Marijuana smoking makes sperm less fertile — even if the woman is the one who smokes it, a new study suggests. Research indicates the use of cannabis may affect human fertility, depending on gender, general health, socioeconomic status and several other factors.
Smoking Marijuana Lowers Fertility
Oct. 13, 2003 — Smoking marijuana makes sperm less fertile — even if the woman is the one who smokes it, a new study shows.
Marijuana-smoking college men volunteered for the study led by Lani J. Burkman, PhD, director of andrology at the University of Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
The smokers weren’t the only ones who got high. The drug affected their sperm, too. These stoned sperm party hard. And then? They burn out, researchers say.
“Marijuana-smoking men’s sperm are hyper. They are way out there,” Burkman tells WebMD. “They already have begun the vigorous swimming called hyperactivation. Sperm should be quiet at first. They should be waiting to be washed into cervix and approach the egg before they start hyperactivation.”
So the little guys are fast out of the gate, right? What’s wrong with a little head start?
“It is not a head start. They are going to blow it,” Burkman says. “They’re too fast, too early. Each individual sperm can maintain this swimming only so long, only several hours. Then it poops out. If it has run out of hyperactivation before it gets close to the egg, it will not fertilize. These sperm are going to burn out.”
Burkman announced the findings at this week’s meeting of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine.
Marijuana and Fertility Timing
When it comes to romance, timing is everything. That holds true for fertility, too, says Celia E. Dominguez, MD, of the Center for Reproductive Medicine at Emory University, Atlanta.
“The reason men have millions of sperm is because the fertility process is more difficult than people think,” Dominguez tells WebMD. “The whole process of ascending up the tract to the fallopian tubes and then finding the egg is delicately balanced.”
As the sperm approaches the egg, it receives a signal to start swimming — hard. This hyperactivation lets it push through the egg cover. Pooped out sperm don’t have a chance. Learn about more ways marijuana can affect fertility.
Of course, men who smoke marijuana do get women pregnant. But some men are more fertile than others, or are more fertile at different times of their lives. Smoking marijuana, Burkman warns, will make a borderline-infertile man frankly infertile.
“The marijuana-smoking men had significantly lower semen volume,” Burkman says. “Many had pretty low volume, about half the male norm. If they came to our clinic as patients, we’d tell them they are abnormal. . They are delivering significantly fewer sperm to the female when they have sexual intercourse.”
Burkman’s team studied only men. But she says that when women smoke marijuana, the active ingredient — THC — appears in their reproductive organs and vaginal fluids. Sperm exposed to this THC are likely to act just as sperm exposed to THC in the testes.
“When women smoke marijuana, nicotine, or other drugs, their reproductive fluids contain these drugs,” Burkman says. “The woman smoking marijuana is putting THC into her oviduct, into her cervix. If the man is not smoking but the woman is, his sperm go into her body and hit THC in the vagina, oviduct, and uterus. Her THC is changing his sperm.”
Dominguez says that Burkman’s study is more important than merely warning men and women to avoid marijuana if they want to get pregnant. She says that by learning how the reproductive tracts of men and women respond to different chemical signals, researchers will learn more about how to help people get pregnant — or even to avoid it.
SOURCES: Burkman, L.J. “Marijuana Impacts Sperm function both In Vivo and In Vitro: Semen analyses from Men Smoking Marijuana,” Conference, American Society of Reproductive Medicine, San Antonio, Texas, Oct. 11-15, 2003. Lani J. Burkman, PhD, director, andrology department, University of Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Buffalo, N.Y. Celia E. Dominguez, MD, Center for Reproductive Medicine, Emory University, Atlanta.
Effects of Cannabis on the Male and Female Reproductive System, and Fertility
Use of cannabis may affect human fertility, depending on gender, general health, socioeconomic status and several other factors. Here, we look at existing research on cannabis and human fertility, in order to provide readers with an accurate, up-to-date summary of the current state of scientific knowledge.
To understand how cannabis may affect fertility, we must understand the effect it has specifically on males and on females. We’ll start by looking at the effects on the male reproductive system, and then focus on the more complicated effects on female fertility.
Cannabis use and male fertility
Some studies on the effect of cannabis use on male fertility have indicated that regular use may reduce spermatogenesis (the production of sperm in the testes) and testosterone levels.
In 2012, the American Society of Andrology published a review of research on the effects of illicit drug use on male fertility. The researchers found that in the majority of studies, it was consistently concluded that cannabis use had a negative impact on male reproductive physiology.
Another study in 1992 (Vescovi et al.) found that levels of luteinizing hormone(LH), an important pituitary gland hormone involved in reproductive function, were reduced in male chronic cannabis users compared to a non-cannabis-using, age-matched control group. A previous 1986 study (Cone et al.) also found a significant reduction in LH levels immediately after smoking cannabis.
And an even earlier study (Kolodny et al, 1974) into testosterone levels in “chronic” cannabis users found that 6 of 17 subjects had oligospermia (low sperm count), and that average testosterone levels in the cannabis-using group were just over half that of the control group. The effect of cannabis on testosterone levels was observed to be dose-dependent.
Sexing Cannabis: Is My Plant Male or Female?
The endocannabinoid system and male fertility
Clearly, the endocannabinoid system has a role to play in the regulation of processes critical to male reproductive health, such as sperm count, testosterone levels, and levels of other key hormones such as LH.
For healthy adult males, it seems that use of THC does indeed cause some negative effects on fertility, which tend to increase with higher doses. However, THC’s endogenous analogue anandamide appears to be critical to the functioning of the male reproductive system.
The 2002 study found that sperm cells would bind to the agonist CP-55,940, demonstrating the presence of CB1-receptors. The study also concluded that the presence of THC and a synthetic anandamide analogue, AM-356, both reduced sperm motility in vitro. Interestingly, it was found that AM-356 exerted a biphasic dose-dependent effect on sperm motility, causing inhibition at high doses but hyperactivity at low doses.
Anandamide and the “capacitation” of human sperm cells
In a 1994 study, it was found that mammalian sperm, including that of humans, is actually incapable of fertilizing oocytes (eggs) immediately after leaving the testes. It requires a period of exposure to certain crucial hormones, enzymes and proteins on its journey through the vas deferens and ejaculatory ducts of the male reproductive system (as well as the reproductive fluids of the female vagina and oviducts) before becoming “capacitated” and able to fertilize an egg.
The 2002 study provides strong evidence that the presence of the anandamide in the seminal fluid, and its ability to bind to the CB1-receptors of the spermatozoa, are key to the “capacitation” of sperm cells on their way to the ejaculatory ducts. It has to be present in the appropriate concentrations, though. If the level of anandamide is too high, it can instead have a dramatic inhibitory effect on the sperm cells’ ability to fertilize oocytes.
How Does Cannabis Affect the Digestive System?
Why is anandamide beneficial, while THC may not be?
Although THC and anandamide are both agonists of the CB1-receptors, they greatly differ in structure and therefore have different effects on certain metabolic processes. Anandamide has a much shorter half-life than THC (just a few minutes for anandamide compared to as long as 24 hours for THC). So while anandamide will degrade shortly after it contacts a receptor, THC can remain in nearby adipose tissue for much longer periods, and can continue to stimulate the receptors, ultimately causing overstimulation and potential negative effects.
As is so often the case with cannabinoid science, dosage is everything—and it may prove to be the case that very small doses of THC could benefit males who have reproductive issues that can be tied to low levels of anandamide.
Cannabis use and female fertility
While the effect of cannabis use on male fertility appears to be quite straightforward—with male chronic cannabis users being likely to experience some degree of impairment to reproductive physiology—the effect on the human female reproductive system is less clear-cut.
Female reproductive health is vastly complex in itself, as it not only comprises the ability to become pregnant but also the ability to carry healthy offspring to term and successfully give birth.
Past research has indicated that cannabis use may disrupt the menstrual cycle, suppress oogenesis (production of eggs in the ovaries) and impair embryo implantation and development. Chronic use of cannabis has also been repeatedly associated with lower birth weight (as much as a 50% increased risk), decreased birth weight and early (spontaneous) termination of pregnancy.
However, most of these findings are far from conclusive. Either the study included very few participants or confounding factors such as tobacco use aren’t taken into consideration. In fact, more recent research, like this review on infants who were exposed to marijuana in-utero, concludes there aren’t any adverse risks.
For example, a 1985 paper on foetal abnormality (Qazi et al.) after prenatal exposure to cannabis discussed five infants whose mothers acknowledged use of cannabis prior to and during pregnancy and who were born with various symptoms of growth retardation, neurological dysfunction and deformity. While it may provide helpful insight, such a small sample size is far from being enough to draw concrete conclusions, and correlation does not imply causation.
Other studies seen as providing evidence that cannabis use can cause foetal abnormalities are animal studies (Geber & Schramm 1969, Phillipset al, 1971) in which rabbits, hamsters, rats and mice were injected with vast doses of crude cannabis extract (as much as 666mg/kg in one instance!). Such massive doses of cannabis would be practically impossible for a human to consume through conventional means, and are essentially useless as a point of comparison.
In fact, many early studies that indicated a correlation between use of cannabis (or other controlled substances such as cocaine) have been later contradicted by findings suggesting that socioeconomic status and level of poverty are far more causative of low birth weight and poor developmental outcome than use of the substances themselves. This doesn’t imply that use of cannabis or other substances during pregnancy has no adverse effect, but does give weight to the idea that the risks have been overestimated and overemphasized due to politics and anti-drug bias.