Various studies have proven that nicotine and even dagga can have a profound effect on sperm quality. Picture: Pixabay

From erectile dysfuntion to premature ejaculation, male infertility is no laughing matter, so why aren't we talking about it? By Marchelle Abrahams

You're living the dream with the perfect job, lovely home and loving partner. There’s just one thing missing - a bundle of joy to make your life complete.
Yet with years trying and false starts, there’s no positive result on the home pregnancy test. Sex becomes a chore, consigned to ovulation cycles, and the fun ends. You then ask yourself: Is it me?

Infertility, often spoken about in hushed tones between concerned couples, has only just recently come into the spotlight. Male infertility? Well, that’s considered even more taboo and not something to be spoken about around the braai with the okes.

But in recent years, scientists reported that sperm counts have halved over the past 50 years. If there’s a time to be discussing the issue, it should be now.

The main causes

A study by the University of Copenhagen found that sperm counts in the 1940s were above 100 million cells per millilitre, but have dropped to about 60 million per ml. The study, conducted over 15 years, involved almost 5000 men, aged between 18 and 19.

What is the reason for this massive decline?

Because of the fast pace of life in the modern age, stress could be the bullet in the gun. Researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York found that men who experienced two or more stressful life events in the past year had a lower percentage of sperm motility.

Male infertility is the reason up to 40 percent of South African couples fail to conceive. Experts blame various environmental and lifestyle factors.

Dr Klaus Wiswedel, director of Hart, Cape Town Fertility Clinic, notes urban and environmental factors as the two main reasons for male infertility.

“The increase in urbanisation has seen sexually transmitted diseases becoming more common,” he says. “Viral infections like mumps in adulthood can wipe out sperm production. Bacterial diseases and common STDs like chlamydia can affect sperm production.”

The sperm count of a healthy male should be 40 million to 300 million per millilitre. Picture: Vimeo

Environmental factors:

Wiswedel points out that pollutants in the atmosphere, the most common being lead, affect the sperm counts of sportsmen such as runners and cyclists, as they breathe in these harmful toxins.

“There is also a strong suspicion that plastic products affect sperm in general,” adds Wiswedel. He refers to one study that showed that the levels of a common chemical used in plastic, bisphenol A (BPA), were higher than normal in SA men, when compared to other countries like the US and UK.

In 2010, a large study showed a link between male exposure to BPA and a decrease in sperm quality. Researchers studied the urine and semen of 218 male factory workers in China, some of whom came into contact with BPA chemicals and others who did not.

It found that the men who worked in the BPA-based factories had more than four times the chance of having lowered sperm counts and more than double the risk of lower sperm motility.


Smoking has been proven to be a top contributor to male infertility and low sperm count. Various studies have proven that nicotine and dagga can have a profound effect, reducing sperm counts by 15 percent. The sperm count of a man whose mother smoked during pregnancy could be lowered by 40 percent.

Wiswedel stresses the importance of giving up smoking if you’re serious about starting a family naturally. He also adds that simple lifestyle changes like diet can help improve sperm quality.

It’s all in the mind Previously, erectile dysfunction (ED) was thought to be the result of psychological barriers. However, most men who suffer from ED have a secondary psychological problem that can worsen the situation, like performance anxiety, guilt, and low self-esteem, according to a study published by Stanford University.

Male infertility is the reason up to 40% of South African couples fail to conceive. Picture: Wikimedia

Possible solutions

Before taking extreme steps such as surgery, Hart Cape Town Fertility Clinic takes an all-round approach when diagnosing and treating male infertility. “We offer holistic treatments and advice on diets. Smoking does oxidative damage to sperm production, so we advise patients to go on a diet rich in antioxidants,” advises Wiswedel.

He says that “all meds on the market which are supposed to treat sperm quality are very ineffective in increasing the chance of a natural pregnancy”. Instead, he suggests looking at other options, such as artificial insemination or IVF.

The rooibos effect

A study done by the Department of Biomedical Sciences at Cape Peninsula University of Technology found was that sperm count and motility were significantly higher for rats on red and green rooibos.

However, reproductive specialist Dr Sulaiman Heylen said the studies were done only on rats, “so we need confirmation studies”.