Making a baby. It should be simple. Healthy woman + healthy man + fresh sperm and young eggs full of vitality + sex = baby.
Yes, it should be like that, but unfortunately it’s not always that simple. There are exceptions whereby both the man and the woman are fertile and would successfully be able to conceive children with any other partner, but together their biochemistry intervenes. A very difficult (heartbreaking) situation. On rare occasions, the woman’s body goes into protective mode. It sees the sperm as a foreign body, an alien source entering to attack it, and in self-defense it produces anti-sperm antibodies to inhibit (kill) the sperm. This can happen at any level: the cervix, vagina, endocervical canal, uterine cavity, fallopian tubes or the eggs.
WHAT CAUSES EGG AND SPERM INCOMPATIBILITY?
1. ANTI-SPERM ANTIBODIES
It’s commonly thought that when antibodies are produced they are produced in all areas of the body. That’s not entirely correct. Yes, they can be produced everywhere, but that does not mean that they are produced everywhere simultaneously, nor that each area has the same concentration. For the antibodies to kill the sperm, the antibodies inhibiting the sperms’ movement needs to be localized (i.e to the sexual and reproductive organs).
That happens in all areas of the body. For example, tests can identify antibodies in the upper part of cervix, but in the lower part there may be none. Part of the solution is finding out why this occurs: why do antibodies exist in one part and not another at different times? The answer is not dissimilar to how people with hayfever are affected by pollen. One day they experience no symptoms, others they can’t stop sneezing, their eyes watering unstoppably. The pollen is present on both days, so why does it effect them on one, but not the other. It is frustrating, but it does give couples who are struggling to conceive hope.
2. CHEMOTACTIC PHENOMENON
The attraction between an egg and the sperm as the sperm approaches. This allows the sperm to circulate the egg as they try to enter the capsule; when one of them succeeds, it enters and fertilization occurs. If multiple sperm enter, it’s called Polyspermy. Unfortunately, this can produce an unhealthy embryo that is likely to die or develop congenital malformations or abnormality.
3. PH LEVEL
Is the chemistry within the locality (sexual and reproductive organs) normal or not? Sperm and eggs need to inhabit areas with a compatible PH level to their own in order to survive (7 / 7.1) – not too acidic, not too alkaline. If the balance is incorrect, the sperm will die. PH level is easily tested and, if needed, rectifiable. It shouldn’t cause long-term fertility problems so you should be able to successfully conceive.
The body’s PH level is very individual; what’s normal for one person is not for another so, as fertility specialists, we try not to generalize, instead suggesting individual testing and monitoring. It’s also variable, changing all of the time (influenced by menstrual cycles, hormonal changes, pre-ovulation, post-ovulation, dietary changes, cellular changes, stress levels etc.); all natural changes, sometimes increasing your changes of conceiving, sometimes reducing.
A DIFFERENT DAY, A DIFFERENT CHANCE
Interestingly our biochemistry is changing continuously, meaning that your compatibility and fertility levels will differ at different times of the month/year. This applies to both men and women. Therefore, just because you can’t conceive on one day, it doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to in a few days time, a months time etc.
CAN YOU MAKE YOUR EGGS AND SPERM MORE COMPATIBLE?
Not currently. However, if the cause is environmental or behavioral rather than the result of anti-sperm antibodies, it is possible to increase your chances of successfully conceiving. Health and beauty regimes are a great example. Sometimes, a couple’s inability to conceive is caused by something as simple as the fact that they’ve unknowingly been using regular health and beauty products that are acting as spermicides (able to kill sperm living in any atmosphere instantly) or changing the local PH level. They think they are making themselves more sexually attractive, pregnancy friendly, but the ingredients may be unwittingly be preventing them from successfully conceiving. When trying to conceive, the only thing you should use to wash locally is water or products approved by your gynaecologist. The same with vaginal suppositories and douches. If you experience any strange discharge, vaginal dryness or smell, don’t just go to the chemist or try to self-treat, seek advice first.
CONTROVERSIAL RESEARCH PROGRESSION GIVES HOPE
Research on animals, specifically growing cells on rat arms and legs to produce early embryos suggests that one day we won’t need the human body or womb to carry the baby. This could give hope to couples in this situation, particularly those with irreparable fertility problems. Similarly, whether one agrees with ‘designer babies’ or not, whereby you can choose eye colour, select gender, create stem cells to use in research to help cure a sibling with a debilitating (or potentially life threatening) illness, or to reduce the likelihood of inheriting genetic problems (e.g. cancer, chromosomal problems) etc., such scientific progressions may help to change the face of fertility treatments. It’s a very complicated subject. However, in the future it is possible that couples may look to change their DNA to counter their antibodies or sperm incompatibility in much the same way. There’s still a long way to go.
Cellular studies have to take a massive priority in our lives and research. By understanding cells, we can understand their behaviours and why they sometimes go into the wrong channels or behave abnormally (Mad Cells). It is a long way away, but eventually we will be able to prevent these antibodies from killing unassuming (non-volatile) sperm. Pharmaceutical companies have a major role to play in this. They need to open their eyes and become more humane; to stop inhibiting scientists from researching how to prevent illnesses and medical problems, despite curing them being a multi-billion pound industry to them. Prevention could earn them equally lucrative amounts of money and make people happier and healthier simultaneously.