When it comes to healthy nutrition and fertility, women’s diet has been in the spotlight. However, if you’re aspiring to fatherhood, you should know that more and more research are suggesting that a man’s lifestyle — especially his diet — has a significant impact on his sperm’s health. Just like some practices (and dietary habits) can boost your fertility mojo, others can actually lead to defective sperm function.
What is meant by sperm health?
Your sperm’s health and effectiveness depends on three key fertility markers that are assessed through a semen analysis. If any of these markers is abnormal, the chances of a sperm fertilising an egg will be greatly reduced.
- Sperm countThis is the number of sperm per millilitre of semen. The normal average sperm count is 20 million, or more, per millilitre. A sperm count of 5 million is severely low.
- Sperm motilityThis describes how good your little swimmers are and how fast they swim. At least 50% of them should move in a straightforward manner.
- Sperm morphology (shape)Yep, male fertility depends on sperm-cell architecture. An abnormal shape (large or multiple heads, malformed tail) may make it hard for the little guy to adhere to an egg and penetrate it.
Ditch these sperm foes!
Overweight and obesity
A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology found that a 9kg increase in body weight decreases fertility by 10% due to a reduced sperm count. Other studies suggest that excess body fat disrupts the reproductive hormonal profile which increases oestrogen and reduces testosterone levels, negatively affecting sperm counts, motility and/or shape.
The good news
Shedding excess fat appears to restore fertility. So, eat healthy and hit the gym or go for a swim — be active in any way you enjoy for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week!
You’ve decided to slim down? Good for you! But if you were thinking of trying this new diet that promises shedding weight in the blink of an eye, think again.
Bouncing from one diet to another; eating nothing but cabbage-soup or adhering to other similarly restrictive diets stresses your body a great deal; guess what happens to fertility? It plummets! Rapid weight loss causes mayhem among hormones (including the reproductive ones) and it may take months for your sperm count to reach normal levels again. Plus weight loss gimmicks usually lead to more weight gain later on.
Protect your reproductive (and all other) organs: Aim to lose not more than 4kg per month.
High carbohydrate intake
The culprits here are refined carbs — white bread, pasta and rice; cornflakes, sugar laden foods and beverages like soft drinks. A recent study associated high intakes of refined carbs — and the ensuing high blood glucose levels — with a decreased sperm count in young men. Other studies linked refined carbs to ‘lazy swimmers’.
Choose complex carbs instead: wild and brown rice, wholemeal pasta, wholegrain products, oatmeal.
Diets rich in trans fats
These fats are health hazards so dump anything that contains more than 0% trans fats (Bye-bye junk foods! Read food labels). The American Society for Reproductive Medicine warned that trans fats not only accumulate in semen but also decrease sperm count.
Marlin, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, and shark have high mercury contents and are best avoided. Mercury appears to damage sperm’s structure and functions.
Nicotine and other carcinogenic components of cigarette smoke have been shown to have deleterious effects on sperm production, motility, and shape.
Trying for a baby may stress you out but smoking pot can significantly decrease your odds — weed lowers testosterone production which interferes with healthy sperm formation. Kick the habit and your little swimmers may be good to go within three months.
Regular drinks not only increase body fat but also appear to inhibit testicular production of testosterone which, as mentioned above, impairs sperm health. Heavy alcohol consumption damages nerves and may lead to erectile dysfunction.
These have a devastating effect on fertility — once they are discontinued, it takes 4 months for the key markers to normalise and over a year for sperm production to stabilise.
St John’s wort
Some researchers believe that this herb may be spermicidal, so you may want to avoid it.
Boost your fertility with a healthy diet
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
This particular omega-3 — known as nature’s own Viagra — is essential for male fertility. A recent US study showed that DHA is vital for the ‘construction’ of the acrosome, an arc-like structure that contains enzymes needed by sperm for fertilisation. DHA also transforms the immature sperm cell into a super-swimmer with a pointed head and a long tail; characteristics sperm need to race down the fallopian tubes and into the egg.
Animal DHA sources: Salmon, tuna, sardines, Herring, shellfish;
Plant-based DHA: Flax seeds, (mercury-free) seaweed, avocado, pumpkin seeds.
Walnuts are amazing sources of ALA, another omega-3 shown to enhance fertility.
Tip: For enhanced erectile performance, try to consume at least 3 portions per week.
To improve your sperm count and motility, make sure to get the 11mg you need from foods such as oysters, shellfish, meat, poultry, turkey, beans, nuts and seeds.
Fruits, nuts, vegetables and grains
These are the best sources of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants which will help protect your sperm from toxins and cellular damage caused by environmental pollutants. Simply colour your plate with these health foods!
- Vitamin A prevents sluggish sperm; needed for the production of testosterone.Sources: Leafy greens, carrots, red peppers, apricots — any orange, red or yellow fruit or veggie.
- Vitamin C boosts sperm motility and sperm count.Sources: Citrus fruits, berries, cantaloupe, kiwi, peppers, cauliflower, tomatoes, potato with skin, cabbage, broccoli, peas and spinach.
- Vitamin E protects sperm DNA.Sources: Avocado, wheat germ, green veggies, kiwi, mango, tomato.
- Folic acid and Vitamin B12 keep your sperm free from chromosomal abnormalities and improve sperm count.Sources: Dark green vegetables, avocado, nuts, meat, legumes.
- Selenium is needed for normal sperm shape and count.Sources: Tuna, Herring, brewer’s yeast, broccoli wheat germ and bran, whole grains, and sesame seeds.
- Arginine improves sperm health.Sources: Most nuts.
- Pomegranate juice, one tonic drink loaded with antioxidants, has been shown to enhance sperm count and quality in mice.
There are no magic bullets: what works for one may not work for the other. Adopting a healthy, active lifestyle and enjoying a nutritious diet can bring you no harm and will help you be a role model for your future child.
Gaskins et al (2012) Dietary patterns and semen quality in young men. Hum Reprod. 27(10):2899-2907.
Mendiola et al (2010) A low intake of antioxidant nutrients is associated with poor semen quality in patients attending fertility clinics. Fertil steril. 93(4):1128-1133.
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.
Roqueta-Rivera et al (2011) Deficiency in the omega-3 fatty acid pathway results in failure of acrosome biogenesis in mice. Biol Reprod. 85(4):721-32.