Strong back, weak sperm - Studies reveal okra can lead to infertility in men of reproductive age

WHILE the steamed fish and okra dish is lauded in Jamaican culture as the ideal meal to boost a man's virility, recent studies have revealed that the seeds of the okra plant actually contain a substance that reduces the chances of a man impregnating a woman.

“In some countries, men actually take it to decrease their fertility,” said Dr Vernon DaCosta, director of the Hugh Wynter Fertility Management Unit (HWFMU) at the University Hospital of the West Indies in an interview with All Woman last Tuesday.

“There are a number of studies coming out of Lagos, Nigeria, which have identified the substance and recognised that it suppresses sperm count. It also affects the motility of the sperm too.”

Motility refers to the ability of sperm cells to move efficiently, Dr DaCosta explained.

“Even if the count is high and the motility is low, the sperm won't penetrate the egg, and it actually takes about 100,000 sperm cells to break down one egg.”

One study, conducted by researchers at the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria and published in the International Journal of Advanced Biological and Biomedical Research, compared the testes and sperm characteristics of a group of rats who were fed okra over time, to those of a group of rats who weren't.

It concluded: “There was a significant decrease in sperm count and sperm motility with a corresponding increase in the percentage number of abnormal sperm cells. The histology of the testes showed degenerating testicular tissues. From the result, we therefore conclude that consistent consumption of [okra] may be destructive to the testes and as such, could impair male fertility.”

Dr DaCosta maintained, however, that the okra plant itself is not dangerous.

“Okra is good. It's a good plant. It has a lot of vitamins and fibre, but in the seed of the okra is a substance called gossypol, which is detrimental to sperm count if eaten in sufficient quantities.”

While Dr DaCosta is not saying that men should stop eating okra, he recommends that men, especially those who may have low sperm count, avoid eating the okra seeds.

“You can take out the seeds and have the okra, as there are lots of benefits to be had from eating the okra,” he said.

Nutritionist Janique Watts listed some of the numerous health benefits.

“Okra is a natural and notable source of insoluble fibre, folate, vitamin K and antioxidants. It also contains niacin, iron and phosphorus. The insoluble fibre found in the skin is said to help rid the body of excess glucose and cholesterol which both can lead to unwanted weight gain and obesity, which therefore reduces the risk of developing non-communicable diseases like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes,” she said.

She added: “The folate is an important factor for healthy neurological (brain and nerve function) development in the foetus of pregnant mothers. Vitamin K helps with the body's natural blood clotting process. It also facilitates the uptake of calcium in the body which helps to increase bone density. Okra contains antioxidants such as flavonoids that help to reduce the risk of cancer.”

Dr DaCosta and his team at HWFMU have, however, taken it upon themselves to conduct a thorough study on okra and how it affects Jamaican men.

“What we are planning to do here is our own research on Jamaican men to see what the real effect of okra on semen analysis is. We are currently working on a protocol. Once we get it past ethics, then we will set a timeline,” he said.

DR DACOSTA... In some countries, menactually take it to decrease their fertility(Photo: Joseph Wellington)

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