Babies are beautiful gifts. With their angelic smile, their silky soft skin, their hypnotizing eyes and melodious cackle, you would agree that they are simply the best package anyone could ever get. But what happens when you just can’t seem to have your own? This may be a case of infertility.
Infertility simply refers to the inability to conceive within twelve months of having regular unprotected intercourse or the inability to carry a pregnancy to term. When we talk about infertility, the first thing that comes to mind is female infertility. Although female infertility factors contribute to approximately 50% of all infertility cases and account for approximately one-third of all infertility cases, it is not the cause of delayed conception in all cases.
So hold your horses! Before you start getting misconceptions and generalizations, you ought to know that infertility also occurs in men. It accounts for 40 to 50% of infertility. And about 7% of the male population is infertile. So if you know that couple that has been trying to have a baby for years and you’ve always blamed the woman, well, you might wanna spin the blame wheel again.
So what is it About Male and Female Infertility?
Infertility in women is the most well known of both. It is the inability to conceive after one year of regular unprotected intercourse, or the inability to carry a pregnancy to term. However, it is not in all cases that infertility is determined by a one-year duration. For instance, infertility is determined by six months in women with the following issues:
- Women over the age of 35
- Women who experience painful cramps during periods.
- Women with irregular cycles.
- Women diagnosed with pelvic inflammatory disease.
- Women who suffer from miscarriages.
However, infertility in men refers to a man’s inability to impregnate a fertile female. This is usually attributed to deficiencies in the semen.
Causes of Female Infertility
Infertility in women can be caused by a range of factors. Some of these are;
The age of a woman greatly affects her fertility. A woman is most fertile in her early and mid-20s, after which fertility starts to decline. After the age of 35, fertility drastically reduces.
Tobacco smoking is harmful to the ovaries. The longer a woman smokes, the more damage it wrecks. This is because nicotine and other toxic substances in cigarettes obstruct the production of estrogen in the body. This is the hormone responsible for the regulation of folliculogenesis, ovulation, embryo transport, endometrial receptivity, endometrial angiogenesis, uterine blood flow and the uterine myometrium.
While quitting smoking early can help ameliorate some of the damage done, it does not guarantee an increased percentage of fertility. There is a 60% chance of infertility in smokers than non-smokers. Oh! And one more spoiler alert. Smoking also hastens menopause by 1 to 4 years.
Sexually Transmitted Infections
This is one of the leading causes of infertility. Most of the time, STDs do not exhibit visible symptoms and this often leads to meager or no proper treatment. This increases the chances of infertility.
Body Weight and Eating Disorders
Oh yes! As weird as this may sound, your body weight has a lot to do with your fertility girl! This is because the fat cells in the body produce estrogen also.
So, too much body fat equals too much estrogen and this automatically switches the body to contraceptive mode, decreasing the chances of conception. And too little body fat equals insufficient estrogen and disruption of the menstrual cycle. The bottom line is, eat good food and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Uh-oh! Turns out chemotherapy poses a high risk of infertility. There are certain types of chemotherapy which pose a risk to fertility, these include; cyclophosphamide, ifosfamide, busulfan, melphalan, chlorambucil, and chlormethine. Like having to go through chemo isn’t bad enough!
Causes of Male Infertility
Infertility in men can also be caused by a host of factors. Some of these are examined next.
Testicular conditions refer to conditions where the testes produce sperm of low quantity or in some instances, poor quality, even with adequate hormonal support. Examples of testicular conditions include;
Varicocele is a condition in which the veins of the testicles become swollen. This condition occurs in about 15% of fertile men and 40% of infertile men. And we have to admit, that’s some really painful stuff.
Drugs and Alcohol
Excessive intake of alcohol and abuse of drugs can also contribute to infertility in men by reducing the quality of semen produced.
Tobacco smoking may damage the testicles and kill sperm but their effect on male fertility is not as certain as that of female fertility. Smoking tobacco increases intake of cadmium because the tobacco plant absorbs the metal. Cadmium, being chemically similar to zinc, may replace zinc in the DNA polymerase, which plays a critical role in sperm production. Zinc replaced by cadmium in DNA polymerase can damage the testes.
As men age, there is a consistent decline in semen quality, and this decline is attributed to DNA damage. The damage occurs through DNA fragments. This could also be as a result of exposure to heat or acid. These findings suggest that DNA damage is a crucial factor in male infertility.
This is a long-term autoimmune disorder that primarily affects the small intestine. Primary symptoms include gastrointestinal problems such as chronic diarrhea, abdominal distention, malabsorption and loss of appetite. When it is untreated or undiagnosed, it may have an effect on male fertility. It can affect the quality of semen produced
In females, infertility is assessed through a physical examination. This will include a medical history regarding potential factors that could contribute to infertility. This usually involves a urine or blood test to check for infections or a hormone problem, pelvic exam and breast exam, a sample of cervical mucus and tissue to determine if ovulation is occurring, ultrasound to look at the uterus and ovaries. This may be done vaginally or abdominal.
For males, diagnosis of infertility begins with a medical history and physical exam. This would check for prior testicular or penile insults, infections, environmental factors, excessive heat, radiation, medications, sexual habits and drug use (anabolic steroids, alcohol, smoking). The chances of a genetic factor can also not be totally ruled out. A semen analysis could also be carried out to determine the volume of the semen sample, an approximate number of total sperm cells, sperm motility/forward progression, and percentage of sperm with normal morphology. This is actually the most common type of fertility testing.
Can Infertility be Prevented?
Well, we’ve got bad news and good news guys. The bad news is there isn’t really anything that has been medically proven to prevent infertility. However, the good news is there are certain measures that can be taken that may help in the prevention of infertility.
For women, it is necessary to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Excessive exercise, consumption of caffeine and alcohol, and smoking all increase the chances of infertility. Eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet, with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and maintaining a healthy weight could help increase fertility.
Treating or preventing existing diseases; identifying and controlling chronic diseases such as diabetes increases fertility chances. Also, practicing safe sex reduces the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. In cases of contraction, undergoing prompt treatment for sexually transmitted diseases reduces the chances of infertility.
Regular physical examinations (including pap smears) help detect early signs of infections or abnormalities.
It is also better not to delay parenthood as fertility decreases with age.
A woman can freeze her eggs to preserve her fertility. By using egg freezing while in the peak reproductive years, a woman’s oocytes are cryogenically frozen and ready for her use later in life, reducing her chances of female infertility.
For men, some strategies suggested for avoiding male infertility include the avoidance of smoking as it damages sperm DNA, avoiding heavy marijuana and alcohol consumption, and avoiding excessive heat and friction to the testes.
Now you know better.
Are you single? Start practicing healthy habits as you drop unhealthy ones so you can have a fruitful marriage.
Are you married? You know the next steps.
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