As a naturopathic dietitian, I work closely with couples facing infertility issues and, in 9 cases out of 10, the couple walks in with the aim to fix or improve the woman’s nutrition habits. Quick anecdote: last January, Sarah and Jason had their first appointment with me – this young couple had been trying to conceive for the past 5 years. During our first meeting, Sarah told me that there must be something wrong with what she was eating since she had perfect results for all the lab tests I recommended. So I asked Jason about his diet and lifestyle. Looking very surprised, he said ‘What does my lifestyle have to do with us getting pregnant?’ Unfortunately that’s a very common response although over half of all cases of infertility can be related to male factors. In fact, a 2012 study revealed that only 1 in 4 men have optimal semen quality and another study estimated that sperm counts have declined by 50% worldwide since the 1930s. Before considering IVF, you may want to check out this article to discover natural ways to increase your sperm count and overall sperm health as well as factors that could be adversely affecting your little swimmers.
What is meant by ‘healthy sperm’?
In order to address male infertility, it is crucial to understand the concept of sperm health or quality which is determined by four factors:
- Sperm count which is the total number of sperm cells produced. Under ideal circumstances, a healthy young man should produce 300 to 500 sperm cells per ejaculation although only one will typically fertilize an egg. For timely, reliable impregnation, males should produce a minimum of 40 million of sperm cells per milliliter of semen.
- Sperm morphology refers to the shape or physical characteristics – healthy sperm has a round head and a long tail that helps this little champion swim and penetrate the egg for fertilization to occur. Sperm that has more than one head or tail; an abnormal middle-piece; or an abnormally shaped head or short tail has been linked to fertility issues.
- Sperm motility which determines how well the little swimmers can move forward to reach the egg.
- The integrity or quality of the sperm DNA.
The following video nicely explains how a sperm analysis is conducted.
Top 9 natural methods to make your sperm healthier
1. Seek support to quit smoking
With a lethal mix of over 7000 chemicals in tobacco smoke, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that smoking can seriously affect your little swimmers. In fact, research suggests that smoking can reduce a man’s fertility by as much as 30% by causing:
- Erectile dysfunction: The various chemicals in tobacco smoke hinder blood flow throughout the body – circulatory issues down there could make it harder for the big guy to stand up. Moreover, smoking can also harm the penile tissue causing the penis to lose its elasticity and causing it to gradually be less able to stretch.
- Poor sperm quality: Several studies comparing semen quality between smokers and non-smokers found that male smokers are more likely to have low sperm count, abnormally shaped sperm and suboptimal sperm motility.
- DNA and structural damage to the sperm: The free radicals found in tobacco smoke affect the fatty membrane of sperm cell causing it to lose its flexibility, motility and fertilizing potential. The chemicals in tobacco also induce DNA damage such as deletion and mutation of genes in the spermatozoa’s nucleus leading to abnormal changes in the sperm’s shape.
What about marijuana?
You’re not off the hook either: research indicates that cannabis use can impair male fertility. The researchers speculate that THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, may disturb the sperm’s timing.
“The sperm from marijuana smokers were moving too fast, too early. The timing was all wrong. These sperm will experience burn-out before they reach the egg and would not be capable of fertilization,” reported study lead author Lani Burkman. The scientists also found that pot smokers had a smaller semen volume and lower sperm count compared to those who didn’t smoke.
2. Maintain a healthy weight
Research suggests that the risks of male infertility increases by about 10% for every 10kg increase in body weight. This could explain why compared to their normal-weight counterparts, overweight men with a BMI above 25kg/m2 have a 22% lower sperm concentration whereas obese men are 81% more likely to be sterile (no ejaculated sperm).
What’s the link between body fat and sperm health?
Excess body fat can lead to a reduction in semen volume, lower sperm count and abnormally shaped sperm by:
- Promoting the conversion of testosterone to estrogen – higher levels of estrogen adversely affect sperm production.
- Causing overheating of the testis, the glands where the sperm and testosterone are produced. This could decrease sperm production or induce structural defects in the sperm.
- Increasing the risks of erectile dysfunction.
3. Steer clear from unhealthy fats
I’m talking about industrial seed oils also known as vegetable oils (such as canola, sunflower, safflower, soybean and cottonseed oils); products containing trans fats or fake fats like Crisco.
What this means for you:
- Choose healthy fats such as grass-fed butter or clarified butter, extra virgin olive oil, virgin coconut oil, grass-fed beef tallow, avocado, raw nuts and seeds.
- Select grass-fed meats, wild fish and free-range poultry as often as possible – if you can only access conventional meat, remember to trim as much fat as you can since this is where most of the antibiotics and hormones given to the animal will accumulate.
- Make sure to read the ingredient list even if the label says trans fat free – a product definitely contains some trans fats if it contains margarine, hydrogenated fats, mono- or diglycerides.
4. Ditch refined carbohydrates
Did you know that refined carbs such as bread, pasta, rice and sugar-laden foods and beverages have been linked to a decreased sperm count in young men? Moreover, it appears that consumption of refined carbs causes the sperm to become lazy. Scientists speculate that these adverse effects on sperm health are due to the spikes in blood glucose levels that occur after consumption of refined carbs.
Your healthiest choices: sweet potato, yam, plantain, tapioca, breadfruit, taro root, parsnips, squashes, kohlrabi, jicama, rutabaga, lotus roots and beets.
Note: don’t go crazy on these healthy carbs since a high carbohydrate diet has been linked to impaired sperm motility.
5. Go soy-free
Research suggests that consuming soy foods could significantly reduce sperm count – men whose diets were highest in soy had 41 million sperm per milliliter less than men who did not consume soy products. And the alarming fact is that the participants in the highest intake group consumed, on average, only half a serving of soy per day. That’s about one cup of soy milk or one serving of soy burgers, tempeh or tofu every other day!
While it is true that this study was relatively small and most of the participants were overweight or obese (and therefore, these results may not apply to men of healthy weight), if your sperm count is low, it wouldn’t hurt eliminating soy from your diet while implementing the other tips mentioned.
Soy products are not limited to tempeh, soy milk and tofu: most processed foods contain soy in the form of soy flour, soy protein, soy oil or soy lecithin.
6. Limit your exposure to Bisphenol-A (BPA)
BPA is a synthetic chemical used in plastic water bottles, most food cans, packaging, receipts and many other everyday objects. Linked to various health conditions, BPA is a hormone disruptor that has also been found to lower sperm count, concentration, motility and vitality in humans.
7. Avoid high-mercury fish
Research suggests that mercury can damage the sperm’s structure and functions. Hence, you might want to avoid fish such as marlin, swordfish, tilefish, shark and king mackerel.
8. Say ‘no’ to alcohol
Consuming only 5 units of alcohol every week could considerably reduce the quality of your sperm according to a study published last year. Researchers also reported that alcohol consumption caused adverse changes in reproductive hormone levels.
9. Steer clear of anabolic steroids
Although I highly recommend that you lose weight if you are overweight or obese, please don’t try to do so by using anabolic steroids. Research indicates that these could significantly reduce sperm count (some individuals taking steroids may not even have any viable sperm left) and quality. This being said, if you have taken steroids in the past; don’t beat yourself up: your sperm production should get back on track within 3 to 12 months after you stop taking the drug.
Top 10 nutrients and foods that can help increase sperm count and quality
Folate is probably the most routinely prescribed female prenatal supplement. However, dads would also benefit from this getting enough of this B vitamin: paternal folate deficiencies have been linked to not only reduced sperm count and motility, but to sperm DNA damage that can contribute to conditions such as autism, diabetes, cancer and schizophrenia.
Animal sources: Liver, crab, eggs, halibut, beef, chicken.
Plant sources: Spinach, legumes, Brussels’ sprouts, broccoli, mustard greens.
How much: 400μg/day
Note: Folate is NOT the same thing as folic acid – folate is natural whereas folic acid is synthetic and has been linked to cancer. If you choose to supplement with folate, select products that contain either the Metfolin brand or list ‘5-MTHF’ or ‘5-methyltetrahydrofolate’ on the label.
2. Vitamin B12
This vitamin is needed for optimal sperm concentration – liver from grass-fed cattle is one of the best sources of both folate and vitamin B12.
How much: At least 3oz per week.
Note: If you choose to supplement, select methylcobalamin – steer clear of cyanocobalamin.
3. Vitamin C
We typically only think of vitamin C as a nutrient that helps protect against the common cold. However, it is now known that this vitamin can protect the sperm’s DNA against free radical damage. In one study, participants who received 200mg/day or 1000mg/day of vitamin C showed a 112% and 140% increase in their sperm count respectively. Those who received the placebo did not experience any increase in sperm count. Vitamin C may also help improve the sperm’s motility and structure.
Dietary sources: Bell peppers, citrus fruits, kiwifruit, broccoli, cauliflower, tomato, green leafy vegetables.
Note: If you choose to supplement with vitamin C, I highly recommend you opt for natural products like amla, acerola cherry or camu camu instead of synthetic vitamin C.
How much: 90mg/day
4. Vitamin D
Research suggests that the sunshine vitamin could help boost sperm quality and make the little fellows better at swimming towards the female egg. Vitamin D could also improve the sperms’ speed and make it easier for them to penetrate the egg. It appears that vitamin D is able to increase calcium levels in the sperm – this in turn increases motility as well as the sperms’ ‘acrosome reaction’ which is a series of reactions that enable the sperm to fuse and penetrate the egg. The researchers also reported that men with vitamin D levels below 25nM had a lower proportion of motile sperm, sperm that were motile and could propel forwards and sperm that were a normal shape, than men with vitamin D levels above 75 nM.
Dietary sources: The best source of vitamin D is from the sun but you can also get some from fatty fish, eggs, high-vitamin cod liver oil mushrooms
How much: 2000 – 5000 IU/day
- Ask a physician to test your levels before you begin supplementation and then test again after a few months to determine what dose you need. You want to check your blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D by asking for a 25(OH)D test since testing for the activated vitamin D (1,25-vitamin D) will not give an accurate picture of your vitamin D levels.
- If you choose to supplement , make sure to get vitamin D 3 and not vitamin D 2 .
- Since vitamin D is a fat-soluble nutrient, it’s important that you take it with your heaviest meal of the day.
- If you have light skin, spend about 15 minutes directly exposed to the sun. If your skin is darker, aim for 30 minutes.
5. Vitamin E
This antioxidant vitamin can help protect the sperm’s outer membrane against free-radical induced damage.
Dietary sources: Nuts and nut butters, sunflower seeds, green vegetables, tomato paste, avocado, olive oil, high-vitamin cod liver oil.
How much: 15mg (22.4 IU) per day (avoid supplementing with vitamin E as it may cause more harm than good.)
You’ve probably heard that oysters are great for male fertility, right? Well, that’s because these sea creatures are rich in zinc, a mineral that helps protect the seminal plasma (the liquid portion of the semen which is in charge of keeping sperm cells healthy). If your diet is low in zinc, your sperm quality and semen volume will decline since a lack of zinc increases oxidative stress in the seminal plasma. In fact, increasing zinc intake has been shown to increase sperm count and fertilizing capacity while decreasing DNA damage, structural defects or antibodies to sperm.
Animal sources: Oysters, seafood, fish, poultry, red meat, and eggs.
Plant sources: Pulses, nuts, pumpkin seeds, whole grains and legumes – make sure to soak properly before consumption to get rid of the phytates naturally present in these foods (these phytates bind to and inhibit zinc absorption).
How much: 30mg/day to a maximum of 60mg/day
This mineral is needed for maintaining optimal sperm motility – in one study, 69 infertile individuals who took selenium alone or combined with other vitamins experienced significant improvements in sperm motility. Moreover, when combined with N-acetylecysteine (NAC), all measures of sperm quality were improved (check the ‘natural supplements’ section below).
Animal sources: Organ meats and seafood (especially cod, tuna, halibut, sardines, and salmon); muscle meats such as beef, turkey, and lamb; butter and raw milk from grass-fed cows, and eggs from pastured hens.
Plant sources: Brazil nuts are terrific sources of Selenium – just 2 nuts per day will provide you with 200 micrograms! Mushrooms also contain some selenium.
How much: 200 to 225μg/day
8. Omega-3 fatty acids
Did you know that for sperm cells to be able to fuse with an egg, their membranes (cell walls) need very specific characteristics which come mostly from omega-3 fatty acids? In fact, men with low levels of omega-3 fatty acids or low ratios of omega-3 to omega-6 have been found to have low sperm counts or poor quality sperm. Conversely, those with higher omega-3 levels and ratios show improved sperm motility, structure and concentration.
Animal sources (eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) : Fish and seafood (especially the wild type); fish liver oils.
Plant sources (alpha-linolenic acid, ALA): Walnuts, flax, hemp and chia seeds.
- Only 2 to 5% and 5 to 10% of ALA can be converted into EPA and DHA respectively.
- If you choose to supplement, make sure to also eat fatty fish at least twice a week and select a supplement that contains only omega-3s (not a mixture of omega 3, 6 and 9).
How much: About 1,850mg of combined EPA and DHA daily.
What do tomatoes, pink grapefruit, papaya, wolfberry and gojiberries have in common? You’re right: lycopene. This powerful natural antioxidant could help improve sperm health. In one small study, men with suboptimal fertility were given lycopene: 66% showed improvement in sperm concentration, 53% had improved motility, and 46% showed improved numbers of normal sperm forms. Moreover, 23% of the participants achieved fatherhood!
Scientists believe that lycopene is able to exert these sperm-friendly effects by protecting the sperm against free radical damage. It also reduces the adverse effects of advanced-glycation end-products (AGEs) which are substances formed when proteins combine with sugar following prolonged exposure (glycation).
Dietary sources: Cooked tomatoes, pink grapefruit, papaya, wolfberry and gojiberries.
How much: 2mg twice daily (preferably from your diet)
10. Coconut oil
Rich in lauric acid, virgin coconut oil can help:
- Improve sperm quality by regulating sex hormones.
- Promote a healthy erection.
- Reduce inflammation in the body while helping to strengthen the immune system.
The 4 best natural supplements to increase sperm count and quality
1. Maca (Lepidium meyenii)
Revered by Aztec warriors, maca is a reputed aphrodisiac and fertility enhancer in the same family as broccoli. According to recent research, maca can help enhance sperm production and motility without affecting the male sex hormones. Interestingly, this root has also been shown to improve libido and reduce sexual dysfunction caused by antidepressant drugs such as Prozac and Zoloft.
How much: About 500 to 3,000mg per day as one dose or throughout the day for at least 8 weeks.
Check out this article for tips on how to choose the right maca.
2. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine, Ashwaghanda root powder can treat stress-related infertility and may help improve sperm quality by reducing glycation, protecting the sperm against oxidation, and enhancing levels of antioxidant vitamins A, C and E in the seminal fluid. Ashwaghanda can also ameliorate levels of male sex hormones.
How much: 5g per day for 3 months.
Your little swimmers have a long journey to cover before they even enter the female reproductive system. Hence, they need a lot of energy and that is where L-carnitine comes in: studies suggest that carnitine is involved in both sperm energy production and motility. The supplement can also help improve sperm count.
Dietary sources: Beef, fish, chicken, dairy products
How much: 1g three times per day for 3 months.
4. Coenzyme Q10
This natural antioxidant produced by the body is used by our cells for energy production. In other words, coenzyme Q10 help ‘energize’ sperm cells while also protecting them against free radical damage.
Dietary sources: Heart, liver, kidney, sardines, mackerel and peanuts.
- If you are taking statins, make sure to ask your physician about supplementing with coenzyme Q10 – these cholesterol-lowering drugs can reduce serum levels of coenzyme Q10 by 40%!
- If you choose to supplement, stick with ubiquinone since there is no evidence that ubiquinol is more effective.
- Coenzyme Q10 is fat soluble so make sure to take it with a fat-containing meal.
- If you’re under 60: 50 to 100mg/day
- If you’re on a statin drug: 100 to 200mg/day
- If you’ve had a recent heart surgery, congestive heart failure or heart attack: 200 to 300mg/day
Keep in mind that sperm cells need three months to fully develop and mature – it will take as many months for your diet and lifestyle changes to have an effect on your sperm quality. Women struggling with infertility may want to try some of these herbs proven to facilitate conception.