Women’s health and fertility is an incredibly important topic that I discuss almost daily with clients in my private practice who are trying to conceive. When conception isn’t achieved on a couples’ expected timetable, the notion of suboptimal fertility or defunct eggs can cause stress and anxiety for many women (which in turn, can have negative effects on fertility). The thing is, as an expert, I have to say that the pre-conception panic thrown on women is often unnecessary (and honestly, a little unfair). In general, struggles with infertility aren’t all that uncommon. According to the Mayo Clinic, 1 in 7 couples experiences trouble conceiving or suffers from infertility. What’s more is that in up to half of these couples, male infertility plays some sort of role.
Too often, the burden of fertility challenges falls squarely on womens’ shoulders.
Doesn’t semen quality matter, too?
100%. It takes two to tango.
The reality is that the health of mens’ semen and sperm affects a couple’s ability to conceive just as much as the health of women and the quality of their eggs. In fact, semen and sperm health impacts the health of the embryo, and even the health of the pregnancy on the whole.
That’s right! Many pregnancy complications, including pregnancy loss, are influenced by the health of semen and sperm.
How will I know if my/my partner’s sperm is an issue?
Assuming mom has done everything she needs to do to ensure she and her eggs are in optimal health for conception, the only symptom of less-than-ideal semen and sperm might very well be the inability to conceive. In some cases, male partners could be suffering from an undiagnosed hereditary disorder, a hormonal imbalance, or physical issues that are often indiscernible or easy to write off. These could include anything from:
- Problems with sexual function
- Repeated respiratory infections
- Inability to smell (in men who have not experienced this symptom as a result of COVID19)
- Abnormal breast growth (gynecomastia)
- Decreased facial or body hair, or other signs hormonal abnormality
- When tested, a lower than average sperm count*
*Fewer than 15 million sperm per milliliter of semen or a total sperm count of <39 million per ejaculate
So how can I be proactive about semen and sperm health?
The fact you and your partner are aware and ready to take the necessary steps is already a great start! A solid first step would be to have a semen analysis done at a fertility clinic. This will tell you the number and shape of the sperm you are working with, as well as inform you of their motility, or how well they are moving. This information can be extremely helpful, but is also usually not enough to rule out many other issues, as it doesn’t pick up on all aspects of semen quality, so you’re not in the clear based on one test alone! Some (not insignificant) lifestyle changes might be in order.
Get up to speed.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Sperm need roughly 90 days to fully develop, but that growth process can be slowed or stymied by:
1. OXIDATIVE STRESS (or an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body) | Sperm are very, very sensitive to damage from oxidative stress, so consuming extra antioxidants will help combat this. It’s also important to fully address sources of oxidative stress in every aspect of life.
Combat by: Quitting tobacco, pulling back on drinking, improving the air quality in your home & filtering tap water, moving regularly, and eating a colorful, well-varied, antioxidant-rich diet.
3. MINERAL & FATTY ACID DEFICIENCY | Zinc, selenium and essential fatty acids like Omega-3 Fatty Acids are critical.
After learning that, we feel completely overwhelmed by the number of changes that need to be made. Where do we start?
The hardest changes are the ones that probably need to be made first.
1. DE-OXIDATIVE-STRESSING: TACKLE THE CHALLENGE HEAD-ON
For future fathers, these are the obvious ones, like giving up smoking, cutting back on drinking, or quitting altogether. Letting go of recreational substances isn’t fun or easy for anyone who consumes them regularly. But you already know the truth: Doing so will not only benefit semen and sperm quality and efforts to conceive, it will massively improve mental and physical health and elevate quality of life.
2. DE-OXIDATIVE-STRESSING: PUMP UP YOUR ANTIOXIDANTS
Next on the list - or first if you and your partner get to skip the step of nixing tobacco or alcohol - involves diet. Being conscious of which nutrients both you and your partner are consuming is one of the easiest ways to ensure you’re on the right track. I’m talking about more than clearing your meals and snacks of junk. Overhauling what’s on our plates can be a challenge for some that even supersedes quitting tobacco and alcohol.
As a real food RD, I want you to think about breaking in by incorporating more fertility-focused foods into your diets rather than immediately cutting things out. Not everything has to change completely all at once. Turn your attention to whole, real foods that are as close to nature as possible. You’re looking to “eat the rainbow” to get the most anti-inflammatory nutrients, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. This means you’ll want to shop close to the perimeter of the grocery store where foods are generally less processed. I recommend trying something new every week, which might include going to different supermarkets in your area to see what different produce they have to offer.⠀⠀⠀
Get creative, and do this as a team! Trying new things together will always be more fun than going at it alone.
For optimal semen and sperm health, try incorporating
- ALL THE VEGGIES | Seriously, go big! I put it in all caps for a reason!⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
- Berries | The perfect sweet treat for breakfast and dessert that also packs an antioxidant punch ⠀⠀⠀
- Oysters & Fish | Great to cook together outdoors on the grill⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
- Brazil nuts, walnuts, cashews | For quick, Omega 3-rich snacks on-the-go⠀⠀
- Olive oil | Use it as a foundation for dressings and sauces
When you’re feeling good about all of the nutrient-dense foods you’re eating, you can start to rethink some of the foods you eat regularly that contain
- Hydrogenated oils, vegetable oils like corn oil, safflower or sunflower oil
- MSG (monosodium glutamate)
- Added (often hidden) sugars, like sucrose, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, sweetened fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate, dextrose, maltose, etc.
- Gums, like xanthan gum, locust bean gum, guar gum, and carrageenan, which can be irritating to the gut at various levels. These are often found in nut milks and protein drinks to keep things emulsified and creamy, so make sure you are reading labels
- Functional fibers, such as chicory and inulin, can be beneficial for some people, but also cause inflammation, bloating, gas, and diarrhea in others
- Non-nutritive sweeteners such as sugar alcohols, stevia, sweet and low, etc. They are many times sweeter than table sugar, and can trick your brain, sending a signal and feedback loop where you end up craving more sugar
- Enriched or fortified foods, which often contain synthetic forms of vitamins that can be difficult to absorb. (Note: Not all synthetic supplements are off the table. Read more on the difference between synthetic vs. natural supplements here)⠀⠀
3. DE-OXIDATIVE-STRESSING: GET MOVING
Just like with diet, small changes have a big impact and increase the likelihood that you and your partner will be able to sustain them. Dipping your toes into new workouts and activities is a great way to spend time together and improve your overall health while taking care to improve semen and sperm quality. Lace up for a walk or run, lift some weights, take a class, try out yoga… the possibilities are endless, and you will always feel better after you move. Throwing in some self-care like stretching and foam rolling, targeted massage, and meditation can also work wonders for your stress levels and help regulate your hormones.
Which leads me to #4.
4. DE-OXIDATIVE-STRESSING: TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR ENVIRONMENT
Out-of-whack hormones are a huge problem on many levels, but if they are working against your fertility, there are easy ways to set them right by altering your surroundings. Being conscious of the 4 Ps (plastics, pesticides, pollution, and personal care products) will help you create an environment that is conducive to conception and a healthy pregnancy, and will be infinitely healthier for baby once they have arrived! Dads should think carefully about reducing plastics, stay vigilant about choosing clean produce and washing it thoroughly before cooking, and reconsider any personal care products with long, complicated, unnatural ingredients lists. On average, men use 6 products daily that contain at least 85 unique ingredients, so there is plenty of room for hormone disruption if those items aren’t selected with care.
5. DE-OXIDATIVE-STRESSING: SUPPLEMENT ACCORDINGLY
One question I get asked all of the time is if men can take FullWell Prenatal, too.
Modern marketing has tricked us into sectioning ourselves off into groups. You can easily see their tactics the moment you walk into a grocery store or pharmacy. Brands use specific color schemes and write carefully worded copy that make us feel pressured to identify with one of their target audiences. Once we’ve decided where we belong, we subconsciously commit to buying products intended for that group.
We are all susceptible to this kind of marketing.
I often see masculinely branded bottles of vitamins with aggressive verbiage that are “made for men.” Of course specific formulations of vitamins can be created for particular groups (ahem, FullWell Prenatal), but some of the marketing we see is out of control and designed to play into preconceived notions. Our bottle is pink, and our product is designed for moms-to-be, but at the end of the day, nutrients are nutrients, and if dads need them for healthier, more vivacious sperm while trying to conceive, they should be taking them right along with their partner.
So the answer is, emphatically, YES!
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2. "Male infertility." Mayo Clinic Patient Care and Health Information. Web. April 7, 2021. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/male-infertility/symptoms-causes/syc-20374773.
3. "Optimizing Male Fertility." American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Web. April 7, 2021. https://www.reproductivefacts.org/news-and-publications/patient-fact-sheets-and-booklets/documents/fact-sheets-and-info-booklets/optimizing-male-fertility/.
4. Imperial College London. "Recurrent miscarriage linked to faulty sperm." ScienceDaily. Jan 4, 2019. Web. April 7, 2021. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/01/190104103950.htm.
5. Wang, Christina, MD. Swerdloff, Ronald S., MD. "Limitations of Semen Analysis as a Test of Male Fertility and Anticipated Needs from Newer Tests." US National Library of Medicine. Nov 25 2014. Web. April 7, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4254491/.
6. Eske, Jamie. Sampson, Stacy, DO. "How does oxidative stress affect the body?" Medical News Today. April 3, 2019. Web. April 7, 2021. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324863.
7. Alahamar, Amhed T. "Role of Oxidative Stress in Male Infertility: An Updated Review." US National Library of Medicine. Jan 2019. Web. April 7, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6472207/.
8. Ali Banihani, Saleem. "Vitamin B12 and Semen Quality." Department of Medical Laboratory Sciences, Jordan University of Science and Technology. June 2017. Web. April 7, 2021. https://www.mdpi.com/2218-273X/7/2/42.
9. "Smoking and Tobacco Use: Benefits of Quitting." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. April 7, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/quit_smoking/how_to_quit/benefits/index.htm.
10. Linköping University. "Diet has rapid effects on sperm quality." ScienceDaily. Dec 27, 2019. Web. April 7, 2021. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/12/191227104938.htm.
11. Krishnakumar, Divya. Hamblin, Michael R. Lakshmanan, Shanmugamurthy. "Meditation and Yoga can Modulate Brain Mechanisms that affect Behavior and Anxiety-A Modern Scientific Perspective." US National Library of Medicine. April 2015. Web. April 7, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4769029/.