Dr. Keith Jarvi
Medical Director, FlowLabs
It takes two to make a baby. And, despite everything you were told in high school health class, it’s not always easy to do.
Men, let’s talk about making babies. It’s not as easy as you think. In Canada, between 15 percent and 20 percent of couples have trouble conceiving. And, though fertility is often seen through a lens of women’s health, roughly half the time, there’s a contributing factor on the male side.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a male factor alone,” says Dr. Keith Jarvi, Medical Director at FlowLabs. “About half the time, there’s a male contribution to the couple being infertile, and about one third of the time, it’s distinctly or solely a male factor. It’s much more common than people think. By and large, couples are initially assessed by gynecologists, who have dealt with female infertility for years. Gynecologists are actually the gatekeepers for infertility in Canada. So, quite often, the women have their investigation first, and men have their investigation later.”
In Canada, between 15 percent and 20 percent of couples have trouble conceiving.
Healthy sperm, healthy babies
Incorporating male fertility testing earlier in the process allows couples to be better informed about their situation, and equips them to seek more effective, non-invasive solutions earlier. Male fertility testing is a well-established science, measuring not only sperm count and motility but also DNA quality.
“Looking at DNA quality gives us more information about whether or not the couple will get pregnant,” says Dr. Jarvi. “It also tells us if they’re at risk of losing the pregnancy. DNA quality is essential to a successful pregnancy. Basically, healthy sperm, healthy pregnancies. Healthy sperm, healthy births.”
Getting tested is easy, and some variety of male fertility testing is usually covered by provincial health systems. In Ontario, for example, OHIP covers basic semen analysis, and providers like FlowLabs in Toronto can conduct the tests. FlowLabs patients can collect their samples in the lab or drop off a sample collected from the comfort of their own home, with at-home kits sent through the post. The hurdle isn’t so much access to testing as it is awareness and acceptance.
“Nobody talks about male fertility,” says Dr. Jarvi. “It’s not water cooler conversation. But this is a common issue, and we need to normalize it. I think when men realize how common it is, they become much more open to working through it in a way that will allow them to have successful outcomes.”
There is no blame, but there are solutions
Dr. Jarvi emphasizes that men who are experiencing fertility issues shouldn’t blame themselves. At the same time, there are absolutely lifestyle factors that can improve reproductive health. With unhealthy behaviours and habits, sperm quality can decrease even before other health complications are seen. “When it comes to health in general, sperm are like the canary in the coal mine,” says Dr. Jarvi. “A healthy lifestyle makes for healthy sperm. Things like weight control, exercise, and smoking cessation can all have very positive effects on sperm count and fertility.”
For those actively seeking to improve their fertility, there are more proactive solutions like supplements and cooling devices, although it’s important to make the distinction between folk solutions and those with a firm grounding in science. “There are a lot of fertility myths that are almost like family myths,” says Dr. Jarvi. “Like, my uncle did this, and my aunt got pregnant three times right afterwards. One thing that really does work, though, is cooling the testes. The testes have to be cooler than the rest of the body. If you increase the temperature of the testes even by one degree, you damage fertility. There are really good studies where they put tight underwear on men and, after a few months, you can see their sperm count go to zero. And, in the reverse, there are some very interesting studies that have shown improvements in sperm quality with cooling devices.”
Between early testing, lifestyle changes, and interventions like supplements and cooling underwear, there’s a lot that men can do to address their contribution to fertility. All that’s needed is an open mind and an open conversation acknowledging that fertility is an everyone issue, not just a women’s issue.