In this series of articles I will take you through some of the major aspects people face in trying to conceive. If you would like to catch up on the previous articles just read the following:
- Sowing a Seed: Improving Fertility with Seeds and Oil
- Fertility & Folic Acid – Why taking folic acid may not be enough
We all know that men carry half the genetic code required for a creating a baby, yet women are always the center of attention when it comes to unexplained fertility. Of course, it’s very easy to focus on the mother; after all she’s the one who does all the hard work. However, we mustn’t forget poor old Dad – and more specifically, his sperm and how to make sure it’s healthy!
Male fertility is all about healthy sperm and healthy sperm increases your chance of developing a healthy baby.
Understanding Male Fertility: Anatomy
When analyzing male fertility, there are two things to consider: male reproductive anatomy and sperm quality. Let’s start at the beginning and look at the anatomical and structural issues.
Male reproductive anatomy includes the testicles (testes), penis and all the tubes and seminal vesicles (the glands that secrete semen) inside. In order to make a baby, not only does the male body need to produce healthy quantities of sperm, but it also needs to move the sperm from within the testicles where it is produced along the penis and into the woman’s vagina even before it starts its long journey to meet the egg as it emerges from the fallopian tube. Male anatomy is key to the production and transporting of the sperm and there are many potential problems that can occur along the way, both genetically or as a result of injury, infection, autoimmune or genetics. Any of these can interfere with the process.
A swelling of the veins that drains the testicle and can cause problems in sperm quantity and quality.
Blockages at any of the locations the sperm travels through on its journey from the testicle to the female fallopian tube can make the journey harder, if not impossible. They can be caused by structural damage or scarring from previous surgeries. Blockages can also be caused by defects of the tubules that transport sperm.
- Undescended testes
Undescended testes don’t tend to produce sufficient high quality sperm.
- Ejaculation problems
Can be premature, delayed or retrograde ejaculation. Retrograde ejaculation occurs when semen enters the bladder during orgasm instead of exiting out of the penis.
Undiagnosed infections can interfere with sperm production and health or can cause scarring that blocks the passage of sperm.
- Autoimmune Antibodies
Anti-sperm antibodies are immune system cells that mistakenly identify sperm as harmful invaders and attempt to destroy them.
- Chromosome defects
These can cause genetic syndromes that lead to abnormal development of male reproductive organs. Cystic fibrosis is one example.
Understanding Male Fertility: Healthy Sperm
Healthy sperm are strong, straight swimmers who are able to make the long journey to find the female egg and there are multiple things to consider when optimizing the male genetic seed. The next thing to look at is the sperm and this also contains two elements we need to analyze – sperm and semen (the fluid that the sperm travels in):
A large part of semen is secreted by the seminal vesicles. Healthy semen contains sperm, enzymes (to help break through the female egg), fructose (to feed the sperm) and enough fluid to maximize fertility.
There needs to be enough semen to protect the sperm on their long journey to the egg.
If the semen is sticky and thick it makes it difficult for the sperm to travel smoothly and swiftly to their destination.
Having enough sperm to compete in the long journey from the male teste to the female fallopian tube is the essence of male fertility. If your sperm count is less than 15 million per milliliter of semen then you have what is called oligospermia. Having no sperm at all is called azoospermia.
This refers to how much sperm is in the semen sample. You could have lots of semen but low numbers of sperm in it. A healthy sperm concentration is 20 million sperm per milliliter.
The size and shape of the sperm directly relates to the genetic quality of the sperm. Healthy morphology is a key step to a successful fusion of egg and sperm. Normal sperm have an oval head with a long tail. Morphological defects refer to either the head or tail. Sperm with poor morphology have misshapen or enlarged heads or tails that are crooked or doubled. These morphologic defects can affect the ability of the sperm to swim to the egg or even its ability to penetrate it.
Vitality (percent alive)
Not only does there need to enough sperm, the sperm there is needs to be moving quickly with good vitality. Unhealthy sperm will be slow moving or perhaps not even moving at all.
This is how well the sperm move and is directly tied to morphology. If the sperm is defective and the shape of head and tail are abnormal then its ability to swim in a straight line is reduced. It’s a long way from the male testes to the egg and, if the sperm don’t take a direct, straight path, they will get lost and tired and may not make it.
There are many things that can affect sperm production. If you have low sperm count there are many lifestyle changes and food supplements that can be taken to improve sperm quantity, morphology and motility.
Improving Male Fertility: Lifestyle Choices
There are many factors in day-to-day life that can make a significant difference to sperm health. Some simple changes can make a big difference when it comes to improving male fertility.
Step away from the bong
I live in a state where cannabis is legal to buy and consume for medical and recreational use. This can affect the quality of sperm from multiple aspects. First, men who smoke moderate to heavy quantities of cannabis can have “stoned sperm” – literally the sperm can swim in circles rather than in the straight line needed to make their long journey to find and fertilize the egg. Second is that the cannabis plant family is estrogenic (that is, it acts as a phytoestrogen that mimics estrogen) and this can also affect sperm quantity and quality.
And it’s not just cannabis that causes problems, anabolic steroids taken to stimulate muscle strength and growth can cause the testicles to shrink and sperm production to decrease. Cocaine may also temporarily reduce the number and quality of your sperm
Smoking tobacco (and second hand smoke) can lower sperm count and reduce male fertility.
Drinking alcohol can lower testosterone levels, cause erectile dysfunction and decreased sperm production. Liver disease caused by excessive drinking also may lead to fertility problems.
Electromagnetic frequency (EMF’s) and Radiation exposure
EMF’s are emitted from all electronic devices. They can cause damage to sperm and affect both quantity and quality. Not wearing or carrying cell phones along the waist is important for sperm health as is sitting with your laptop on your knees. Laptops also get very warm which leads us to the next point.
There is a reason males have testicles on the outside of their bodies; if the testes get too hot they can literally cook the sperm and damage them. Therefore, your nice warm laptop can be preventing you from conceiving. Other simple adjustments can be made to keep the testes cool. Wearing boxers instead of briefs and staying out of hot tubs, hot baths and saunas when trying to conceive help to keep sperm at an ideal temperature. Sitting for prolonged periods of time can also heat up the testes. Men should take breaks from prolonged sitting to cool off the testes.
Healthy levels of testosterone are needed for sperm production. Testosterone in males is reduced when they are under stress – and what man in this day and age is not under stress? I check testosterone levels on all my male patients during annual exams. In addition to testosterone there are other hormones in the fertility pathway that can be affected, leading to reducing in sperm production.
Low thyroid hormone levels affect sperm production and can be a contributor to infertility. Fatigue, weight gain, hair loss, cold temperature can all be signs of low thyroid.
Heavy metals and industrial chemicals like benzenes, toluene, xylene, pesticides, herbicides, organic solvents, painting materials and lead may contribute to low sperm counts. If there is a history of exposure consult your Naturopath to help with a detox.
Obesity causes hormone changes which can affect sperm count.
Food Allergies and Celiac disease
These can cause inflammation, reduce nutrient absorption from the digestion and affect sperm and hormone production.
Long-term anabolic steroid use, cancer medications (chemotherapy), certain antifungal and antibiotic medications, some ulcer medications and other medications can impair sperm production and decrease male fertility.
Improving Male Fertility: Nutrients & Supplements
The following supplements can be taken to improve the health of the sperm. This is important for promoting healthy male sperm and I recommend starting to taken them before you start trying to conceive. These nutrients are important to develop plenty of healthy, well-shaped, strong sperm that can swim in a straight line and get to where they need to be. Healthy sperm are less likely to have genetic defects and therefore decrease the risk of miscarriage and babies with genetic health problems.
- Folic Acid / 5MTHF – 800- 1000mcg every day
Even men should take folic acid when trying to conceive because active folic acid is required for transcribing the genetic code of DNA.
- B 12 – 1000mcg a day
This is important for healthy DNA and energy production. Take
- Zinc – 60 mg a day
Increases sperm count, structure and motility. It can also increase sperm counts in individuals with low serum testosterone levels.
- Vitamin C – 500mg twice a day
Prevents the sperm from getting too sticky and clumping together.
- Selenium – 400mcg twice a day
Improves sperm quality, structure and motility. Selenium is an anti-oxidant and prevents damage to sperm DNA.
- Vitamin B6 – 50 mg a day
Important for hormonal health and sperm development.
- Vitamin D – 2000- 5000IU a day
The dose you need to take will depend on your geographical location, the time of year and your general exposure to sunlight; the closer you live to the equator the less supplementation you will need. Optimal levels of Vitamin D in the blood are associated with strong swimming sperm.
- Carnitine – 1 gram three times a day
Carnitine is an amino acid that can increase sperm count and improve sperm function.
- Arginine – 1500mg twice a day
This is an amino acid that can increase your sperm count.
- Co- Q 10 – 200mg a day
Increases sperm count. CoQ10 is important for energy production and is an anti-oxidant that helps protect our DNA from damage.
Men produce half of the genetic code that is required to make a healthy baby so improving sperm quality and quantity is therefore vital. This is often overlooked when a couple first starts trying to conceive and, as a result, most of the burden and stress often falls on the female. Although the female reproductive system can seem much more complex than the male’s there are also many variables that play into sperm health. When large quantities of strong, straight swimming sperm are present, the odds of conception and healthy offspring are increased. Join us next week when we will talk about polycystic ovarian disease and the role it plays in infertility.
If you and your partner are thinking about having a baby or, if you’ve been trying for a while with no success, then you can read more about my Naturopathic support for fertility or general naturopathic care for health and wellbeing.