Six years ago we were trying for our second child, and it was taking a long time. That’s when I got the bad news.
My sperm count was borderline low.
The doctor said we should keep trying, and see how it goes. Wear boxers, try to reduce some stress. That was about it.
Sure, I wasn’t a spring chicken. But at 33 this didn’t seem normal. I ate well, didn’t smoke, and exercised once or twice a week.
I’m not one to be complacent. So I dug into the scientific literature, looking for clues.
It turns out the doctor was onto something with his standard “wear boxers” advice. However, the issue was deeper than he may have realized, and the solution not quite so simple.
In my research I found the studies from France clearly showing that sperm are very sensitive to overheat, and body heat alone reliably damages and kills up to 90% of sperm. This is why our testicles hang outside our bodies. I also found the American studies showing that sitting and driving reliably raises testicular temperature by 2-3 degrees C regardless of boxers or briefs. And I found the more recent studies showing how varicocele and obesity are associated with elevated scrotal temperature.
This research changed my view of the situation. It became clear to me that many aspects of our so-called modern lives were doing the exact opposite of what the scrotum needs to stay cool!
But it didn’t seem like anyone was putting this information together, much less doing anything about it in a practical sense. Overheated testicles were inevitable it seemed.
Looking at my own life, I realized I had three risk factors for bad sperm.
I was one of 15% of men with a varicocele (a clump of extra veins in the scrotum that’s thought to cause higher temperatures due to more blood flow).
My extra body weight put me at a high BMI. And being an engineer, I spent most of my day sitting at a desk, probably cooking my balls.
That was when it hit me: I needed to develop a method of keeping my testicles cooler. The solution was so obvious, or so it seemed.
First I tried sitting on some frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel. It definitely cooled me down the first time, but was awfully cold and wet, and visions of green goo leaking everywhere had me on edge. Also after re-freezing the bag became sharp and completely unusable. So much for that method.
Next I tried wrapping a few different shapes of lunch ice packs in some scrap neoprene. At least they weren’t going to leak green pea juice all over the place. But none of them were comfortable, and they still seemed too cold. Nonetheless I kept applying an ice pack like this a couple of times each day while at work.
And a few months later, success! We became pregnant.
Whether cooling was the deciding factor or not in my case, I was convinced that I was on to something to make sperm better for a lot of men going through similar struggles.
I started developing a more advanced ice pack design. This new one would use a small wedge shaped ice pack to improve comfort, and a soft and thick multilayer insulating sleeve to provide just the right amount of cooling. Several iterations later it evolved into the design known today as The Underdog.
My experience convinced me that overheat is a critical problem that’s being under-served by the fertility community. The physiology and the evidence make sense: our scrotum evolved to hang outside of our bodies to stay cool. Yet our modern lives are stopping our natural cooling mechanisms from working.
So much focus is on IVF at the moment. But I know there’s so much more we can do to understand and work with our natural physiology, in order to help men and couples to conceive naturally. This is why we’ve started working with a network of the top male fertility experts in Silicon Valley, Canada, and the UK. The work is just beginning.