was “fresh, not frozen”.

Why You Need Strong Sperm

We’ve heard a lot about the fer­til­ity prob­lems of older men and women, but what’s less pub­li­cised is the ex­tent to which a man’s diet and health play a role, even when he’s young. Women are con­sis­tently ed­u­cated on smok­ing, al­co­hol, diet, vi­ta­mins, and ex­er­cise. Why aren’t men? A man’s habits prior to con­cep­tion could have a pro­found im­pact on his prog­eny. Re­searchers know that smok­ing, a bad diet, lack of ex­er­cise, and ex­po­sure to en­vi­ron­men­tal tox­ins are all detri­men­tal to a man’s fer­til­ity, and in some cases may af­fect the health of offspring.

The up­side: there’s new hope that life­style changes and other mod­i­fi­ca­tions can im­prove male fer­til­ity. These reve­la­tions are rooted in a rel­a­tively new field of re­search known as epi­ge­net­ics.

Epi­ge­net­ics – a sci­en­tific-com­mu­nity buzz­word that’s emerged in the past decade – is the study of how gene ex­pres­sion can be mod­i­fied through life­style changes. While DNA's es­sen­tially hard­wired code in our cells, epi­ge­netic fac­tors pro­vide the in­struc­tions for that code. Think of genes as hard­ware and epi­ge­net­ics as firmware. Your en­vi­ron­ment and be­hav­iour can ac­tu­ally change those in­struc­tions over time. Some sci­en­tists have sug­gested we could pass on epi­ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied DNA to our kids, and even to gen­er­a­tions be­yond. The good news is that many harm­ful changes brought on by bad habits may also be re­versed through pos­i­tive be­hav­iour changes – a firmware update, if you will.

Now, a Cal­i­for­nia start-up offers some­thing called an “epi­ge­netic sperm test” to help men fig­ure out the in­ter­play be­tween sperm and fer­til­ity.

Sperm Test­ing 2.0

Tucked away in a crafts­manstyle bungalow in Pasadena, Cal­i­for­nia, is the home of Episona, an epi­ge­net­ics data com­pany. Its rel­a­tively cheap test, called Seed, could soon re­place the com­mon se­men anal­y­sis in the di­ag­no­sis of fer­til­ity prob­lems. It could also be used to pre­dict a child’s risk of autism, schizophre­nia, and other neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­ders.

First Episona sends its test­ing kit to your ad­dress, pack­aged in a snazzy box. Af­ter you re­turn your sam­ples to its lab, tech­ni­cians iden­tify epi­ge­netic ab­nor­mal­i­ties in genes as­so­ci­ated with in­fer­til­ity.

At 44, with sil­ver­ing hair and beard, Dr Alan Hor­sager, Episona’s pres­i­dent and CEO, might have been a prime can­di­date for Episona’s tech­nol­ogy had he not just had his sec­ond child. He did per­form sev­eral epi­ge­netic analy­ses of his own sperm prior to con­cep­tion, more for his cu­rios­ity than any­thing else. For­tu­nately, he said, his anal­y­sis showed some “age-re­lated stuff,” but noth­ing that put him in the in­fer­tile camp.

The Prom­ise of Sperm Epi­ge­net­ics

Here’s why all this mat­ters: If you mod­ify your be­hav­iour, you may change the DNA you pass down your fam­ily tree. When obese men had their epi­ge­netic pro­files as­sessed one week be­fore gas­tric by­pass surgery, one week af­ter, and one year af­ter, the re­searchers found shifts in re­gions im­por­tant for neu­rode­vel­op­ment and me­tab­o­lism. Re­search also sug­gests that smok­ing-re­lated de­fects in a man’s epi­ge­netic pro­file can start to mend af­ter he stops. Still more re­search found that three months of sprint in­ter­val train­ing im­proved “sperm DNA methy­la­tion,” or the ways genes turn on and off. Changes were seen in genes in­volved in foetal or­gan de­vel­op­ment and even Parkin­son’s risk.

Not ev­ery­one is con­vinced that Seed is ready for prime time. Nicholas Staropoli, who runs the non­profit Epi­ge­net­ics Lit­er­acy Project, thinks that even though Episona’s sci­ence is good, the data to sup­port ac­tion­able con­clu­sions about male fer­til­ity may not be there yet. “We still don’t know a lot about how and even if the en­vi­ron­ment is driv­ing these changes,” he says. But even though more stud­ies are needed, he con­cedes that the test might have some use. “In vitro fer­til­iza­tion is ex­pen­sive,” he says, “so a lit­tle piece of in­for­ma­tion to point you towards or away from IVF can be help­ful.”

Episona is build­ing a data­base to track how sperm epi­ge­net­ics re­lates to fer­til­ity and other prob­lems. In fact, Seed’s con­sent form points out that the re­search is on­go­ing.

The re­sults of my Seed test showed some slight ab­nor­mal­i­ties in ge­nomic re­gions as­so­ci­ated with male in­fer­til­ity; this is fairly typ­i­cal for my age, ac­cord­ing to Dr. Hor­sager. Since my wife was al­ready 20 weeks preg­nant at that point, I didn’t worry.

While sci­ence ap­praises the long-term im­pact of Seed and epi­ge­netic sperm eval­u­a­tion, what’s clear is that your gen­eral health may be more crit­i­cal to fer­til­ity and healthy offspring than we once thought. The beauty of sperm health is that it can be im­proved – some­times quickly –with life­style changes. “I can’t say to a woman, ‘Wait two months and your eggs will be bet­ter,’” says Dr Aimee Ey­vaz­zadeh, a San Fran­cisco fer­til­ity spe­cial­ist. “But I can say that to a guy about his sperm.”

If you mod­ify your be­hav­iour, youmay change the DNA you pass down your fam­ily tree.

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