In my video, The Role of Diet in Declining Sperm Counts, I discussed the association between high saturated fat intake and reduced semen quality. But what’s the connection? One of the most recent papers on the topic found that a significant percentage of the saturated fat intake in the study was derived from dairy products. Residues of industrial chemicals may bioaccumulate up the food chain into animal fat, and some of these lipophilic (fat-loving) chemicals may have hormone-disrupting abilities.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency performed a national survey of persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic pollutants in the U.S. milk supply (highlighted in my video, Dairy Estrogen and Male Fertility). The EPA team noted that since milk fat is likely to be among the highest dietary sources of exposure to these pollutants, it’s important to understand the levels in the dairy supply. The team tested milk from all over the country and found a veritable witches brew of chemicals. They estimate that dairy products alone contribute about 30% to 50% of our dioxin exposure. And “like dioxin, other toxic pollutants tend to be widely dispersed in the environment, bioaccumulated through the food chain and ultimately result in low-level contamination in most animal fats.”
This may explain higher pollutant concentrations in fish eaters. Xenoestrogens like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are associated with the fats of fish or animal flesh and cannot be fully removed by washing and cooking, and so can accumulate in our fat, too. Xenoestrogens are chemicals with demasculinizing or feminizing effects. But even in a non-polluted world, animal foods also have actual estrogen, which are unavoidable constituents of animal products. All foodstuff of animal origin contains estradiol, which is at least 10,000-fold more potent than most xenoestrogens. Dietary exposure—meat, dairy products and eggs—to these natural sex steroids is therefore highly relevant, as the hormones in these animals are identical to our own.
Estrogens are present in meat and eggs, but the major sources are milk and dairy products. By drinking a glass of milk, a child’s intake of estradiol is 4,000 times the intake of xenoestrogens in terms of hormone activity. Modern genetically-improved dairy cows can lactate throughout their pregnancy. The problem is that during pregnancy, estrogen levels can jump as much as 30-fold.
Cheese intake has specifically been associated with lower sperm concentration, whereas dairy food intake in general has been associated with abnormal sperm shape and movement. Lower sperm concentrations by themselves may just represent a potential suppression of sperm production due to higher estrogen levels, but abnormal shape and movement suggests that dairy intake may be implicated in actual direct testicular damage.
While milk products supply most of our ingested female sex steroids, eggs are a considerable source as well, contributing about as much as meat and fish. This could be expected, as eggs are produced directly in the hens’ ovaries.
Meat may also contain added hormones. In the U.S. anabolic sex steroids may be administered to animals for growth promotion, a practice banned in Europe twenty-five years ago. A study in New York found progressively lower sperm counts associated with processed meat consumption. However, similar studies in Europe after the ban found the same thing, so it may not be the implanted hormones, but rather a consequence of other meat components, such as the saturated fat raising cholesterol levels.
We’ve known for decades that men with high cholesterol levels show abnormalities in their “spermiograms”: decreased sperm concentration, about a third of the normal sperm movement, and half the normal sperm shape. Twenty-five years later, we’re finding the same thing. In the largest study to date, higher blood cholesterol levels were associated with a significantly lower percentage of normal sperm. Cholesterol was also associated with reductions in semen volume and live sperm count. These results highlight the role of fats in the blood in male fertility, and should be of concern given the rising prevalence of obesity and cholesterol problems. Although a healthier diet may be associated with healthier sperm counts, cholesterol-lowering statin drugs do not seem to help.
What about the phytoestrogens in soy? See The Effect of Soy on Precocious Puberty.
More on hormones in dairy in:
Neurotoxic chemicals in the dairy supply have been blamed for neurological conditions as well. See my video Preventing Parkinson’s Disease with Diet.
Michael Greger, M.D.
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