By Prof Sheena Lewis
This blog was originally published on Fertility Road.
Society seems to focus exclusively on women preparing themselves for pregnancy but what about men? They need to get their sperm in shape too.
There are so many ‘sperm enemies’ in today’s world, men need to know what they are and how to avoid them. On the flip side, there are lots of things men can do to ensure their sperm are in tip top condition.
Do I have enough sperm?
We read scary stories about how sperm counts are dropping but let’s put that in context. Men can produce the huge number of 500 million sperm at a time so even a 50% drop still leaves plenty of sperm for a couple to get pregnant.
A reduction in sperm health is more worrying
Experts believe that the health of sperm is getting worse. Environmental pollution, our fast pace of life, smoking, alcohol, overweight…. All of these lead to poor quality sperm that are less likely to form a pregnancy.
However, this bad news is offset by the good news is that men can take control and often improve their sperm quality by some simple steps.
How can we measure sperm health?
Do you know if you have Sperm DNA damage? Find your nearest clinic to book an appointment and request and Exact test.
To understand that we need to know what makes up a sperm. Its most important content is its DNA. In fact, it has little else except a strong tail to propel it on its marathon journey so its precious DNA can join up with that of the egg. Until recently sperm health was only measured by a semen analysis. This involved a microscopic examination of sperm numbers (sperm count or concentration), their swim speed (motility) and their shape (morphology). This is the best starting point to check the basics. Yet, this analysis only looks at the outside of the sperm so it’s a blunt instrument to measure sperm health.
As a baby’s DNA is half from Dad and half from Mum, healthy sperm DNA is vital for a healthy baby. But often sperm DNA quality isn’t tested. One recent study reported that 80% of men attending for fertility investigations, who were told their semen was normal, had high sperm DNA damage that the semen analysis hadn’t been able to detect.
We know that poor sperm DNA can lead to less success with fertility treatment. So it makes sense that men having infertility investigations should have a semen analysis plus a sperm DNA check. Testing in advance can save couples time, money and heartache. Thats especially important post lockdown when waiting lists for fertility treatment are common.
Common medical problems that injure sperm
All too often, infertility is seen as a woman’s problem, with the emphasis on female investigations and treatments. Now, we now know that this is wrong. More than half of a couple’s fertility problems are male so to give couples the best chance of their family, both partners need to be cared for equally.
Sometimes male fertility problems arise from a medical cause. It may be that you have a chronic low-grade infection you don’t even know about. You may have a varicocele; lumpy veins on your scrotum. Even if you knew you had them, you thought everybody else had them too. You may have had a previous surgery or a sports injury that left a problem. It might be just that you are on medication for an unrelated illness but it stops healthy sperm production. Often these problems can be sorted out easily by a visit to your family doctor or a referral to a specialist for a minor procedure.
Sperm Enemies in our Lifestyle
Non-medical causes of low sperm quality can come from your job or home environment. Exposure to some organic solvents and even some paints can reduce your sperm count. Sitting at a desk or in a car, all day can overheat your testicles and lower your sperm count so get up and chill for five minutes. Most men don’t know about these hazards, but once you know, you can take care to avoid some of them.
Our fast paced, poor diet lifestyle is full of sperm enemies. We smoke, we drink too much alcohol at the weekend and we eat ‘food on the run’ during our working week. Often these meals are high in calories but low in nutrients. They may not contain vitamins and antioxidants that protect sperm from harm. They also make us put on unhealthy weight.
Top tips to improve sperm health
The time to produce a new batch of sperm is only a few months so sperm quality can often be improved quickly with some simple lifestyle changes.
Scientists have shown that a healthy balanced diet is important for healthy sperm.
Just like you, his sperm need lots of different nutrients to function properly.
Your diet should have:
Cut down on smoking and drinking
Smoking over 20 cigarettes a day can reduce both sperm count and motility. Tobacco contains over 4,000 ingredients and lots of them are toxic to sperm. Smoke produces ‘free radicals’ and these can damage DNA and even kill sperm.
Drinking too much alcohol isn’t good for your sperm either. UK guidelines say that men trying for a baby shouldn’t drink more than 2 units of alcohol once or twice a week.
Over-weight can damage sperm that results in a longer time to get pregnant naturally and poorer success with fertility treatment.
Leave out recreational drugs
Cannabis damages sperm in lots of ways. It slows your swim speed and makes them act abnormally. The worst effect is that long term regular use can permanently reduce a man’s ability to make sperm.
Some gym supplements contain a steroid called Nandrolone that prevents sperm being made.
Whilst the effects of aging in men aren’t as dramatic as in women, men over 40 are now making up nearly a quarter of fertility consultations. There are exceptional stories about men who have fathered children in their sixties. What the media doesn’t say is that these men all had much younger partners. Don’t leave fatherhood until your forties without weighting up the potential price to be paid.
Stress and weight
Both men and women suffer from the effects of obesity and stress. Both damage your general health and wellbeing and can also reduce your fertility. Stress can even stop you wanting to have sex.
The good news for men
You need regular sex. When you don’t ejaculate for a week or more, your sperm become old and sluggish. They are less likely to get your partner pregnant. The healthiest sperm are those produced between 2-5 days after your last ejaculation.
The other good news is that you can improve your sperm health in 3-6 months.
Is that too high a price to pay for becoming a dad?