This popular pain reliever could impact male fertility

Short-term use isn’t a problem. Long-term use however may come with lots of side effects.

Ibuprofen.
Credit: Vnukko, Pixababy.

Generally, when a couple is trying to have a baby, the focus is put on the woman’s health. But today, more and more, fertility specialists are learning that the male’s contribution is almost as important, and male health as a consequence just as impactful. Fifteen percent of couples globally wrestle with infertility. Among these, male infertility is solely responsible for about 20-30% of cases, while it contributes to 50% of them.


Another cause for concern, male fertility in industrialized countries has been falling for the last four decades or more. This dip is occurring in both sperm quality and count. Why it’s happening is still a mystery. A more sedentary lifestyle, a growing obesity epidemic, chemicals in the environment such as aluminum or PCBs from consumer products, and many other aspects have been blamed. But so far no definitive reason has been found.

Now, a new study finds a culprit in a place we never considered: over-the-counter pain relievers and in particular, ibuprofen. This is the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) found in popular brands such as Advil, Motrin, and Bayer. The results of this study were published in the journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

A high, consistent level of the drug in the system over an extended period interfered with the production of testosterone. Though men and women both have it, in a man’s reproductive system testosterone is necessary for proper sperm production. A low testosterone level may mean a lower sperm count, leading to infertility or subfertility.


Male fertility has been falling steadily in industrialized countries for four decades or more. Credit: Getty Images.

Understand that one dose to relieve a headache isn’t likely to damage a man’s fertility. Instead, the study focused on long-term use, such as taking the maximum dosage, 1,200mg daily, over the course of six weeks. In the US, the highest recommended dosage is 800mg four times a day for two weeks.

This was a combined Danish and French study. Researchers recruited 31 men ages 18 to 35, and had them randomly take either two 600 mg doses of ibuprofen per day or a placebo, over the course of six weeks. Those who took the actual drug were more likely to experience a problem in the testes known as “compensated hypogonadism.” This condition is more common in older men and affects reproductive health.

Those who took the painkiller also had 23% more luteinizing hormone (LH). The pituitary gland in the brain secretes LH in order to increase testosterone production. Yet, the testosterone level in volunteers’ bloodstreams didn’t change. So researchers say, the body tried to compensate for a loss of testosterone in the testes, by producing more LH.

Luteinizing hormone can replace testosterone but only in the short term. By examining testicular tissue in the lab provided by organ donors, researchers found that consistent ibuprofen use could curb testosterone production there. The effect was mild and it may be reversed simply through ceasing the medication. But so far, that remains to be seen.


Researchers looking at testicular tissue in the lab found that long-term ibuprofen use blocked testosterone production and so affected fertility. Credit: Getty Images.

David Møbjerg was the lead author of the study. He’s an environmental health scientist at the University of Copenhagen. “Our immediate concern is for the fertility of men who use these drugs for a long time,” he told Quartz. If taken properly short-term for minor aches and pains, the NSAID is thought to be well-tolerated with few side effects. Yet, this study’s results call into question long-term use, such as for serious pain-related conditions, like arthritis.

It’s important to note that this was a small study. More and larger ones must be conducted to confirm the results. It was also a short-term one. Would the same effect occur over a longer period of time? And what about the dosage? Would a much smaller dose have the same effect?

This isn't the first study to link ibuprofen use with fertility issues. Previous research has found that taking a high dose of ibuprofen long-term can cause such problems in women, too. One particular study discovered that ibuprofen taken during the first trimester of pregnancy can affect the testicular development of a male fetus. Outside the realm of fertility, long-term ibuprofen use can lead to bleeding in the digestive tract and a higher risk of heart attack or stroke.

Today, it isn’t recommended to take more than 1,200 mg over the course of one day, and men and women shouldn’t take the drug for more than three days consecutively, without consulting a doctor first.

To learn more about this study, click here:

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

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  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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