Chronic Inflammation and Fertility Have an Inverse Relationship in Men
Inflammation is a complicated concept when it comes to sex, gender and studying pain. Research suggests pain and persistent inflammation affect women more than men, and more data about why and how that's the case is becoming increasingly available.
When inflammation and male fertility intersect, though, it is often to the detriment of sperm quality and parameters, such as sperm count, morphology (shape) and motility (movement).
Why does inflammation affect fertility? What does that mean for your sex life? How can you reduce inflammation?
Inflammation, infertility and sexual enjoyment
It's difficult to link specific issues pertaining to male fertility or the male reproductive tract to the existence of inflammation in the body. This is partly due to the pervasive nature of inflammation as we age.
It's also partly due to the fact that human sexual and reproductive features are integrally tied to multiple core aspects of overall health, fertility included.
"I think it's pretty well agreed upon in the [medical] community that fertility is a marker of your overall health in a lot of ways," said Katherine Rotker, M.D., a fellowship-trained urologist who specializes in sexual health and male infertility at Yale School of Medicine. "And so when men ask me for tips on, you know, improving their semen parameters and things like that, my first line is always: What's good for you as an overall human and for your health is good for your sperm."
Using large pools of data, researchers learned that men with fertility issues have higher rates of malignancies such as testicular cancer. Infertile men also experience higher rates of chronic diseases and disease-related mortality.
"So there are links between fertility and overall health that we're just learning more and more about," Rotker added.
Some inflammatory conditions are likely to impact your ability to reproduce and to enjoy sex (and other activities). There are a few different ways to tie inflammation to reproductive health.
Pointing toward causes and cures
Inflammation's influence tends to accumulate over time with the increased frequency of illness or disease.
"So things like having a viral illness or a fever can certainly contribute to infertility," said Marah Hehemann, M.D., a urologist and an assistant professor at the Men's Health Center at the University of Washington in Seattle. "Your body has to focus more on fighting off infection or on healing, and all that inflammation from fevers and things like that can certainly damage the sperm production process.
"So, yes, in loose terms, chronic inflammation—if a guy, for instance, has Crohn's disease or autoimmune conditions that cause inflammatory bowel disease—can be associated with infertility," she said. "Unfortunately, some of the medications taken for some of these things are also associated with reductions in fertility. But we do think that something like having a Crohn's flare would be more concerning than being on treatment."
But talking about and managing such matters isn't always easy. Doctors like conditions they can treat. So unless persistent muscle, tissue or organ inflammation can be tied to a particular condition or set of conditions, doctors can only do so much to address the immediate consequences.
"It is tough for us because we don't talk about just chronic inflammation as a thing," Rotker said. "Some people believe diabetes is sort of an inflammation in your system. Sure, I can talk about diabetes and fertility, or rheumatoid arthritis. But chronic inflammation is not really a medical term, right?"
Can sex fight inflammation?
It's worth noting that sexual activity can be linked to a generally healthier lifestyle. Studies suggest that sex-specific therapies may be effective in combating conditions, such as obesity, that are often associated with high levels of inflammation in the body. So you can always try fighting the inflammation with more sex.
Then again, if your doctor thinks sexual activity could exacerbate any conditions you might be experiencing, it's worthwhile to heed their advice.
The future may yield a more detailed understanding of how sex, fertility and inflammation are linked. For now, though, the important information is easy to understand: Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is fundamental to enjoying sex and preventing possible infertility.