Is Poor Gut Health Leading To Infertility?

We, as a human race, may become infertile. No, this isn’t Chicken Little yelling that the “Sky is falling.” Declining reproductive health among western men has doubled in the last 40 years, with the infertility rate steadily increasing 1.4% each year [1]. Women are not impervious to this drop as well, as 11% of women within reproductive age are infertile [2]. These statistics may be alarming, but it doesn’t need to be all doom and gloom.

Our recent research on this complex issue found a strong correlation between gut microbes and chronic inflammation with men’s health and women’s health. Let’s take a look at what is causing this probable impending crisis and how poor gut health may have something to do with this uptick in unexplained infertility cases.

What is Causing This Increase in Infertility?

causes of infertility and gut health problems Gut microbes heavily influence fertility 

In order to fix this problem, we need to get to the bottom as to why these changes are happening in the first place. Let’s take a look at when the decline in fertility started happening. It was just as the Industrial Revolution began its boom.

Let’s face it, we are living the high life of convenience, and it may be detrimental to the future of our species. For the supplies to reach the demands (and for businesses to make a maximum profit), many shortcuts were taken.

We’ve been given a false narrative that mass-produced foods are cornerstones in healthy diets. Fast food joints started frying low-quality meat in partially hydrogenated oils with saturated fatty acids. Artificial sugars and preservatives were used in place of natural flavors to extend the shelf life of foods, as well as the profits of manufacturers and stores.

 A lot of these shortcuts have come with severe ramifications to our digestive health. These issues have evolved as our diets got worse. Infertility and gut bacteria diversity alike started to decrease in human bodies across the globe.

Plastic

Our over-reliance on plastic products has caused a major environmental and health crisis. Research shows that Bisphenol-A (BPA) and other parabens mimic estrogen [3]. These synthetic molecules can leach into water in bottled water.

In turn, we acclimate the BPA into our gastrointestinal tract. Our microbes confuse these particles for estrogen. This confusion can cause problems for both men’s health and women’s health. 

For men, they might not produce enough testosterone, have less potent sperm, or a lack of interest in sex. Estrogen dominance in women can cause thyroid dysfunction. Women also become more susceptible to strokes and blood clots. 

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

Gut health and infertility have a strong link. That’s because our gut bacteria play a significant role in regulating the endocrine system. When we consume genetically modified organisms (GMOs), these inorganic molecules interact with our organic stomach flora. Since our gut microbiota don’t recognize these microorganisms, it might trigger an immune response. 

A meta-analysis of the impact GMOs have on fertility rates found,

“The results of most studies with GM foods indicate that they may cause some common toxic effects such as hepatic, pancreatic, renal, or reproductive effects and may alter the hematological, biochemical, and immunologic parameters [4].”

This meta-analysis also concluded that there is a link between GMOs and increased insulin growth factor (IGF-1) in the human system. High levels of IGF-1 are common for people who are diagnosed with endometriosis [5]. 

This condition causes unpleasant digestive issues for people because it involves abnormal and inflamed tissue in the ovaries, Fallopian tubes, gut lining, and small intestine. As you’d expect, endometriosis is strongly linked to infertility. 

Meats and Dairy Treated with Hormones and Antibiotics

Animal agriculture requires animals to reproduce continually. They need calves to remain pregnant, so they always produce milk. Plus, their babies are used for beef, veal, and other red meat products. The only way to keep this cycle going is through hormones. 

Red meat isn’t the only industry that implements hormones in their feed. Pigs, chickens, and many other animal-based products use these farming techniques. Also, hormones aren’t limited to females. Males are given growth hormones to produce more meat. 

These hormones live in meat that gets broken down in the digestive tract and small intestine. Animal hormones then enter the bloodstream, like other nutrients in our food.

One meta-analysis looking at these practices also noted that antibiotics are regularly used, too [6]. Antibiotics stop cow udders from bleeding into milk as machines milk them and keep chickens from spreading diseases to one another. Unfortunately, these antibiotics can cause antibiotic resistance and destroy healthy gut bacteria. 

Pesticides in Produce 

Even the “healthier foods,” like fruits and vegetables, can be contributing to our infertility issues. The majority of farmed produce is grown with the use of pesticides

In vitro studies and in vivo animal studies have confirmed various pesticides can influence:

  • Hormone Synthesis
  • Hormone Release and Storage
  • Hormone Transport and Clearance
  • Hormone Receptor Recognition and Binding
  • Hormone Postreceptor Activation
  • Thyroid Function
  • Central Nervous System

Pesticides can affect gut health and hormone production every step of the way [7]. They can disrupt our digestive system, immune system, and metabolic functions. In turn, our moods, sex drive, and fertility are negatively impacted. 

Side Effects of Medications

We noted how antibiotics could impede on the gut biome and cause issues with conception. However, other medications can also have long-term side effects that include trouble with pregnancy. 

One study looked at medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and how long-term use can impact sperm production [8]. 

An in-depth analysis of over 1,000 common prescription labels found that 65 common drugs impact sperm production. The most common side effect was epididymitis. Epididymitis is when the tube carrying sperm becomes inflamed. Therefore, the sperm might not be viable by the time they reach the eggs.

While 65 out of 1,000 sounds like a small number, millions of people are on these prescriptions. Plus, 65 out of 1,000 medicines is a 6% rate. 6% is in between the estimated 10% to 15% infertility rate.

Artificial Sweeteners 

If nature didn’t sweeten it up naturally, look the other way. Artificial sweeteners are not friendly for pregnant women with gestational diabetes, and they’re not ideal for women trying to conceive. 

While different artificial sweeteners affect the system differently, they all seem to cause poor quality eggs [9]. These concerns are heightened for those who participate in an embryo transfer during the final stages of in vitro fertilization. 

Artificial sweeteners not only impact women’s health and reproductive technologies. They might also adversely influence male reproductive organs, too. Embryos need genetic information from male sperm cells. If these cells are carrying inorganic messages, the embryo might miss out on pertinent information necessary for the growth into a fetus.

Synthetic Food Coloring

Starting to notice a trend here? Your diet plays a vital role in the ability to conceive, just as it has a significant impact on a healthy gut microbiome.

As parents, we pass our DNA onto children. However, artificial food coloring might harm that DNA, which can make it more challenging to procreate. 

One study involving pregnant mice tested DNA throughout their digestive tracts after being administered three different artificial red dyes [10]. 

Results found DNA damage in:

  • Colon
  • Glandular Stomach
  • Bladder

The study did note that organs outside of the digestive tract and the embryo didn’t get DNA damage from the experiment. However, these issues can definitely complicate the chance of a future pregnancy.

Not to mention, the new baby will inherit some of the unhealthy qualities of the parent caused by long-term dye consumption. That’s why studies suggest artificial dyes can cause mental health red flags in children

Estrogenic Foods 

Some foods are rich in plant compounds known as phytoestrogens. Just as phytocannabinoids in CBD syrup mimic our endocannabinoids, phytoestrogens mimic our estrogen. When we consume too many of these foods, it might disrupt our natural hormone production process. 

Foods high in estrogen include:

  • Soy
  • Flax
  • Garbanzo Beans
  • Garlic
  • Dried Fruit

Consume fattier foods with higher levels of protein to offset high estrogen levels. Combine them with nitric oxide-rich foods like beets, dark chocolate, and leafy greens to improve blood flow to the nether regions. 

Phone Radiation

We live in a world that’s always connected, especially following the rise of Covid-19. That means Bluetooth, wi-fi, and other microwaves are continually coming into contact with us. 

Unfortunately, too much screen time can impact the futures of our family lineages. One study looked at the growing dependence on cell phones over the last 20 years and a rise in male infertility rates [11].

​Results found,

“Continuous electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones, through the development of oxidative stress and DNA fragmentation, can obviously lead to the development of different pathologies, including tumors, and also can violate spermatogenesis.”

If you carry your cell phone in your pocket, take it out! Also, turn your phone on airplane mode when you go to sleep. Lastly, consider turning off your wi-fi routers during the late-night hours. 

Lack of Stomach Acid

The reason why the bad flora is flourishing and leaving humans infertile is that a majority of people have low acid levels in their stomach. Maintaining a proper pH balance is imperative in maintaining good bacteria in your gut.

Symptoms of low acidity in your stomach include:

The whole purpose of stomach acid is to help your body break down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. From there, the nutrients are free to enter the bloodstream and be used up by muscles, fibers, and blood cells.

When all gears are firing on their cylinders, the body works like a well-oiled machine. The endocrine system would feed on these nutrients and use their receptors to interpret the food’s messages. From there, you create the hormones necessary to maintain your gender’s distinct characteristics, including fertility.

If you want to improve the acidity in your stomach, try the following:

As acidity levels decline, it can lead not only to infertility but other conditions such as Leaky Gut Syndrome. This will open the rabbit’s hole to many more illnesses and conditions. At the first sign of low acid levels, try to find the proper balance of healthy foods and probiotic bacteria.

These causes of infertility don’t include how chronic stress, illness, and many other factors can have a hand in decreasing fertility. All of these situations add up to one big blow to the human race. That’s because these “conveniences” are inconveniently destroying our gut microbiota. 

The Fertility-Gut Microbiome Connection

Gut microbes are the first living beings we encounter as zygotes and fetuses in our mother’s womb. Our mothers’ microbes help shape our immune system cells. They get together to form our gut wall.

During this process, some of the microbes get trapped within human cells that create skin. Inevitably, skin becomes the outline of our human body. The enclosed area surrounded by our newly formed skin is known as the gut microbiome.

Upon our entry into this world, we are met with the various bacteria in the vaginal microbiome. Vaginal microbiota during a natural delivery boosts the chances of facilitating a healthy immune system in a new baby. Don’t worry; there are still gut bacteria present in a C-section that can also give your child a head start in our germy world.

Bottom line, childbirth is designed to increase the chances of a new baby surviving in the real world. We all start out with a clean slate. It’s poor diet, chronic inflammation, continual stress and environmental factors that disrupt the gut-fertility connection. 

How Gut Issues Can Impact Fertility 

Seeing as the reproductive organs aren’t very far from the gut, it shouldn’t come as much of a shock that the health of your microbiome has a profound impact on fertility [12]. When your stomach’s gut flora is predominantly healthy bacteria, their role is to metabolize and help recycle our hormones.

When hormones are released into the system, the body uses up as much as it can. In a healthy gut, whatever is left of the hormone reaches the liver, is rendered useless then broken down. From there, this inactive hormone is supposed to reach the intestines and flushed out of the system in our system.

However, when harmful bacteria reign supreme, it can disrupt this process immensely. Instead, these gut bullies reactivate the stagnant hormone. This stimulation throws off our natural metabolic processes. 

Once the hormone gets recharged, it will start to circulate the system and create dominance. Inevitably, dominance can cause a hormonal imbalance, specifically with estrogen. 

When you experience a hormone imbalance, it will disrupt your mood and hurt your performance in the bedroom. Furthermore, losing a hormonal balance can cause oxidative stress and open the door for a litany of health conditions. 

Hormonal Imbalance Effects on Fertility

Recycling hormones might sound like a green thing for your body to do, but it really just creates an overflow of hormones. We need our hormones to remain in balance. If one hormone reigns supreme, then other hormones won’t be produced.

As a human being, men and women both create testosterone and estrogen.

What defines a man is he has more testosterone. Whereas, a woman has more estrogen. Seems simple, but this topic gets more complex as we look into these issues. 

Men’s Health

If estrogen gets recycled and becomes dominant in a man’s system, he will have too much estrogen. Naturally, this will cause testosterone levels to drop. In turn, his sperm might have trouble fertilizing an egg.

Additionally, extra estrogen in the system gets converted to fat [13]. With 2 out of 3 adults considered overweight, it would be logical to assume that there is an elevated level of estrogen in the majority of men in this world [14]. 

As fat starts to pile up, cholesterol, calcium deposits, and other build-ups might start to cause blockages in the arteries. Thus, oxygenated blood won’t make it to the testes to help create sperm cells. Therefore, sperm levels might not be potent or abundant enough to fertilize an egg adequately. 

Plus, a lack of blood flow to the penis makes it more difficult to have sex. Impotence is yet another side effect of poor gut health. 

Women’s Health

Common causes of hormonal imbalances for women include thyroid issues, ovulatory dysfunction, and short luteal phases. However, gut health can also play a significant role in how women get pregnant. 

Bacterial diversity makes the pregnancy process a smoother one for the family. When specific bacterial strains overtake the vaginal microbiome, infertility increases, preterm delivery increases and risk of low birth weight increases.

Imbalances within the gut can contribute to a series of immune responses. The environment might become a state of chronic inflammation that makes it challenging for sperm cells to survive.

Over time, chronic inflammation might cause scar tissue and blockages along the Fallopian tubes. As a result, the sperm might not be able to make it to the eggs to fertilize them. 

Subsequently, women who have fertility issues are three times more likely to develop bacterial vaginosis [15]. Sadly, abnormal vaginal microbiota levels can also make it difficult to carry a baby to term, especially for those who use in vitro fertilization. This diagnosis only furthers the fertility-gut microbiome connection. 

How to Fix Gut Health and Fertility Issues

If you believe you have fertility issues, you should speak to a professional. Talk about your wellness goals and create a roadmap to achieve them. 

While you concoct a plan with your doctor, make some dietary changes. Eat as many organic foods as possible and increase your bacterial diversity. 

The best way to achieve these results is by getting your gut tested. Thryve sends you an at-home gut test kit with everything you need to safely and discreetly collect a sample off your toilet paper with a sterile swab and mail it to us in a preservative. 

Based on the results, Thryve will suggest a customized probiotic supplement. Probiotic supplementation can help clear up blockages that might impede blood flow to the penis. It can also help fight off the recurrence of bacterial vaginosis that might make conception difficult.

Lastly, Thryve helps you create a healthy gut diet plan that will improve your chances of fertility. We will let you know which foods specifically feed a number of probiotic strains we’re trying to help you grow. Plus, we’ll let you know which foods to avoid so that harmful bacteria don’t cause poor digestion, sexual dysfunction, and negatively impact your overall health. 

Resources

[1] McKie, Robin. “The Infertility Crisis Is beyond Doubt. Now Scientists Must Find the Cause.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 29 July 2017, www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jul/29/infertility-crisis-sperm-counts-halved.

[2] Office of Communications. “How Common Is Infertility?” Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 18 Feb. 2018, www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/infertility/conditioninfo/common.

[3] Huo, X., Chen, D., He, Y., Zhu, W., Zhou, W., & Zhang, J. (2015). Bisphenol-A and Female Infertility: A Possible Role of Gene-Environment Interactions. International journal of environmental research and public health12(9), 11101–11116. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph120911101.

[4] Dona, A., & Arvanitoyannis, I. S. (2009). Health risks of genetically modified foods. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition49(2), 164–175. https://doi.org/10.1080/10408390701855993.

[5] J.S.L. Cunha‐Filho, N.A. Lemos, F.M. Freitas, K. Kiefer, M. Faller, E.P. Passos, Insulin‐like growth factor (IGF)‐1 and IGF binding protein‐1 and ‐3 in the follicular fluid of infertile patients with endometriosis, Human Reproduction, Volume 18, Issue 2, February 2003, Pages 423–428, https://doi.org/10.1093/humrep/deg077.

[6] Jeong, Sang-Hee, et al. “Risk Assessment of Growth Hormones and Antimicrobial Residues in Meat.” Toxicological Research, The Korean Society of Toxicology, Dec. 2010, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3834504/.

[7] Bretveld, R. W., Thomas, C. M., Scheepers, P. T., Zielhuis, G. A., & Roeleveld, N. (2006). Pesticide exposure: the hormonal function of the female reproductive system disrupted?. Reproductive biology and endocrinology : RB&E4, 30. https://doi.org/10.1186/1477-7827-4-30.

[8] Ding, J., Shang, X., Zhang, Z., Jing, H., Shao, J., Fei, Q., Rayburn, E. R., & Li, H. (2017). FDA-approved medications that impair human spermatogenesis. Oncotarget8(6), 10714–10725. https://doi.org/10.18632/oncotarget.12956.

[9] “Expert Reaction to Poster Presentation (Unpublished Work) on Artificial Sweeteners and Fertility from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) Meeting.” Science Media Centre, 17 Oct. 2016, www.sciencemediacentre.org/expert-reaction-to-poster-presentation-unpublished-work-on-artificial-sweeteners-and-fertility-from-the-american-society-for-reproductive-medicine-asrm-meeting/.

[10] Tsuda, S., Murakami, M., Matsusaka, N., Kano, K., Taniguchi, K., & Sasaki, Y. F. (2001). DNA damage induced by red food dyes orally administered to pregnant and male mice. Toxicological sciences : an official journal of the Society of Toxicology61(1), 92–99. https://doi.org/10.1093/toxsci/61.1.92.

[11] Gorpinchenko, I., Nikitin, O., Banyra, O., & Shulyak, A. (2014). The influence of direct mobile phone radiation on sperm quality. Central European journal of urology67(1), 65–71. https://doi.org/10.5173/ceju.2014.01.art14.

[12] Maryann Kwa, Claudia S. Plottel, Martin J. Blaser, Sylvia Adams, The Intestinal Microbiome and Estrogen Receptor–Positive Female Breast Cancer, JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Volume 108, Issue 8, August 2016, djw029, https://doi.org/10.1093/jnci/djw029.

[13] Lee, H. K., Lee, J. K., & Cho, B. (2013). The role of androgen in the adipose tissue of males. The world journal of men’s health31(2), 136–140. https://doi.org/10.5534/wjmh.2013.31.2.136.

[14] “Overweight & Obesity Statistics.” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1 Aug. 2017, www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-statistics/overweight-obesity.

[15] “Bacterial Vaginosis and Fertility.” American Pregnancy Association, 20 Aug. 2020, americanpregnancy.org/getting-pregnant/bacterial-vaginosis-and-fertility-68826.