When a couple are trying to conceive, all the focus tends to be on female fertility, with little or no attention on male fertility. However up to 50% of infertility in couples is linked to the man.
A common cause of male infertility is due to low sperm numbers or poor sperm quality. Not only can poor sperm health make it difficult to conceive, it can also affect the health of your future baby.
There are 3 main characteristics of sperm that influences male fertility:
1. Sperm count in a millilitre (mL) or sample.
The more sperm there is, the more chances there are a female’s egg will be fertilised. Low sperm count is the most common reason for male infertility.
2. Sperm morphology: the size and shape of sperm.
Healthy sperm have oval-shaped heads and long tails, like a tadpole. Abnormal sperm can have a misshaped head or tail which can affect the ability of the sperm to reach and penetrate an egg.
3. Sperm motility: the ability of sperm to move or ‘swim’.
Only healthy sperm will survive the long obstacle course to reach an egg.
Sperm health and male infertility is a difficult topic to bring up with men. Especially since society (and men themselves) have a notion that sperm health and masculinity or ‘manliness’ are linked. But it’s a more common issue that most people realise.
Research in 2017 found a significant decline in both sperm quantity and quality between 1973 and 2011 based on analysis of sperm from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Specifically, there has been a 50% decline in sperm count over this 40-year period. The trend does not seem to be improving either and the exact cause/s for this is unknown. Some researchers have suggested that the increasingly unhealthy lifestyles, increasing obesity or use of chemicals in the modern world may be to blame.
How can sperm health be improved?
Unhealthy habits can reduce sperm count, affect sperm morphology, decrease sperm motility or damage sperm DNA. Lifestyle changes can improve sperm health and fertility. Some tips to improve male fertility, such as eating healthy foods and regular exercise, are similar to those for female fertility so you and your partner can make changes together.
Similarly to female eggs taking months to mature, it takes about 4 months for sperm to mature and regenerate. So when you start getting your body ready for pregnancy, get your man to start making changes with you too.
1. Eat a healthy diet
Omega-3s from fish and walnuts, folate, vitamin B12 and zinc may improve sperm health. Whereas a diet high in fats, red and processed meats, sweets and sugary drinks have been linked to poor sperm quality. Eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables.
2. Get to a healthy weight
Overweight and obesity has been linked to lower sperm count, poor sperm motility, reduced hormonal testosterone (male hormone) levels and damage to sperm DNA. A body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered healthy.
3. Stop or avoid smoking
Smoking can lower sperm count and poor sperm motility. Even smoking a few cigarettes a day can reduce sperm quality.
Also remember that passive smoking (secondhand smoke) can reduce fertility in women and if your partner smokes, this can affect your ability to get pregnant.
4. Reduce alcohol
The occasional alcoholic drink now and then shouldn’t affect your fertility. But heavy drinking regularly or binge drinking can reduce sperm quality and lower testosterone (male hormone) levels.
5. Avoid hormone-disrupting chemicals
Everyday chemicals in the home, workplace and environment may contain chemicals (known as ‘endocrine disrupting chemicals’ and ‘EDCs’) that can cause hormonal imbalances and affect fertility. Make sure to avoid these chemicals or use protective ways to reduce your exposure to them.
6. Keep testicles cool
Hot temperatures can reduce sperm quality. Avoid regular hot baths or spas. Avoid putting a laptop in the lap or keeping a mobile phone in the front pocket. If working in a hot environment, or sit for long periods of time, make sure to take regular breaks and move around regularly to keep cool. There’s also debate about underwear or briefs vs. boxers for men trying to conceive. There is no clear research to prove this but there’s no harm in trying boxers or loose-fitting underwear.
- Nassan, et. al. (2018). Diet and men’s fertility: does diet affect sperm quality? Fertility and Sterility. 110(4): 570-577. Accessed online: https://www.fertstert.org/article/S0015-0282(18)30426-6/fulltext