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Folic Acid Linked To Male Fertility

(HealthScout) -- Lack of folic acid in the diet could be causing fertility problems in men, claims a new study.

But others call the conclusion a stretch.

Folic acid, also known as vitamin B-9, is found in vegetables, orange juice and fortified grains such as breakfast cereal. It previously has been linked to the healthy development of babies in pregnant women.

Now, California researchers say they found that men with low sperm counts also were deficient in one type of folic acid. In some cases, low sperm counts can make men less fertile.

"It suggests that folic acid has some importance for male reproductive health," says study co-author Lynn Wallock, an assistant research scientist at the Children's Hospital of Oakland Research Institute.

But Dr. Paul Turek, an associate professor of urology at the University of California, San Francisco, says sperm count is only one part of a man's reproductive ability. Plus, he says, there's no way to know whether the men in the study actually could have children.

"Sperm counts don't have to be normal for men to be fertile," Turek says.

The study, which looked at 24 smokers and 24 nonsmokers, also suggests that low folic acid levels could be related to problems with the DNA that is inside sperm, Wallock says. And that, she says, could lead to babies with birth defects or cancer. Details of the study appear in a recent issue of Fertility & Sterility.

"In some instances, we may see that the number of sperm is OK, but the DNA inside the cell is not," Wallock says. "The sperm cell is delivering a package that contains the DNA. It could be that the package gets delivered just fine, but once the DNA gets inserted, there may be mistakes in it."

But that finding has drawn protest, as well.

Turek says the study simply is too preliminary to suggest a potentially alarming link between folic acid levels and birth defects.

Such speculation is "far too premature," he says.

And Peter Sutovsky, a staff scientist with the Oregon Health Sciences University, says the California study may needlessly make some smokers fear they'll pass along cancer to their children. The study found that smokers have lower levels of one kind of folic acid.

Smokers in the study actually had higher sperm counts than the nonsmokers, Sutovsky says. He speculates that the body might have a failsafe mechanism that orders the production of more sperm cells if it detects some defective ones.

Sutovsky, Wallock and Turek do agree that a proper diet is important to the reproductive health of men.

"Infertile men should eat well, sleep well, reduce their stress and treat their body as a temple," Turek says. "Good reproductive health is good overall health."

Wallock suggests that men should follow federal recommendations and eat five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables each day.

It's likely, she says, that many more men are getting enough folic acid because in 1998 the government began requiring that certain foods be fortified with the nutrient.

"However, the full impact of fortification is unclear," she says. "Also, men with certain gastrointestinal disorders or who drink a lot of alcohol or take antifolate drugs [such as those used in chemotherapy] would be expected to be at greater risk [of not getting enough]."

If you're having trouble making a baby, watch your diet -- whether you're male or female. Wallock says little research has been done into possible connections between nutrition and male reproductive health, but it doesn't hurt to eat right.

Still, don't overdo it, she says. It's difficult, but not impossible, to get sick from eating too much folic acid, she adds.

To learn more about infertility, check out information provided by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine or the International Council on Infertility Information Dissemination.

For more on folic acid, take a look at information from the National Library of Medicine.


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