Ah, the poetry of ejaculation and those teeming millions of sperm competing in a dizzying upstream paddle for the chance to procreate.
Folks often take the majesty of it all for granted - until they actually decide it's time for baby-making, and then it's panic time: are the little critters strong enough for the marathon?
The Western world is a minefield for sperm these days. Male fertility can be lowered by car exhaust, pesticides, cigarette smoke, heavy metals, welding fumes and estrogen-like chemicals from pesticides, plastics, drugs and synthetic carpets.
Can the toxic barrage be countered? Depends on who you ask. Holistic types recommend detox regimes to clear accumulated chemicals, while allopaths - who acknowledge that pollutants do kill sperm - are less convinced this approach is useful.
The hazards to your manliness are compounded by street drugs and steroids. (Take note, bodybuilders!) Sexy clothes can be a problem, too. Cool testes produce sperm; tight pants and undies or even too many hot baths can heat them into inactivity.
To be further proactive about sperm production, keep your folic acid intake up, meaning regular chomping on leafy greens. Lycopene, the prostate-supportive nutrient you get from cooked tomatoes, increases sperm health. Antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium protect your sperm from free radical damage, and zinc supports good testosterone metabolism. B-complex vitamins help you digest better and cope with stress.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"Obesity changes the hormonal milieu, and that can be antagonistic to normal sperm production. Gross obesity may also warm the testes. Excessive use of any street drug reduces the fertilizing capacity of the sperm. Men who take anabolic steroids will definitely reduce their sperm production and testes size. We suspect air pollutants and pesticides may reduce sperm production. I'm not aware of any evidence for any detoxification procedure that would have a beneficial effect on sperm. Abstinence is not good for fertility. If a man doesn't have an ejaculation at least once a week, then the stored sperms will lose their oomph."
JERALD BAIN, MD, professor of medicine, University of Toronto, endocrinologist, Mt. Sinai Hospital, specialist in reproductive and sexual medicine
"The sperm count can reflect the free radical stress in a man's body. A basic thing is to eat six to 10 servings daily of foods high in antioxidants and nutrients, deeply coloured fruits and vegetables. For a successful pregnancy, I always recommend that both partners go through a detoxification program. It's been shown that different chemicals affect the sperm and egg, and that can have an effect on the next generation. To detoxify, people need to make sure that the bowels and kidneys, and their ability to perspire, are functioning healthily. When researchers checked different populations, organic farmers had the best sperm density."
RAHIM HABIB, naturopath, Toronto
"Male smokers have 10 to 17 per cent fewer sperm cells than non-smokers, and the general quality of smokers' sperm is lower. In our study published in 1999, we detected more DNA mutations in the sperm of men who smoked. In the early stages of the maturation of the sperm cell there is a capacity for repair, but once the sperm is mature (which ejaculated sperm is), it has a low capacity for repair. That's why it may pass on genetic damage to the embryo and maybe to the offspring. Two studies have found that children of men who smoke have increased risk of leukemia."
MARIA TERESA ZENZES, retired assistant professor, department of obstetrics and gynecology, University of Toronto
"An herbalist would look at whether the fellow in question was eating well and his digestion was working well so that he's getting all the nutrients from his food. It's also important to look at stress levels. It's important to stop smoking, alcohol and coffee, which inhibits digestion. (Herbs I might use include) damiana, a traditional male tonic, Siberian ginseng, Panax ginseng, Smilax (sarsaparilla), which helps provide hormone precursors, and saw palmetto, which increases sperm count and sperm motility."
KERRY HACKETT, medical herbalist, Stratford
"Radiation or chemotherapy may cause infertility. There are also psychological causes. Basically, healthy men over 40 should eat a more vegetarian diet and less red meat, more green leafy vegetables, fresh fruits and fish. They should also try to use olive, sunflower or vegetable oi l for cooking. A person over 40 should have sex two or three times a week, no more than that. Sexual overactivity can lower the kidney essence, and that may cause impotence, infertility and low sperm count. A good preventive measure for younger men is to stick to three or four times a week. By doing that you will not exhaust the kidney essence too much."
CEDRIC CHEUNG, professor, Institute of Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture, Canada, London
"(Regarding sperm health), we need to take into consideration the customs of the society. Wearing tight clothes brings the scrotum closer to the body and increases its temperature. That could have a negative effect. A second factor in our society is taking hot baths. There are abnormalities in one out of 1,000 births. A male with an extra X chromosome usually has a lower sperm count. In spite of that, some of these males can reproduce, and the mutation can't be passed on."
BECKY SIGMON, professor of anthropology, University of Toronto, specialist in human reproductive ecology