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King's College London - Health: More than a medical matter

Smoking and drinking have little impact on sperm quality but wearing tight pants does, study finds

18 June 2012

By Helen Brooks

Appeared in BioNews 661

An unhealthy lifestyle may not affect sperm quality as much as previously thought.

A study in the journal Human Reproduction indicates that smoking, high alcohol consumption and being overweight have little effect on semen quality. Wearing tighter underpants, on the other hand, did reduce levels of swimming sperm, a strong indicator of male fertility.

Researchers asked 2,249 men at 14 UK fertility clinics to fill in detailed questionnaires about their lifestyle. They compared the answers of the 939 men with low sperm quality with the 1,310 men with normal sperm and found that even a 20-a-day smoking habit did not significantly affect swimming sperm levels.

Study leader Dr Andrew Povey at the University of Manchester emphasised that lifestyle choices were 'important for other aspects of our health' but said that the research 'potentially overturns much of the current advice given to men about how they might improve their fertility and suggests that many common lifestyle risks may not be as important as we previously thought'.

Current advice from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) suggests doctors should warn men of the negative impact of smoking and drinking on sperm quality. Fertility treatment is sometimes delayed so couples can alter their lifestyles.

Dr Povey said that the study suggested that such a delay 'is unlikely to improve [couples'] chances of conception and, indeed, might be prejudicial for couples with little time left to lose'.

A NICE spokesperson told the BBC that 'the draft update of our fertility guideline is currently open for consultation. However, until the update of this guideline is published later this year, the NHS should continue to follow the recommendations in the current fertility guideline'.

Study co-author Dr Allan Pacey, from the University of Sheffield, said that lifestyle factors may affect other aspects of sperm quality - such as the size and shape of the sperm - not measured in the study. He said it was therefore 'important that men continue to follow sensible health advice and watch their weight, stop smoking and drink alcohol within sensible limits. But there is no need for them to become monks just because they want to be a dad'.

On the finding that tighter underwear did slightly impact levels of swimming sperm, he said that if a man trying for a baby was 'a fan of tight Y-fronts, then switching underpants to something a bit looser for a few months might be a good idea'.



18 March 2013 - by Simon Hazelwood-Smith 
Human semen quality may rise and fall in seasonal variation, with the best quality being produced in the winter and spring... [Read More]
17 December 2012 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
The fourth session the Progress Educational Trust's annual conference 2012 'Fertility Treatment: A Life-Changing Event?' continued the day's critical perspective looking at the evidential basis for the impact of lifestyle factors on the outcome of fertility treatment and resulting children. This time it was the impact of alcohol and smoking that came under scrutiny... [Read More]
03 December 2012 - by Chris Baldacci 
A man may contribute more than just sperm to the process of conception, research suggests... [Read More]
19 November 2012 - by Linda Wijlaars 
Children's IQ can be affected by moderate drinking during pregnancy, but only for women and children with certain gene variants.... [Read More]
20 August 2012 - by Emma Stoye 
Eating two handfuls of walnuts every day can improve sperm quality in healthy young men, researchers have found... [Read More]

19 March 2012 - by Sarah Guy 
Men who consume a diet rich in saturated fat - the type found in junk food - have lower sperm counts than men whose diets contain low levels of such fats, according to scientists... [Read More]
05 December 2011 - by Luciana Strait 
Ejaculated sperm has been shown to be significantly damaged by prolonged exposure to a WiFi connected laptop. A study, published in the journal Fertility and Sterility, found that after four hours of exposure there was a significant decrease in sperm motility and an increase in sperm DNA fragmentation.... [Read More]
25 July 2011 - by Rosemary Paxman 
Passive smoking may harm the DNA in sperm, a new study in mice has suggested. If the findings are replicated in humans, genetic defects linked to passive smoking could be passed on to children, the researchers advise.... [Read More]
11 July 2011 - by Sarah Guy 
Some of the highlights from the 27th Annual Meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction (ESHRE) in Stockholm include good news for sperm donation in the UK; advice about how to reduce the effects of tobacco on unborn children; a 'non invasive' screening technique for chromosomal abnormalities in embryos; and a mathematical model to help reduce multiple births in IVF procedures... [Read More]

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