Male hormones are complex and nuanced, just as female hormones are. It’s not something most people think about every day, which means hormonal health is often ignored until something is wrong. Too much or not enough of any given hormone can wreak havoc on a man’s reproductive system and overall health, even after puberty. If you want to get pregnant now or in the future, it’s smart to begin thinking about your hormones and taking steps to keep them balanced.
Below, you’ll learn about which male hormones impact fertility and what happens when they become imbalanced.
Where do male hormones come from?
Before we look at which male hormones affect fertility, let’s look at how the endocrine system in the male body works. The endocrine system is a collection of glands that release hormones into the blood system. As outlined by The Hormone Health Network, the main glands that produce hormones in men are:
- Hypothalamus — The hypothalamus is responsible for body temperature, hunger, moods and the release of hormones from other glands; and also controls thirst, sleep and sex drive.
- Parathyroid — This gland controls the amount of calcium in the body.
- Thymus — This gland plays a role in the function of the adaptive immune system and the maturity of the thymus, and produces T-cells.
- Pancreas — This gland produces the insulin that helps control blood sugar levels.
- Thyroid — The thyroid produces hormones associated with calorie burning and heart rate.
- Adrenal — Adrenal glands produce the hormones that control sex drive and cortisol, the stress hormone.
- Pituitary — Considered the "master control gland," the pituitary gland controls other glands and makes the hormones that trigger growth.
- Pineal — Also called the thalamus, this gland produces serotonin derivatives of melatonin, which affects sleep.
- Testes — The testes produce the male sex hormone, testosterone, and produce sperm.
Male hormones affect everything from fertility and sex drive to emotional regulation and muscle mass (or lack thereof), just like female hormones do. However, while women have a month-long hormonal cycle (averaging at about 28-days but sometimes lasting as long as 35 days), males go through a hormonal cycle every 24 hours.
This causes more rapid changes in the hormonal landscape of your body and an imbalance could lead to problems like obesity, excess stress, exhaustion, irritability, and a lowered libido. In turn, all of these issues can have a significant impact on your ability to produce enough healthy sperm to fertilize an egg.
Which hormones affect fertility in men?
Though hormones can be classified into general categories like “sex hormones” or “energy hormones,” they all play a role in the overall harmony of the male endocrine system. If your primary concern is fertility, it’s important to understand which hormones are involved and the role they play in reproduction.
When you think of male hormones, testosterone is likely the first to come to mind. This is because it affects nearly every process in a man’s body. Its main function, though, is controlling sexual and reproductive health. A steady supply of testosterone is released by the Leydig cells in the testicles and stimulates sperm production.
Too little testosterone could lead to a condition called hypogonadism, which can be treated with hormone replacement therapy. Too much testosterone can convert to the female hormone estrogen, which can lead to mood swings, shrunken testicles, and breast enlargement.
Luteinizing Hormone (LH)
Above, we talked about testosterone being produced from Leydig cells in the testes. Luteinizing Hormone is a gonadotropic hormone that is released from the pituitary gland and stimulates testosterone production in the testicles, allowing it to perform its necessary functions. Too much or too little Luteinizing Hormone can cause infertility, so it’s important to have a balance. If you’re unsure, ask your doctor about getting a blood test to measure your LH levels.
Follicle-Stimulating Hormone (FSH)
FSH or follicle-stimulating hormone is another gonadotropic hormone. Its primary role is to interact with the Sertoli cells (part of a seminiferous tubule in the testes) to stimulate sperm production. Testosterone and inhibin regulate the production of FSH and are crucial in controlling the hormonal cycle involved in making sperm.
Too much FSH is a sign of testicular failure and can indicate that your testosterone levels are low. This prevents the healthy production and maturation of sperm and is a sign of infertility. Likewise, having low levels of the follicle-stimulating hormone can cause limited sperm production and make fathering a child more difficult. There are tests available to detect FSH deficiencies that your doctor may recommend if they suspect a problem.
Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH)
Before FSH or LH are released, the hypothalamus creates gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). This prompts the pituitary gland to create FSH and LH, respectively. It’s relatively rare for the hypothalamus to produce less GnRH than necessary. It can happen, though. In men, low levels of GnRH can cause loss of sperm production and lowered hormonal production from the testes. It’s not known what would happen if too much GnRH was produced.
Which Endocrine Disruptors Affect Male Hormones?
In order to keep your hormones healthy and well-regulated, you’ll need to be vigilant about keeping them balanced. Hormone disruptors are substances that can be absorbed into the body and cause your endocrine system to become imbalanced, affecting everything from your metabolism to your fertility. These harmful pollutants and chemicals aren’t just found in obvious things like cigarettes — many different products contain them.
Some common endocrine disruptors that affect fertility (and where you can find them) include:
- Bisphenol A (BPA) is found in plastic water bottles and food containers, tin cans, receipts.
- Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) is an insecticide found in meat, fish, and dairy products.
- Dioxins are one of the most prevalent chemicals known to disrupt male reproductive health. It is found in everything from bleached coffee filters, animal protein, household cleaners, personal care products (specifically those containing triclosan, disposable napkins, and paper towels.
- Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) is a chemical found in contaminated meat, dairy products, and fish (especially Catfish, buffalo fish, and carp).
- Phthalates are a group of chemicals that can cause testosterone production to become inhibited, as well as the function of Leydig cells, which plays a role in the creation of sperm and the quality of the sperm. It’s commonly found in non-organic food, personal care products like lotion, cologne, and shaving cream, paint, and household cleaners.
- Phytoestrogens are a type of estrogen known to reduce sperm count and are found in soybeans, flax seeds, sesame seeds, oats, pesticides, industrial chemicals.
- Atrazine is an herbicide found in corn, sugarcane, pineapples, and sorghum.
- Mercury is found in seafood, specifically mackerel, swordfish, and shark.
- Bisphenol S (BPS) is a replacement for BPA that is just as hazardous and is found in plastic water bottles and food containers.
Hormones play such an integral role in the male body. It’s easy to ignore your hormones when everything seems fine but the best method of protection is prevention. In order to prevent hormonal imbalances or correct them quickly if they do happen, it’s a good idea to have hormonal testing done. This can also help you make sure everything is good to go before you and your partner start trying to get pregnant.