We Asked Three Doctors How Illegal Drugs Affect Your Sperm
The older you get, the less wise it is to habitually use cocaine, meth, weed, acid, or heroin—especially if you're planning on having a child in the near future. We got an expert panel to explain just what drugs will do to your "little swimmers."
Photo via Flickr User Imagens Evangelicas
Life is full of hard truths. One of the hardest is that you can only party for so long before your body starts asking you nicely to please chill out, or you accumulate so many responsibilities that drinking five beers and popping a molly just isn't wise anymore. And when you decide you're ready for the ultimate responsibility, having a kid, you'll have to hope your genetic material isn't so damaged from shoving coke mixed with Ajax into random orifices that your offspring have to suffer serious medical problems.
But what if you knew how badly you're screwing your body up before it's too late? Not to get all Daren the Lion on you, but I asked two reproductive experts—Dr. Ricardo Yazigi of Shady Grove Fertility Center in Maryland and Dr. David Nudell, a Bay Area-based male reproductive urologist—plus Fernando Caudevilla (also known as Dr. X, the drug whisperer) to explain the way drug use can negatively impact sperm. The general consensus is that the use of just about every illicit drug causes damage to the testicles and prevents the creation of testosterone—the linchpin substance for the entire male reproductive system.
For the purposes of this piece, we leaned heavily on a 2012 study called "The Insults of Illicit Drug Use in Male Fertility" from the American Society of Andrology's Journal of Andrology, which is available here.
According to the 2009 National Study on Drug Use and Health, marijuana has the highest usage rate of any illicit drug in the United States, which means you probably have all or some of these problems with your sperm.
The cannabinoid compounds in marijuana are actually synthesized by the human body, so our cells have natural receptors for them. If the cannabinoids latch onto cells in the testes or the sperm themselves, some unwanted side effects could occur and ruin your day. According to Dr. Yazigi:
"About 33 percent of chronic users will have low sperm counts. Binding of the active components and metabolites of marijuana to receptors on sperm themselves has also been shown to lead to decreasing motility rates. What is less clear are the effects of more occasional users—no good studies have been done but the prevailing thought is that while these men will have rapid recovery to their sperm function with briefer cessation in use, they should avoid use when trying to get pregnant as well."
Coke is, of course, the legendary "boner killer," in that it causes vasoconstriction (the narrowing of blood cells), which leads to erectile dysfunction. It's difficult to pinpoint what else it does, because any studies done on human beings are going to be complicated by the fact that cocaine just makes you want to party more. I asked Dr. Yazigi why we don't have more information on coke's effects, and he responded that human tests aren't pure "because most of the time there's coexistence of the use of cocaine along with alcohol and cigarettes and other drugs, so the single cocaine users are almost a rarity." Also, he reminded me that you can't force a group of people to do cocaine and then reproduce. You know, ethically.
Animal studies have been done that conclude that there are receptors for coke in the testicles and sperm. "There's abnormal anatomy of the testicular tissue. There's degeneration of a number of cells," Dr. Yazigi said. Dr. Nudell went a step further and said those animal trials revealed that there might be transmission of cocaine through the sperm to the female egg. "Effects of this phenomenon are not known but certainly could lead to early miscarriage."
For clarity's sake, when discussing opiates, I mean heroin, oxycontin, vicodin, etc. Long term use of opiates can lead to issues with the reproductive system due to suppression of the hormone GnRH, which Dr. Nudell says, "is normally secreted by the hypothalamus (the organ that controls the pituitary gland.)" That means a decline in LH (luteinizing hormone) and FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) secretion from the pituitary gland—a fancier way of saying the body doesn't produce the sperm it needs to make a baby. There's also evidence that opiate addiction can lead to fragmentation of DNA within sperm and can cause shoddy fertilization rates or miscarriage.
It almost goes without saying that if you are habitually using meth, reproducing should be low on your priority list. Fixing your teeth and paying your parents back all the money you stole from their retirement fund should take precedence. Also, stop wearing that goddamn beanie. It's not 2006 anymore, and you are not Jesse Pinkman. You are a real person and you smell like a bucket full of wet pennies. Still, if you must crank out a kiddie, you can expect "direct damage to the seminiferous tubules," which is the support system for the testis. Once again, that means lowered testosterone production. Plus, the sperm themselves can be harmed by vascular constriction and blood flow issues. Dr. X claimed that the "main problem of amphetamine and amphetamine derivatives is the risk of cardiovascular alterations (heart deformity) in offspring."
What about conceiving a child... on acid!? Probably not a great plan, but no one really knows for sure. Dr. Nudell told me that "most studies of LSD do not show an effect on sperm. Many studies have been done to look for DNA changes in both non-sperm and sperm cells but have been inconclusive." Dr. X included mushrooms and ketamine in his statement on LSD's relative lack of effect on reproduction. In other words: Carry on, Blue Boy, but be wary.
If you're lucky enough to get real MDMA and not some bunk shit from the guy behind the port-a-potty at Nocturnal Wonderland, you're still going to have some issues with your semen. There's not a ton of conclusive research done on MDMA, but Dr. Yazigi told me that it can screw up the production of testosterone, just like pretty much everything on this list. He said, "There may be sperm DNA damage, degeneration of the tissue within the testicles. Sperm motivity (the ability for the sperm to swim effectively toward the egg) is preserved, but the sperm count may be decreased." That's similar to cocaine, except, as he stated, "motivity is also decreased. Here it's just the sperm numbers, the production of sperm in essence."
That means the sperm still move around normally, but there just aren't as many, which wrecks your chances of actually impregnating someone. As with meth, MDMA can lead to heart abnormalities in children.
If you've properly processed all of that information and still can't kick your habit, but you want to give your sexual partner some quality sperm, Dr. Yazigi explained that it takes awhile to clear affected sperm from your system:
"So the theory was that if a man was exposed to testosterone and because of that reason, he had lost sperm, then you would expect that within three to six months, you will have normal spermatogenesis again. You'll have normal sperm. The fact of the matter is that there's a number of men for whom it may take a few years to go back to a normal sperm count."
If you want to put that molly down and wait a few years, you might be better off.
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