Toxic Future Fathers
Birth defects, childhood cancer, and miscarriages have all been linked to the health of a father's sperm. Here's what dads-to-be need to know about the role they play in their unborn children's health
Eat As Though You Were Pregnant
If expectant mothers eat for two, their husbands ought to eat for three before conception: themselves, their partners, and their children-to-be. So it appears to Bruce Ames, who investigated the reproductive health of volunteers in a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) study of low-vitamin diets.
"The USDA has a human nutrition lab where they observe volunteers eating a specific diet for four months at a time," he says. So he asked if he could study some sperm from a group of men on a regimen low in vitamin C. They were getting about ten milligrams a day, one-sixth of the current recommended allowance.
It was already known that vitamin C appears to be important to male reproductive health. "There's about eight times as much of it in seminal fluid, the river in which sperm ride, as there is in blood plasma," Ames says, suggesting that C plays some central role in promoting conception.
When he got the sperm samples, Ames found that the sperm from the C-deprived volunteers was two and a half times as likely to be damaged as that from men who got enough of the vitamin. So vitamin C in the male reproductive system appears to play the role of palace guard.
Against what? Ames theorizes that the threat to sperm comes from toxins called free radicals, which are produced in the body. Cigarette smoke, radiation, exhaust fumes, and even excessive sunlight accelerate their production.
The body can repel the free radical assault with a diet high in antioxidants such as vitamins C and E. If you don't get enough of the protective vitamins, Ames says, "you wind up with injuries to the chromosomes in the sperm cells." The result is like randomly rewriting portions of the sperm's instructions for making a new life. While most of the damaged cells are repaired naturally by the body, some injuries result in a mutation when a cell divides. "And that may lead to trouble in the next generation," Ames argues. Susan Kleiner, Ph.D., a nutrition consultant in Seattle agrees, at least in theory. "We know that sperm can carry genetic mutations to the egg," she says. "So why couldn't sperm damaged from poor diet or tobacco also carry mutations?"
Kleiner recommends that would-be fathers pay more attention to nutrition, and specifically:
- Eat at least three to five servings of vegetables and two to four servings of fruit every day to get enough vitamin C and beta-carotene, both antioxidants.
- Increase consumption of seeds, nuts, and wheat germ to get enough of a third free radical fighter, vitamin E.
- Toss in green vegetables like broccoli, collard greens, kale, romaine lettuce, and Swiss chard -- all great sources of folic acid, which Kleiner says might be as important to men as women for healthy conception. If this turns you off, eat more dried beans, peas, peanuts, sunflower seeds, whole grains, and oranges, other foods yielding folic acid as well as a healthy variety of nutrients and fiber.
- Consider taking a multivitamin if your diet is low on these foods. But choose a moderate dose over mega-vitamin therapy.