radiation and sperm health

Mobile phones, laptops, Wi-fi, microwaves and so many other devices are all just a normal part of our day-to-day life these days, but are they causing us more harm than we realise?

In some ways, this is another one of those myths that we hear about when it comes to male fertility, so is it true?

Well, the evidence seems to be pretty damning. If you care about your swimmers, you should read on, but not with your laptop on your lap!

Electromagnetic fields (EMF’s)

Let’s get one thing clear here. We know our stuff about sperm, but we’re not necessarily scientists that specialise in EMF’s, so we’ll keep this simple.

EMF’s are areas of energy that are created by electrical equipment and is referred to as radiation, just like light, infrared rays, UV rays, radio or X-rays. Radiation is split into 2 types; Ionising and non-Ionising.

Ionising radiation is radiation of a higher frequency and is emitted by the sun, cosmic radiation or nuclear waste and is able to eliminate electrons out of molecules. Ionising radiation penetrates deeper into the body and is associated with cellular and DNA damage. For those who work in environments where there is a higher level of this type of radiation (think of pilots, cabin crew, miners, some military personnel etc), then this brings significantly higher risks.

Non-ionising radiation is radiation of a lower frequency and is emitted by things such as power lines (lowest frequency), mobile phones, wi-fi and microwaves (higher frequency). As it is a lower frequency and does not penetrate the body as deeply it is considered to be less of a concern. However, the research we looked at, seemed to say something very different.

Exposure proximity and time

When it comes to radiation, one of the key elements is always proximity to the source along with the duration of exposure.

Workers who are exposed to ionising radiation are very closely monitored, provided with protective equipment and have limitations on the time that they are exposed to the source. The exception to this could be cabin crew and pilots who are at a higher risk of prolonged and regular exposure.

Non-ionising radiation is believed to be less of a problem. However, when you consider how pervasive this technology is within our lives, the level of constant, and often, high exposure we have, it seems it could be having more of an effect than we realise. Could our exposure to so much EMF be one of the major reasons behind the significant decline in sperm health over the last few decades?

What did the research find?

We spent some time reading through a research review by Kesari et al. (2018; Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology 16: 118) and it made for some fascinating and quite concerning reading.

What was noted was that the true mechanism of how EMF’s affect sperm was not truly understood. However, the research seemed to point very heavily at the role of oxidative stress.

Oxidative stress is something that has come up in nearly every article we have written about sperm health and it seems to be one of the main culprits in damaging sperm.

We know that an imbalance between free radicals (oxidants) and antioxidants, with an excess of free radicals, is detrimental to sperm health. We also know that sperm are one of the most sensitive cells in the body and are very easily damaged.

With the testicles being outside of the body, although in the scrotal sack, it is likely this will offer them less protection from the effects of radiation. Some research has demonstrated that EMF can penetrate the cranium, so a thin piece of skin is not going to offer much protection at all.

With sperm being such small and vulnerable cells, the impact of prolonged radiation is likely to have a very negative effect. It is also worth noting that sperm cells are going through a period of development within the testicles through to the epididymis before ejaculation, meaning they are not only exposed to the effects of radiation during their production, but also during maturation.

Within the review there were a considerable number of references to research that clearly demonstrated that radiation caused the following:

  • Decrease in sperm concentration
  • Decrease in sperm motility
  • Increase in oxidative stress
  • Decrease in sperm that were morphologically correct (i.e. the right shape)
  • Increase in DNA fragmentation

Hormonal changes

It also seems that the damage does not just stop at an oxidative stress level. A lot of the above complications can be explained by the role of oxidative stress, but it seems from the research that more is at play.

Studies have shown that EMF decreases testosterone levels.

Within the testicles there are small structures known as the seminiferous tubules where spermatogenesis (sperm production) is taking place. This is the very beginning of a sperm cells life with development taking around 60 – 70 days. Sitting adjacent to the seminiferous tubules are the Leydig cells which secret testosterone having received hormone signals from the pituitary gland in the form of luteinising hormone. This production of testosterone acts as a feedback loop to the pituitary gland which then controls the release of further luteinising hormone according to testosterone levels.

Testosterone plays a key role in the production, maturation and development of sperm cells and is associated with sperm morphology (shape).

The Leydig cells seem to be particularly vulnerable to EMF and research has shown that their numbers decrease with exposure to radiation, which then correlates to a decrease in testosterone and therefore an impact on sperm quality and production.

Heat stress

One final nail in the coffin for putting your phone in your pocket is the impact of heat stress. We know that any form of energy exchange or energy production will generate heat and radiation is well known for its heating effects on the human body.

Sperm are incredibly sensitive to heat, which is exactly the reason for the testicles being outside the body.

Prolonged exposure to EMF’s cause living tissues to absorb this energy resulting in a rise in temperature. The Sertoli cells are cells in the testicles that nurse, nourish and support developing sperm. These cells are temperature-sensitive and need to be in an environment where the temperature stays relatively consistent at around 2 degrees Celsius below core body temperature in order to function properly. Keeping a phone in your pocket or regularly working with a laptop on your lap will create a level of heat stress that will result in compromised functionality of Sertoli cells and further compound any damage already happening to the sperm.

What can you do to protect yourself?

We now live in a society where it is almost impossible to avoid the day-to-day radiation that surrounds us from our technology. We live in a radiation fog and short of living in a cold war bunker, it can feel like there is nothing you can do to avoid it.

However, there are some very simple steps you can take to limit your exposure and risk. Here are some essential steps to limit your EMF exposure:

  • Avoid carrying your mobile phone in your pocket
  • Do not use your laptop on your lap. Always have it on a desk
  • Turn off your wi-fi router at night or when you do not need it
  • Turn your phone to flight mode or, even better, turn it off at night. Or at least put it far away from you (perhaps in another room)
  • Use headphones or a speaker when making phone calls, but not Bluetooth earphones! (your radiation exposure increases when making phone calls)
  • Turn off your Bluetooth if you are not using it
  • Limit electrical devices in and around your bed. If you need to charge your phone at night, do so in another room

You can take this sort of advice to the extreme. A simple search of the internet will bring up all sorts of solutions and fixes for EMF exposure but it is up to you as to how far you take this. As an absolute minimum though, if you are trying to conceive, you really do need to be mindful about how close you are putting this technology to your testicles!

And of course, a healthy diet will also help! How come? Well, if oxidative stress is one of the main culprits in all this, then eating a well-balanced and antioxidant rich diet will counteract some of the negative effects of oxidative stress.