Here’s something you were probably never told as a teenager: If it’s exams week and you’re super-stressed trying to memorize scientific theorems or understand the allegory of the old man and the marlin, you can probably forget about using condoms when you have sex, because in all likelihood, your swimmers won’t make it to the finish line. (Important note: That sentence was for dramatic effect. You still need to wear condoms, guy.)
That’s right: Sperm, like just about everything else, is negatively affected by stress.
“When you think globally, living in a chronic state of stress affects your entire body,” says Jamin Brahmbhatt, a board-certified urologist and infertility specialist. When your body is affected by chronic stress, he explains, it focuses its attention on saving your vital organs, which we’re sorry to report does not include your balls. “Anything that affects your body, can affect your testicles.”
Exactly how stress affects your sperm isn’t yet known, but Brahmbhatt says there are a few theories on what’s happening inside your dangly bits, where your swimmers find refuge. “It may trigger a surge in cortical steroids, which alters your testosterone levels and the way in which your sperm is produced,” he says.
Another theory proposes that when you’re in a state of stress, you have a lot of free radicals, which impair your testicular functioning. “Your testicles don’t like an overabundance of free radicals at all,” explains Brahmbhatt. “Free radicals induce impairment of testicular function and cause a marked reduction in number and quality of sperm production.” In other words, too much stress can lower your overall sperm count and motility, as well as affecting their morphology, which Brahmbhatt defines as their overall shape and “what they look like under a microscope.”
The good news is that there are concrete ways to combat stress-related sperm issues — beyond, that is, not stressing. “If we find inconsistency in hormonal functions, we have medication to balance hormones to help sperm motility and count,” says Brahmbhatt. “If we find something anatomically wrong, there are surgeries that can be done, like varicocele repair surgery, which can raise the temperature of the testicles and helps with blood flow.”
Brahmbhatt adds that there are also less invasive ways to treat sperm count issues that revolve more around lifestyle changes. “If we find the patient is morbidly obese or a pack a day smoker, we can suggest they make changes in their daily lifestyle and actually track their sperm count and motility with certain tests,” he says.
But don’t expect to see changes right away. “Anything you change today will take 10 to 12 weeks before you see changes in your sperm count,” says Brahmbhatt. “That’s why it’s important to start today.”
Unless, of course, you’re trying not to get pregnant, in which case, it doesn’t matter how much stress you’re under — put on a rubber, kid.