Q: I've been a bodybuilder for about eight years now. I'm not ashamed to admit that I use androgenic steroids frequently. My wife and I have been trying to have a baby for a year with no success. She's taken tests and was found to be fine in the fertility department. I'm concerned that I may be infertile from using steroids. Do you know of any research that shows how likely steroid-using athletes are to impregnate their mates? I'm really anxious to have a son (a daughter would be fine, too, I guess), but I don't want to get off the juice and lose my muscle mass right now.
A: First of all, here are a couple of quotes from studies that will shed some light on how common it may be for men who use androgenic/anabolic steroids to pass on their seed.
Androgenic steroids induce hypogonadotrophic hypogonadism [shrinkage of testicles] with associated azoospermia [superlow sperm count], leading to infertility.
'Reproductive Medicine Unit, Liverpool Hospital, UK
Exogenous testosterone was found to exert negative feedback on the pituitary/gonadal axis and thereby suppress luteinizing hormone [LH, which stimulates the testes to produce sperm] secretion. Spermatogenesis was thus adversely affected.
'Institute of Epidemiology, University of Leeds, Yorkshire, UK
If fatherhood is really a priority in your life right now, your steroid use is not conducive in the least to increasing the earth's population. On the bright side, researchers have found that a hypogonadal state can be reversed in about 10 months' time after steroid withdrawal.
Your best bet would be to visit your health care provider and discuss your concerns. He or she will probably suggest a course of human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) after you go off steroids. According to some scientists, HCG helps your body recuperate by stimulating the testes to produce testosterone. There could be some negative feedback associated with HCG, however, so it will be important to have your hormones monitored closely.
Now here's some interesting information you probably weren't expecting. I'm offering it since it appears that you would rather conceive a male child than a female one.
My dear, late friend Dan Duchaine and I made an observation about five years ago. It seems as if most male bodybuilders father female children. Dan hypothesized it was due to excessive steroid use, but we could never pin down exactly why. That theory has intrigued me ever since, so I've spent a fair amount of time researching the science of X and Y chromosomes.
As you (and most IRONMAN readers) probably know, the X and Y chromosomes are the determiners of gender. Mothers carry two X chromosomes and fathers carry one copy each of the X and Y chromosomes. Sperm from the father has only half of the normal 23 pairs of chromosomes and carries either a single X or Y chromosome. The mother's egg also has half the normal complement of chromosomes and includes a single X chromosome. If a Y chromosome sperm fertilizes the egg, the baby is male because the resulting cells each have one Y and one X chromosome. If the X chromosome sperm fertilizes the egg, the child is a female with two X chromosomes in the cells.
So you see, to have a son, a man must have a sufficient quantity of sufficiently robust Y-chromosome-bearing sperm to fertilize the mother's egg. It seems that most bodybuilders, however, have fewer Y- than X-bearing sperm. That's because of a process called microdeletion of the Y chromosome.
Microdeletion of the Y chromosome can be total or partial. Obviously, with Y chromosomes there's a greater chance that the X-chromosome-bearing sperm will fertilize the egg and thus produce a female offspring. Scientists at the Institute for the Study of Fertility at the Tel Aviv Medical Center have studied men's fertility for more than a decade. They've found that there's a varying extent of Y-chromosome microdeletion among infertile patients who have superlow sperm count'and as mentioned above, steroid use can cause that condition.
Are you getting my drift? Your comment about having a son compelled me to mention these facts so that you'll be better prepared for the outcome of your wife's pregnancy. A child of any gender is a true blessing, as you will most likely find out firsthand.
As a side note, there are ways for men with microdeletion of the Y chromosome to conceive a male child through assisted reproductive techniques, and it can happen naturally as well; however, reports from researchers at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Prince of Wales Hospital, have shown that male infants conceived of Y-microdeleted males in either manner inherit the same Y-chromosome microdeletion as their fathers. That means the sons will have an increased risk of infertility and/or will more than likely conceive daughters than sons. (Not that having a daughter is a negative side effect, mind you.)
There's ongoing research to determine if the use of steroids'and their suppressing effects on natural testosterone production'has an effect on how many Y-chromosome-bearing sperm the testes will produce. There's also a theory that the mother's egg has the ability to choose which sperm it will allow to fertilize it. If that were the case, it would seem logical to presume that the egg would select the healthiest sperm rather than one that has a microdeleted chromosome in it.
I understand that this is a lot of information to digest and mull over. Bottom line: If you're serious about becoming a father soon, get off the juice as quickly as possible. Remember, it may take up to a year for your natural production of testosterone and sperm to reach normal levels. Consult with your physician about the prospect of infertility, and do a little research yourself into the best ways to start producing healthy sperm again. I wish you all blessings in your quest for parenthood. Believe me, your life will be changed forever'for the better.
Editor's note: Laura Moore is a science writer for IRONMAN and Penthouse magazines and www.ocnow.com. She's the host of the radio show 'The Health Nuts,' which airs in the southeastern United States. Address your sex-fitness-related questions to her by visiting www.thefitdiva.homestead.com.