WEDNESDAY, July 23, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Eating half a serving of soy food a day lowers sperm concentrations and may play a role in male infertility, particularly in obese men, Harvard University researchers report.
The reason for this relationship between soy and sperm count isn't clear. However, researchers speculate that soy increases estrogen activity, which may have a negative affect on sperm production and also interfere with other hormonal signals.
"There have been a lot of interest in estrogen and isoflavones in particular and a potential relationship to fertility and other reproductive disorders," said lead researcher Dr. Jorge Chavarro, a research fellow in the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Research in animals has shown that isoflavones and estrogen can have a potentially negative affect on reproduction, including decreased fertility, Chavarro said. However, there is very little evidence of how these findings apply to humans, he said.
The new research, he added, lends support to how results of animal studies apply to humans. But Chavarro considers the findings preliminary and inconclusive. "It's way too early to say stop eating soy foods," he said. "It's not time to worry about whether you're eating too much soy. There's not enough information to conclusively say that. "
His report was published in the July 24 online edition of the journal Human Reproduction.
For the study, Chavarro and colleagues collected data on 99 men who attended a fertility clinic for evaluation. The men were asked about how much of 15 soy-based foods they ate in the past three months.
The foods men were asked about included tofu, tempeh, tofu or soy sausages, bacon, burgers, soy milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream and other soy products like roasted nuts and energy bars.
Because different foods have different levels of isoflavones, half a serving of soy is equal to about one cup of soy milk or one serving of tofu or soy burgers every other day, Chavarro noted.
Chavarro's team found that men who ate the most soy had 41 million fewer sperm per milliliter of semen compared with men who did not eat soy foods. Normal sperm counts range between 80 million and 120 million per milliliter, according to a press release from the journal, a monthly publication of the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology.
In addition, the researchers found that the link between soy and sperm concentration was stronger among overweight and obese men. Overweight and obese men produce more estrogen than thinner men, and soy may increase those estrogen levels even further, they speculated.
Moreover, the link between soy and sperm concentration was strongest in men with higher sperm concentrations. Men who have normal or high sperm counts may be more susceptible to soy foods than men with low sperm counts, Chavarro said.
Infertility expert Dr. Hossein Sadeghi-Nejad, an associate professor of urology at UMDNJ New Jersey Medical School and Hackensack University Medical Center, agreed that soy may be one factor affecting fertility, especially in overweight and obese men.
"When patients are overweight, the fat tissue converts male hormones to more female hormones," Sadeghi-Nejad said. "So, it is possible that the combination of this estrogenic source [soy] and the extra internal estrogen that is caused by the conversion of androgen to estrogen through the fat has a more deleterious effect in that group of patients."
In addition, Sadeghi-Nejad noted that although sperm counts decreased most among men who have the highest counts, that should not affect fertility, since sperm counts were still in the normal range.
"But this is a good reminder that if you have an overweight patient, with abnormal semen parameters, and a very high soy intake, it may be wise for them to decrease this factor," Sadeghi-Nejad said.
For more about obesity and infertility, visit the Obesity Action Coalition.