Biryani, gutka and mardana kamzori

Expert explains habits that lead to infertility in men
Photo: SAMAA Digital
Photo: SAMAA Digital

Pakistani men, did you know that the microwaved biryani you eat from plastic bags can affect your fertility? Or that working around fire and heat reduces sperm production?

Cell phone in your pocket? Laptop literally on the lap. Tight clothing?!

Disruptors of male fertility are present almost everywhere in the environment and in one’s lifestyle, yet most desi men refuse to believe they are part of a couple's infertility problems.

“Fifty percent of a couple’s fertility issues are because of the man,” says Dr Yasmeen Bashir, a fertility specialist who runs a clinic in Karachi. But men don’t want to be tested, she adds.

Male infertility, or mardana kamzori as it is known colloquially, is a matter of great contention for the already fraught male ego.

“There exists substantial data to suggest a decline in sperm counts over time,” according to researchers at the University of Manitoba in Canada. 

Globally, male fertility is declining and it’s not because of polio or COVID-19 vaccines.

Microplastics and fertility

So how does biryani play a role?

Microwaving food in plastic containers or bags that contain polycarbonates (a type of plastic) releases microplastic particles into the food. Though polycarbonates are fairly stable, repeated exposure to heat breaks them down. 

Polycarbonates and other types of plastics are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs)--which means that they mimic the activity of hormones and so interfere with the body’s hormonal functions. 

BPA, or Bisphenol A, is also used in making plastic food containers. It disrupts the process of sperm cell formation, as well as triggers cell death in other reproductive cells, such as Sertoli cells and germ cells.

Microplastics don’t only seep into the body from plastic bags and food containers. Water bottles, plastic cups, plastic straws, and even cling film wrapping release microplastics.

In Karachi, men who work in offices usually get food from restaurants in plastic bags or packaging.

This habit could be affecting fertility in the long run and should be changed, according to Dr Bashir.

How your profession determines sperm quality

Men working in professions where they deal with fire or heat directly such as in bakeries, construction work, and factories have a high risk of developing subfertility.

Working in steel mills is a particularly big risk factor. 

“I had a case where three men from the same family presented with fertility issues and all three were working in steel mills,” said Dr Bashir.

She sees many cases where the patient works in either the steel mills or tandoor shops.

If the temperature in the genital area increases by a few degrees it can stop spermatogenesis (new sperm cells forming) and cause infertility, she explains.

Human testicles are usually maintained at 35 ˚C. Changing the environment or protecting the area from heat usually solves the problem, she adds.

Studies have also shown a correlation between welding jobs and subfertility.

Drivers are also at risk for subfertility.

Prolonged periods of sitting have the potential to affect sperm quality, says Dr Bashir.

The usual suspects: gutka, chalia, smoking, and alcohol

The major reason behind decreased fertility in men from low-income families is the use of gutka, chalia, cigarettes, and alcohol, Dr Bashir explains, stressing gutka consumption.

Gutka or betel quid is a chewing tobacco preparation made of crushed areca nut (betel nut), tobacco, catechu, paraffin wax, slaked lime, and sweet flavouring.

Betel nut (chalia) contains chemicals called alkaloids that can harm the reproductive system. One of these, arecoline, reduces sperm motility. Sperm cells which cannot swim cannot reach the egg for fertilisation.

Tobacco and other chemicals in cigarette smoke can alter the DNA (genetic material) of sperm cells. Research has shown cigarette smokers had lower semen volumes, sperm counts, and percentage of motile sperm compared to men who did not smoke.

The good news is that making lifestyle changes can improve fertility. Quitting gutka or smoking shows a change in sperm quality within three months. This is because the cycle of human spermatogenesis is three months. 

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