Male fertility may be declining but there are steps you can take to rebuild it, says.
Male fertility is declining at an alarming rate and, with sperm count and motility (the ability of sperm to swim) at an all-time low, couples are struggling to conceive.
An analysis of sperm samples provided by donors between 2007 and 2017 and presented at the 2018 scientific congress of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine showed that total sperm count, quality and motility had decreased during that decade. And a study of 120,000 male infertility patients, showed that the number of men with a total sperm count above 15 million (anything lower is considered too low) had dropped from 85% in 2002-2005 to 79% last year.
Dr Phil Boyle, who is a member of the Irish Fertility Society and current president of the International Institute for Restorative Reproductive Medicine, says misconceptions abound about male fertility and how to improve it.
“Much like women, after the age of 40, the quality of men’s sperm declines,” Boyle says. “And it is important that all men understand the importance of having good-quality sperm for a healthy pregnancy.”
Your weight and what you eat is important. “Because the cells that make the mature, healthy egg and sperm are ‘recruited’ approximately three months prior to conception, making changes to diet should start about six months before trying to conceive,” says Sinead Curran, a registered nutritionist who advises couples at the Merrion Fertility Clinic in Dublin and at the National Maternity Hospital. “This will mean that parents’ having a healthy weight at the time of conception makes for a healthier pregnancy and is associated with better long-term health for babies.”
So what steps can men take to boost their fertility?
Eat a handful of nuts every day
A handful of nuts every day could improve sperm counts, according to a recent study involving 119 men aged 18 to 35.
Researchers at Rovira i Virgili University in Spain divided the men into two groups and asked one group to eat 60g of almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts daily on top of their usual diet, while the second group ate no nuts. After 14 weeks the nut-eaters reportedly “had significant improvements in their sperm count, vitality, motility (movement) and morphology (shape)” — all associated with better fertility.
“It is probably not down to a particular magical property of nuts themselves, but because men who eat more nuts have a more balanced diet including a wider range of nutrients than other men, or that they have a healthier lifestyle overall,” Curran says. “But nuts are a useful source of fibre, vegetable protein and micronutrients that are important for fertility like selenium and essential fatty acids.”
Eat lean meat twice a week
Eat a lean steak or chicken breasts once or twice a week and you could improve sperm motility.
In a Harvard study, men who consumed the most poultry each week had the highest fertilisation rates.
And lean red meat, such as a steak, provides a range of nutrients including which are important nutrients for sperm production.
“In short, zinc and the B vitamins are found in red meat,” says Curran. “And men should try to replace processed meat and meat products such as pies with moderate amounts of red meat and fish.”
Meat also contains and L-carnitine which was shown in a study at the Hamdard College of Medicine and Dentistry in Pakistan reported that to “play an essential role in maintaining male fertility”.
Wear boxer shorts and baggy trousers
Men should wear loose fitting trousers and pants if they want to protect their fertility. That’s the advice of experts who have carried out studies showing that avoiding them improves sperm count.
Male testicles hang outside the body for a reason — it’s risky for them to become overheated because sperm production is notoriously sensitive to temperatures above 34C.
Wearing boxers and looser-fitting trousers allows the testicles to remain cool. In August, a US study of 656 men attending a fertility clinic found that those who wore loose boxer shorts had a 25% higher sperm concentration than men in tight-fitting briefs.
Oysters have a reputation as an aphrodisiac and fertility booster, but all seafood is rich in zinc, which has been shown to boost sperm volume, improve structure and function of male sperm.
In May 2018, the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism reported that 92% of couples who ate seafood twice a week were expecting a child by the end of the study, compared with 79% of the couples who ate less of it, a finding that couldn’t be explained by frequency of sex alone.
Drink in moderation
Last year, a study at a fertility clinic in Italy, published in the journal Andrology, showed that those who drank 4-7 units of alcohol a week (2-4 pints of beer) had semen volume higher than men who drank 1-3 units (half to one pint) or less. However, many experts argue that even moderate amounts of alcohol can drastically impact on fertility. A 2014 Danish study in the BMJ Open journal found a weekly intake of 25 units had a significant adverse effect on sperm quality. Alcohol limits the body’s absorption of zinc, which is important for healthy sperm.
Do moderate exercise three times a week
Half an hour of moderate exercise three times a week can boost men’s fertility by about a fifth, according to researchers at Urmia University in Iran in 2016. For their trial, they assigned men to one of four groups. One group jogged on a treadmill for half an hour three to four days a week, the second did the same workout for an hour a time, the third did a high-intensity interval training-style session of one-minute bursts of sprinting on a treadmill, 10-15 times and a fourth control group did no exercise.
After six months, all of the exercisers had improved sperm quantity and quality, but the moderate exercisers — those who had just jogged on a treadmill — had the most significant boost and the authors suggested that a brisk walk would have similar effects. Compared with the control group, they had 21.8% more sperm cells on average.
In 2013, a study from the University of Padova asked 10 men to spend 15 minutes in a Finnish sauna twice a week for three months. When sperm levels were tested, they were found to drop below normal during the three months after the sauna sessions finished, although after six months their counts returned to normal.
Get at least six hours sleep a night
Several studies have linked chronic lack of sleep with poor sperm quality, with one, from Harbin Medical University in China last year, proving that sleeping for six hours or less led to “sperm counts and their survival rates” being much lower than in men who slept for longer.
Pile up the veg
Eating more vegetables of all kinds will help male fertility, but Curran says men should really pile up the brassicas — that includes cabbage, sprouts as well as broccoli — and red or orange vegetables such as peppers, carrots and squash. “This will help to reduce calories, increase specific micronutrients and fibre and improve gut health all of which will boost fertility,” she says.
“See a registered dietitian with experience in fertility if you would like specific individualised advice. Even one session can focus people on the most useful changes and avoid unnecessary restriction, which can be counterproductive.”
Limit your laptop use
Place a laptop on your lap and the heat from the machine, combined with electromagnetic frequencies, can cause problems for some men trying to boost fertility. “While some men have more or less ‘bulletproof’ sperm, others are less fortunate and their sperm can be sensitive to environmental changes,” says Dr John Kennedy, group medical director of Sims IVF.
“For them, smoking, diet, weight, exercise, and the use of laptops on the lap — essentially anything that brings the temperature of the scrotum up to a person’s core temperature — can negatively impact their sperm.”
One trial at Stony Brook University in New York found that an hour of laptop use caused testicle temperature to increase by up to 2.5C, reducing sperm quality over time. It’s a similar story with mobile phones which, if kept in a trouser pocket, can also emanate a risky level of heat. Studies have shown that sperm quality and level is reduced in 47% of men who kept their phone in their trouser pocket, compared with 11% in the general population.
Reduce exposure to pollution
Last year, researchers from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, studied the sperm of nearly 6,500 men and found a “strong association” between exposure to high levels of fine particulate air pollution and “abnormal sperm shape” which could be partly responsible for the sharp drop in male fertility. That study was published in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine, but others have produced similar results.
There’s no need to panic. “The downward international trend in sperm numbers suggests that pollution may be a factor, but it hasn’t been conclusively demonstrated in well-designed studies,” says Dr Kennedy. However, you can reduce exposure to air pollution by reducing fireplace and wood stove use, limiting the number of car trips you take and avoiding cycling when traffic fumes are high.