Infertility is often regarded as a “woman’s problem” but statistics suggest otherwise. Did you know that infertility is a 50/50 issue? Around 30% of infertility cases involve problems solely with the man’s reproductive system while issues affecting both partners account for another 20%. Hence, if a couple is having trouble conceiving, it is imperative that both the man and the woman get tested for fertility as early as possible. If it turns out that your sperm is indeed the ‘culprit’, don’t stress out and don’t blame yourself: taking charge of your body today can improve your swimmers’ quality and quantity. Read on for details.
What you weigh influences the way your sperm ‘play’
Several studies have linked obesity to male infertility — it appears that impaired semen quality is also on the very long list of health hazards associated with obesity.
Here’s what research found:
- In a 2006 study, the researchers found that compared to normal-weight men, those with a higher BMI were more likely to suffer from infertility issues. The results showed that for every 10kg increase in a man’s weight, the risks of infertility augmented by around 10%!
- Danish scientists showed that overweight men with a BMI above 25kg/m2 had a 22% lower sperm concentration compared to their normal-weight counterparts.
- Compared to men of normal weight, obese men are 81% more likely to be sterile (no ejaculated sperm).
- Male obesity may also thwart the success of in-vitro fertilisation: the rate of clinical pregnancy and live-births appears to drop linearly as the BMI of male partners increases.
How your sperm feel the weight of obesity
In a nutshell, scientists have consistently shown that overweight men are more likely to have lower semen volumes, fewer sperm and more weirdly shaped swimmers. Sperm structure, vitality and motility are key players in male fertility.
The theories are that excess body fat:
- Promotes conversion of testosterone, the male hormone, to oestrogen, the female hormone. These higher levels of circulating oestrogens identified in overweight men may have a direct adverse effect on sperm production.
- Acts as an insulator and causes overheating of the testis, the sperm ‘engine’. This could reduce sperm production or cause structural defects in the sperm.
- Heightens the risks of erectile dysfunction and causes increased difficulty with sexual performance.
Do you need to lose weight?
Calculate your BMI as follows: Weight (kg) / [Height (m) x Height (m)].
If your BMI is greater than 24.9kg/m2, losing some weight could make it easier for you to become a dad. However, don’t fall for weight loss gimmicks and fad diets that promise absurdly rapid results in a short time. Restricting your diet excessively may intensify food cravings which could eventually cause you to pack on even more weight. But that’s not the worse part: restrictive diets may put you at risks of nutritional deficiencies — this could ultimately result in sperm of even poorer quality and a drop in your sperm count! Your best bet is to contact a dietitian for an individualised meal plan that will make it easier for you to lose weight and keep it off!
You don’t need the body of a supermodel
For optimal sperm production, you need a healthy body weight: a Danish study involving 1600 men showed that men with a BMI less than 20kg/m2 also had lower sperm quality.
Can diet improve your odds of fathering a child?
If your doctor tells you that there’s no medical reason behind your fertility issues then, yes, improving your diet, steering clear from drugs, alcohol and tobacco can dramatically boost your chances.
Nutrients for healthy sperm
- Zinc — This mineral is crucial for the proper development of sperm cells and to maintain normal levels of testosterone.Animal sources: Oysters, seafood, fish, poultry, red meat, and eggs. Vegan sources: Pulses, nuts, pumpkin seeds, whole grains and legumes.
- Vitamin C —This vitamin plays an important role in the development of sperm. A study showed that Vitamin C could help improve sperm count, motility and shape.Caution: Avoid large doses from supplements as this has been implicated in fertility problems for both men and women.Dietary sources: Citrus fruits, dark green leafy vegetables, kiwis as well as red, yellow or orange fruits and vegetables like bell peppers, berries, tomatoes, cantaloupes.
- Vitamin D — The sunshine vitamin is essential for the healthy development of the nucleus of sperm cells. The vitamin is also needed for optimum semen quality and sperm count. Research also suggests that this vitamin could help boost libido by helping to increase levels of testosterone in men.Best source: Early morning sunshine.Animal sources: Cod liver oil, salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna, eggs and vitamin D fortified products.
Vegan sources: Fortified ready-to-eat cereals, bran flakes, Portobello mushrooms.
- Vitamin E — This antioxidant vitamin is not only required for sperm’s motility but it can also protect the little swimmers’ DNA against free radicals.Animal sources: Liver, egg yolk, butter.Vegan sources: Green leafy veggies, whole grain products, wheat germ and oil.
- Folate – Researchers from the University of California found that men who consumed the most folate had a 20% lower rate of sperm with abnormal chromosomes compared to those with an inadequate intake.Animal sources: Liver, poultry, shellfish.Vegan sources: Lentils, spinach, edamame, asparagus, wheat germ and oil, oranges, papaya.
- Omega-3 fatty acids – Studies show that men who regularly consume this healthy fat have better semen quality. In a UCLA research, young men who consumed a little bit more than half a cup of walnuts daily experienced improvement in their sperm’s shape, vitality and motility.Animal sources: Oily coldwater fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna — choose the wild types as far as possible.Vegan sources: Nuts especially walnuts which are terrific sources of alpha-linoleic acid.
Check your diet
You may want to identify sugar laden foods and refined carbs in your diet: a high carbohydrate intake has been linked to a decrease in sperm count. Trans fats found in many commercial products may also have deleterious effects on sperm health.
What about exercise?
Definitely a must: According to a Harvard research published this year, men who exercised for at least 15 hours weekly at a moderate to vigorous rate had a 73% higher sperm count than those who were physically active for less than 5 hours a week. Mild exercise had no effect on sperm quality. Of course, you should avoid excessive exercising as this could adversely affect your sperm count.
And to those of you who can’t live without TV, you might want to know that the researchers in the above study also found that men who watched over 20 hours of TV a week had a 44% lower sperm count compared to those who watched practically no TV.
Bottom line: If you and your partner hope to conceive someday, adopting a healthier lifestyle way before trying for a bump — whether you have fertility issues or not — will help increase your chances of conceiving a very healthy baby.
Akmal et al (2006) Improvement in human semen quality after oral supplementation of vitamin C. J Med Food. 9(3):440-442.
Aquila et al (2009) Human male gamete endocrinology: 1alpha, 25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 (1, 25 (OH) 2D3) regulates different aspects of human sperm biology and metabolism. Reprod Biol Endocrinol. 7:140.
American Society for Reproductive Medicine (2008) Patient fact sheet: Diagnostic testing for male factor infertility.
Gaskins et al (2013) Physical activity and television watching in relation to semen quality in young men. Br J Sports Med. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2012-091644.
Hammoud et al (2009) Effect of Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery on the sex steroids and quality of life in obese men. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 94(4):1329–1332.
Jensen et al (2004) Body mass index in relation to semen quality and reproductive hormones among 1,558 Danish men. Fertil Steril. 82(4):863-70.
O'Brien et al (2005) Erectile dysfunction and andropause symptoms in infertile men. J Urol. 174(5):1932–1934.
Robbins et al (2012) Walnuts Improve Semen Quality in Men Consuming a Western-Style Diet: Randomized Control Dietary Intervention Trial. Biol Reprod. 87(4):101.
Sallmén et al (2006) Reduced fertility among overweight and obese men. Epidemiology. 17(5):520-523.