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Can cutting down on caffeine help with male infertility problems?

A new study co-authored by Dr. Jorge Chavarro, Assistant Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, suggests that drinking coffee, or other caffeinated beverages, can have serious consequences for couple who are trying to conceive. Results found that couples undergoing IVF treatment had significantly lower success rates and effected male infertility where the male drank high levels of caffeine, when compared to those couples where the male drank the least.

The study hoped to go beyond simple measurements of sperm quality (previous research has found no link between caffeine and a reduction in the measured quality of sperm) and see how lifestyle choices such as excessive coffee or alcohol consumption can affect the end result of a live pregnancy. The reason for this, says Dr. Chavarro, is to find out whether other unresearched factors, apart from simply sperm quality, have an effect on rates of pregnancy.

As part of the study 105 men, all of whom were undergoing IVF treatment with their partners at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, were asked about their diets prior to enrolling on the program. While overall just over half of the respondents treatments ended in pregnancy; couples in which the male drank the most coffee (defined as three or more 8-ounce cups a day) were half as likely to end in pregnancy as those couples where the male drank the least (i.e., less than one cup a day).

After adjusting the figures to account for factors such as age or obesity; the researchers still found that those males who consumed the most caffeine were, by far, the least likely to complete the IVF treatment successfully – ending with a live pregnancy just 19% of the time. This was compared to a success rate of 52% to 60% for couples where the male half of the couple drank the least caffeine.

The study does not conclude why this might be the case, although one suggestion is that drinking too much caffeine may be making men less likely to have sex with their partners. Dr. Rebecca Sokol, a professor of medicine, obstetrics and gynecology at Keck School of Medicine at University of Southern California, questioned the study’s conclusion. She points out that the study looks at only a small sample of men, from a very select population (i.e., those already undergoing fertility treatment).

Indeed the study’s lead author, Dr Anatte Karmon, an obstetrician, continues to exhort current best medical advice: “Anything that is good for your heart health is also good for your fertility. So do physical exercise and eat a well-balanced diet.” In any case, Dr. Chavarro warns against extrapolating from the results of this study too much: “As far as we are aware, this is the first time this has been reported. There needs to be a lot more replication before anyone can make a strong recommendation to patients.”

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