There are a lot of myths about weed and your sperm count; here’s what you need to know about marijuana and fertility
Photo by Westend61/Getty Images
Cannabis has been touted as an aphrodisiac and sexual enhancer for decades. Between infused lubricants and CBD supplements for sexual health, many couples bringing this ancient remedy into the bedroom in surprising and modern new ways. Yet, while the plant has a reputation for setting the mood, it likely won’t help you get pregnant. Emerging data suggest that the herb may reduce sperm counts in men and potentially make it harder for women to conceive. The entire story, however, is far more complicated than it initially appears.
There has been a lot of debate regarding whether or not cannabis can impact male fertility. First and foremost, cannabis consumers have been successfully having children for centuries. Yet, when it comes down to the research, not much is known about whether or not the plant has a negative impact on your junk. Thus far, however, the research suggests that marijuana may not do much for enhancing fertility.
As recently as December of 2018, scientists from Duke University Medical Center published research that suggested that smoking cannabis may contribute to genetic changes in developing sperm. The change was related to overall growth and growth of organs over time. Although, scientists still aren’t sure whether or not these changes have a meaningful impact on future children. Meanwhile, another study published in December of 2017 reported that neither cannabis-consuming men or women had any more trouble conceiving than the average person. So, what gives?
If you’re a young man, marijuana may not be the best remedy for a low sperm count. Apparently, smoking pot on the regular may change the size and shape of your sperm. Back in 2014, researchers from the University of Sheffield discovered that young men who use cannabis are more likely to have strange-looking sperm. The more abnormal sperm cells you have, the more difficult it is to conceive.
The Sheffield study is one of the largest to date exploring lifestyle impacts on fertility. In the study, 2,249 men from 14 fertility clinics around the United Kingdom were sent home with a detailed lifestyle questionnaire. Of the participants, 318 men had low counts of healthy sperm. When researchers reviewed the questionnaire results from men with low sperm count, they found a couple of interesting things.
First, samples from men who ejaculated during the summer were twice as likely to have low sperm. Second, if the man in question was under 30, then it was likely that he had used cannabis within three months prior to getting his sperm tested. To lead author Dr. Allan Pacey, the results were notable. He told The Independent:
“We found that cannabis doubled the risk of men under 30 having poor sperm – statistically, it jumped out of the analysis. I think it’s a real effect, and it’s not been shown before in such a robust way.”
The Sheffield study may be the largest study on cannabis and male fertility, but it is far from the only one. A year after it was published, a Danish study of 1,215 young men found that cannabis use more than once weekly was associated with a 29 percent drop in total sperm count. In even earlier studies, researchers suggested that regular cannabis use seems to cause sperm to swim toward an egg just a little “too fast and too early”, to quote lead researcher Dr. Lani J. Burkman. One could say, under the influence of cannabis, sperm seem to be a little over-excited and premature in their enthusiasm.
But, don’t get too disheartened! There’s some good news. It takes around 42 to 76 days for sperm to regenerate. If you’re looking to start a family and you haven’t had success, laying off the herb until your body produces a new round of troops might help get things back to normal. Having your sperm tested at a fertility clinic may provide you with information regarding the health status of your little swimmers. Plus, even if you do smoke marijuana regularly, you may still have plenty of healthy sperm needed to conceive. In addition and perhaps needless to say, cannabis should not replace condoms or other proven methods of birth control.
One reason why cannabis may have such a profound influence on sperm development is due to testosterone. Testosterone is the main male sex hormone, and it is secreted primarily by the testicles. The hormone is responsible for sperm development, as well as the maintenance of male bodily characteristics. Chest hair? A five-o-clock shadow? Your Adam’s apple? You have testosterone to thank for all of these physical traits.
As it turns out, the male body tightly regulates the production of testosterone. Many men, especially bodybuilders, like to increase their levels of testosterone to enhance muscle tone and physical appearance. Yet, the body will naturally halt testosterone production when levels of the hormone get too high. Similarly, when testosterone levels are too low, a brain region called the hypothalamus will kickstart the creation of the sex hormone.
Here’s where cannabis comes in—the active compounds in the plant may block the stimulation of testosterone at the brain level. In fact, early research has shown that THC can decrease the release of a hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) by the hypothalamus. GnRH is the signaling molecule that ultimately triggers cells in the testes to start producing testosterone. Blocking GnRH can, in turn, reduce the production of both male and female sex hormones. For men, using marijuana regularly has been associated with lower levels of circulating testosterone. Even a single smoke sesh can cause a temporary decrease in the levels of the sex hormone moving throughout the body.
Before you freak out, however, the impact of cannabis on testosterone and sperm development is more complicated than you might expect. For example, some human studies have found that marijuana-consuming men also showed elevated testosterone in some cases. Further, low levels of testosterone may ultimately cause cells in the hypothalamus to become less sensitive to cannabinoid compounds, potentially kickstarting production of the hormone once again. All of these molecules influence each other in a feedback loop, meaning that they constantly adjust to maintain just the right balance that the body needs to remain fertile. So, the take-home point, here? While it is possible that cannabis may have an impact on your fertility, researchers frankly don’t know all of the details quite yet. If your partner is having trouble getting pregnant, however, this early evidence suggests that laying off the herb might be a good idea.