Healthy sperm for fertility

At the start of Men’s Health Week, we’re looking at how healthy sperm can increase your chance of your plans to have a baby, either through natural conception, or with fertility treatment. Male infertility is the reason for around a third of couples who need fertility treatment. And when you factor in ‘unexplained infertility’, about half of all fertility treatment for male/female couples is because of male factor infertility.

If a male/female couple is planning to get pregnant, the woman may already be watching her weight, improving her diet, and taking folic acid as part of the preparation. But the male partner may be asking: ‘What can I do to improve our chance of success?’.  Here are some ideas about how a man can improve the quality of his sperm and ensure he is doing everything possible to optimise the chance of a positive outcome.

Reach and maintain a healthy weight

Body fat is closely associated with the production of male reproductive hormones.  Too much or too little body fat can cause an imbalance in testosterone and oestrogen levels. Any change in a man’s hormones can affect his sperm and its production.  Body Mass Index (BMI) is calculated as weight divided by height then squared, and should be below 35 and ideally between 20 and 25.  But BMI isn’t the only factor a healthcare professional may consider about your weight.  For example, as muscle weighs more than fat, some body-builders or athletes may have a higher than ‘ideal’ BMI and so it is only one indication of a healthy weight.

Exercise – but don’t over-do it

Exercise, especially if it involves movement of the legs, improves pelvic blood flow, which in turn helps keep the scrotum cool, and so improves how your testicles function.

Moderate exercise is good for both partners, but exercising to any extreme is not recommended as it can compromise both male and female fertility.

Strive to be emotionally balanced

Stress increases the production of cortisol in the body which leads to changes in male hormones.  Cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone and works with parts of your brain to control your mood, motivation, and fear. Any way of reducing levels of stress will improve your overall wellbeing and in turn may help you to conceive.  Therapies such as yoga, hypnotic relaxation or massage can help relieve stress – and massage also has the added benefit of increasing blood circulation.  But walking is also good for this.

Eat a balanced diet and stay hydrated

A sensible, healthy diet that includes more fresh, raw, vegetables and fruit and less red meat can help improve sperm counts and motility.

Also drink at least two litres of water a day.

Decrease the dairy

A study[1] examined the impact of dairy intake on sperm and found that as dairy intake increased, semen quality declined. The relationship was even stronger as more full-fat dairy products were consumed.  Increased consumption of full fat dairy products was associated with fewer sperm and poorer movement of each sperm.

Up the protein and lower the carbs

A study[2] of young men examined the relationship of carbohydrate consumption and semen quality and concluded that a higher concentration of carbohydrates in the diet was associated with a decline in sperm concentration in young men.  Carbohydrates are:

  • complex carbohydrate starches – eg cereals, bread, and pasta
  • simple carbohydrates – eg sugar (found in sweets, jams and desserts)

There is also evidence that patients eating more proteins and fewer carbohydrates had higher rates of fertilised eggs developing to blastocyst stage and so lower pregnancy rates.  Meat, eggs, and fish are sources of complete protein, as well as cereals and pulses, and milk/milk-derived foods (but see information above about too much full fat dairy).

Supplements and vitamins

Antioxidants can prevent cell damage in our bodies.  Folate (naturally occurring soluble vitamin B), vitamin C, vitamin E, along with selenium and zinc, may help to increase the quality of sperm and are found in:

  • fresh fruit (especially citrus fruit)
  • vegetables (especially peppers and spinach)
  • wholegrains, nuts, seeds (especially sunflower and pumpkin seeds)
  • legumes/pulses (eg alfalfa, peas, beans, lentils, soybeans, peanuts)

Any man trying to conceive may benefit from supplementing his diet with a multi-vitamin containing the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants required for quality sperm production, including:

  • vitamins E and C
  • selenium
  • zinc
  • arginine
  • carnitine
  • vitamin B12

But do not exceed the recommended dose – too much will upset the balance!

Environmental factors

Certain environmental factors have been reported as having a harmful effect on sperm production.  Exposure to pesticides, heavy metals and adhesives should all be avoided or kept to a minimum.  Sensible precautions such as washing fruit and vegetables and wearing protective face masks when working with toxic substances will all help.

Injury and illness

Injury or surgery to the genital region may interfere with normal sperm production and may even stop it completely.  Infections, even the common ‘flu virus, can dampen the ability to produce sperm.  Some illnesses, such as mumps, can lead to sperm problems, and sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia can cause blockages within the sperm-carrying tubes.

Prevent overheating testicles

Any increase in the temperature of a man’s scrotum can dramatically decrease the sperm count so he should avoid:

  • wearing tight fitting underwear
  • hot baths or saunas
  • any activity which involves sitting for prolonged periods of time (ie driving on heated seats!)
  • using lap-top or tablet directly on his groin

Heat around the groin can be an issue for men who are chefs, truck-drivers, or firefighters, when they are trying for a pregnancy.

Avoid anabolic steroids, testosterone-based supplements, and anti-androgen drugs

Anabolic steroids such as those used by body builders have an extremely detrimental effect on sperm production[3].

The most common anti-androgen drugs are those to treat prostate enlargement, prostate cancer, and male pattern baldness.

Avoid tobacco, marijuana and alcohol

‘Recreational’ drugs have been linked[4] to low sperm counts and may also cause sperm abnormalities.  Alcohol affects the liver and its function which alters the hormone levels that affect sperm production.  As little as two alcoholic drinks each day can have long term adverse effects on sperm production.

Several studies have compared the semen of men who smoke cigarettes to that of men who do not smoke, to determine any negative effects.

This research revealed a decrease in the number of sperm present and this has been attributed to the presence of Cadmium within the blood stream and the seminal fluid, which has been passed from the cigarettes.  The chromosomes packed within the head of the sperm also seem to be at an increased risk of damage.

The damage to the chromosomes may not only lead to fertility problems but may also increase the chances of fathering children with chromosomal disorders.

Other medications

If you’re taking any prescribed or over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, ask a pharmacist about their potential impact on your sperm, check with your GP before stopping the medication. For example, even some OTC indigestion remedies can adversely affect sperm count[5].

Avoid large amounts of caffeine

Coffee, tea, cola-based drinks, and chocolate can decrease sperm motility.

How can IVF-Life UK help?

Before a couple begins treatment at IVF-Life UK, we offer a fertility assessment as part of our first visit consultation. As well as an ultrasound scan for the female partner and hormone blood tests, the assessment includes a semen analysis and consideration of his medical history, for the man. To arrange a first visit consultation, contact our patient care team. And if a man needs fertility treatment to help him conceive, IVF-Life UK offers ICSI treatment, a variation of IVF which has enabled men with poor quality sperm to become a genetic parent.

[1] Dairy intake and semen quality among men attending a fertility clinic

[2] Dr. Jorge Chavarro and research fellow Myriam Afeiche, both with the Harvard School of Public Health

[3] Anabolic steroid abuse and male infertility

[4] Smoke, alcohol, and drug addiction and male fertility

[5] Effect of cimetidine on gonadal function in men