Combating Male Infertility: Tips for Making Strong Sperm
At Wholesome Story, we're becoming increasingly aware of the challenges facing many men who want to become fathers but have fertility struggles. Guys, this post is for you.
Male infertility/subfertility isn’t something we talk about very much, but we’re dedicating this post to our gentlemen. Guys, we get it, you want to be a dad, and we’re sure you’ll be a great one, so here is some info to help you get closer to that all-important goal of becoming an amazing father.
Male fertility has been steadily declining over the last few decades. In fact, one recent study showed that the average man’s sperm count has decreased by 59% in the last 40 years. In regular-people speak, this means that, a few decades ago, the average dude’s spunk had almost 60% more sperm in it! 1
So, what has led to this precipitous decline in the number of viable sperm the average man produces?
While researchers say that it’s a combination of several things and they admit that they probably don’t know about all of them yet, they do point to several, specific changes in our environment and lifestyles over the last fifty years that contribute heavily to male infertility/subfertility. Let’s dive in and see what’s going on, so we can talk about what you can do in your own life and body to improve your fertility and increase your chances of making a beautiful baby.
Stuff that Throws off Your Sperm’s Groove
Let’s check out some specific factors that can negatively affect your sperm count, motility, integrity, and overall happiness.
Oxidative stress is something most people don’t consider when they think of their health, but it’s super important. This kind of stress refers to submicroscopic damage that occurs from having too many free radicals (molecules in your body that induce oxidative reactions, i.e., cause damage). Free radicals damage your body by literally blowing holes in your cells that your body must then repair. 2
In the last half-century, our environment has been virtually blanketed with sources of oxidative stress. Common sources include, but are not limited to: processed foods and drinks, sun/UV exposure, smoking, and exposure to a variety of chemicals and toxins such as pesticides, building materials, and cleaning products.
Unsurprisingly, many people have very high levels of oxidative stress. And, if your oxidative stress is high, then your body is overwhelmed with having to fix millions and millions of teeny, tiny wounds to your individual cells. 2 As you can imagine, this is not great for fertility since the cells in your reproductive organs, along with the rest of the body, are affected by oxidative stress.
Exposure to products that cause oxidative stress is a big deal for a lot of people whether they realize it or not. In fact, oxidative stress is reported to be a major factor in 30-80% of male infertility. 4
Next on our list of junk messing up your spunk is a little-acknowledged category of chemicals called endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs).
Certain compounds in plastics such as bisphenol A (BPA), and additives in hygiene products such as phthalates, are examples of EDCs that can disrupt your body’s hormonal system and reduce the amount and/or quality of sperm you produce. 4
For men, EDCs that mimic estrogen can be particularly detrimental, as increased estrogen levels in men are closely tied to fertility issues.
If you want to know more about what kinds of EDCs may be contributing to your or your partner’s fertility difficulties, follow this link to learn from the experts.
Poor Eating Patterns
Try not to cry, OK? You knew this subject was coming, and now it’s here.
Researchers have found that certain foods and food groups are strongly correlated with male infertility/subfertility. Remember when we told you that scary fact about the average man producing almost 60% fewer sperm today than he did just 40 years ago? Scientists believe a big piece of the puzzle is the way the American diet has changed since the 1950s.
The standard American diet is now very full of processed meats like deli meats and bacon, high-fat dairy like whole milk and cheese, sugary foods such as sodas and desserts, and foods high in unhealthy fats such as chips, packaged cakes, french fries, mayonnaise, etc. 5 Most Americans eat far more of these foods now than they did half a century ago, and they also eat fewer vegetables and fruits. 4
Processed foods like these have chemicals and other compounds in them that encourage inflammation and microscopic damage throughout the body; they also generally don’t contain many high-value nutrients that can combat these effects.
Basically, the standard American diet is high in calories and chemicals, but low in vitamins, minerals, and health-promoting plant compounds like antioxidants and fiber, which very often leads to long-term health problems including infertility/subfertility. 5
Now, your diet doesn’t have to be perfect, and treating yourself now and then is OK, even if you’re trying to get healthy. Balance is really the key. So, if you have McDonald’s for dinner one night that’s ok, just be sure to counteract it with healthy choices for the next few days.
We also need to talk about booze.
Alcohol can be consumed in moderation, up to 10 drinks per week for men, but these drinks should be spaced out and not consumed all in one night. 6 Regularly drinking to intoxication, even if it’s once per week, can have a negative impact on your fertility health.
So, have a beer with dinner if you want, but not three of them. Enjoy alcohol minimally if you want to imbibe and don’t drink to intoxication. 6 Drunk sperm don’t swim straight… metaphorically speaking.
Great, Now Life’s No Fun.
First of all, that’s a little dramatic, don’t you think? And second, let’s talk about the wonderful ways you can support your health and the health of your all-important swimmers so we can get to the good stuff…making a baby!
Combating Oxidative Stress
Consuming lots of antioxidants can help to bring a more favorable balance to the number of oxidative vs antioxidant molecules in your body, thereby reducing the amount of damage done by oxidative molecules.
You see, antioxidant molecules can neutralize oxidative molecules in the body and make them unable to inflict damage.
Foods high in antioxidants include lots of fruits and vegetables, especially beans, berries, and dark leafy greens. 7 So, if you like southern food, load up on collard greens, if you’ve got a sweet tooth, try your hand at making a reduced-sugar berry crumble, and if you’re a chili guy then by all means indulge in a bean-filled bowl of antioxidant goodness.
And of course, avoiding sources of oxidative stress when possible is best practice. So, wear sunblock, don’t smoke, and eat mostly plant-based foods full of phytochemicals that will nourish and protect your precious cells.
Combating Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs)
Ugh, EDCs are just gross. They’re toxic, disease-causing chemicals that are trying to deprive you of parenthood and make you sick! 8
As mentioned previously, many scientists believe that the recent, dramatic reduction in sperm numbers and in sperm quality among younger men is largely due to the widespread presence of EDCs in our environment. 8
To help avoid EDCs, we recommend buying non-BPA-lined canned goods, buying organic when possible, and using glass, ceramic, or stainless steel dishes and cookware. You should also review the ingredient lists on all your shampoos, soaps, lotions, etc. to ensure that you’re not coating your body with EDCs.
Again, if you want more information, follow this link to get tips from the experts on how to reduce EDCs in your life.
Combating Poor Eating Patterns
Just eat healthy foods right? Not always so simple and easy, we know that.
Let’s talk specifics. We already discussed those unhelpful protein sources, the ones our culture thinks of as manly but that can reduce sperm creation and lessen the quality of your sperm…not very manly if you ask us.
Now let’s talk about what you should eat instead of those foods.
Manly, protein-rich foods that will help your sperm grow healthy and strong include beans, nuts, seeds, eggs, and fish. 5 These protein sources are full of health-promoting nutrients, besides protein, like fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and more!
Fiber is great for more than just a relaxing trip to the powder room. Fiber does lots of things, including helping to rid the body of excess estrogen. You read that right, beans are manlier than beef because they actually help keep your testosterone-to-estrogen ratio at a more He-Man level as opposed to a Pee-wee Herman one. 4
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Cold-water fish and certain nuts and seeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, and zinc. These nutrients are super important in spermatogenesis (sperm creation) and also in fighting inflammation. 5
Make beans, nuts, seeds, eggs, and fatty, cold-water fish your go-to protein sources, and your sperm will thank you.
More neutral sources of protein include lean poultry and low-fat dairy.
As for everything else you should put on your plate, get lots of fruits and vegetables every day and choose whole grains over refined ones whenever possible, as these choices will provide even more nutrients, and estrogen-binding fiber to keep your sperm strong and happy. 5
We have good news! When consumed in moderation, caffeine from coffee, tea, and chocolate has not been shown to have negative effects, so you can keep enjoying your morning coffee worry-free! 5
And, if you’re one of those people who usually has a beer with dinner, you could try iced tea as a way to enjoy some cold, amber deliciousness. And, bonus, tea is super high in antioxidants that can actually HELP your fertility! (Just don’t load up on too much sugar.)
Don’t Get Discouraged!
If you’re feeling overwhelmed at the thought of switching up your whole diet, then start small. Add some good things in before you start cutting things out. Or, try out some healthy swaps in your favorite meals.
Spaghetti for dinner? Instead of beef in your red sauce, try ground turkey or canned lentils, and add on a side of veggies like broccoli or carrots.
Is Mountain Dew your go-to beverage? Set a limit for how much you’re allowed to have in a day and replace the rest with water, tea, or coffee.
Usually have bacon for breakfast? Indulge in some healthy, high-fat foods like peanut butter or avocado to satisfy your fat craving.
For those interested in finding a diet to support fertility, check out the Mediterranean Diet! Studies show that this eating pattern is strongly correlated with better semen parameters…aka stronger baby-making materials! 9
You Can Do It!
Small changes really can make a big difference over time. The key is to take manageable steps toward your goal and view them as permanent lifestyle changes that you will stick to. And, if your ultimate goal is to become a father, then you’ve got some good motivation to get healthy habits going before your little bundle of joy comes along and learns how to live life by your example.
So, there you have it. To help your body create baby-making sperm that are prepared to swim the great swim and make you a father, you can: combat oxidative stress, reduce exposure to EDCs, and make smarter food choices. 2,4,5
This can look like choosing organic foods, opting for healthier protein and fat sources, reducing your intake of processed foods, and ridding your home of all unnecessary chemicals that can cause hormone disruption, such as BPA. 5 These are simple changes, but admittedly difficult ones for many people to make. So, take it one step at a time and be gracious to yourself.
You’ve got this!
In parting, remember that eating healthy, whole foods, and lots of plant foods, is one of the simplest, safest, and most effective things we can do to promote good health in our bodies. As with every preventative/restorative measure though, sometimes these changes alone are not enough to help our bodies function the way we want or need them to.
If you are struggling with health problems, please contact your doctor or other healthcare provider such as a Naturopathic Doctor, Dietitian, or Mental Health Professional to see if they can offer appropriate guidance and care. We at Wholesome Story believe that healthy communities require community effort, so we advise you to keep your healthcare community aware and involved in your journey as you pursue better health.
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- Edwin McDonald MD. Diet and male fertility: Foods that affect sperm count. Diet and male fertility: Foods that affect sperm count - UChicago Medicine. https://www.uchicagomedicine.org/forefront/health-and-wellness-articles/dont-make-the-mistake-of-letting-a-diet-kill-sperm. Published December 10, 2018. Accessed June 3, 2022.
- Pham-Huy LA, He H, Pham-Huy C. Free radicals, antioxidants in disease and health. International journal of biomedical science : IJBS. June 2008. Accessed June 5, 2023. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3614697/.
- Anupbiochemist@gmail.com. Free Radical. Bioscience Notes. October 8, 2018. Accessed June 5, 2023. https://www.biosciencenotes.com/free-radical/.
- Palmer S. Improving male fertility - research suggests a nutrient-dense diet may play an integral role. Today's Dietitian. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/060113p40.shtml. Published June 2013. Accessed June 3, 2022.
- Skoracka K, Eder P, Łykowska-Szuber L, Dobrowolska A, Krela-Kaźmierczak I. Diet and nutritional factors in male (in)fertility-underestimated factors. Journal of clinical medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7291266/. Published May 9, 2020. Accessed June 3, 2022.
- Urinary & Kidney Team. Struggling to become a father? what you eat may matter. Cleveland Clinic. March 11, 2022. Accessed June 5, 2023. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/struggling-to-become-a-father-what-you-eat-may-matter/.
- Reilly CT. Top 20 foods high in antioxidants - st. john's health. St. John's Health. https://www.stjohns.health/documents/content/top-20-foods-high-in-antioxidants.pdf. Accessed June 3, 2022.
- Rehman S, Usman Z, Rehman S, et al. Endocrine disrupting chemicals and impact on male reproductive health. Translational andrology and urology. June 2018. Accessed June 5, 2023. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6043754/.
- Karayiannis D, Kontogianni MD, Mendorou C, Douka L, Mastrominas M, Yiannakouris N. Association between adherence to the Mediterranean diet and semen quality parameters in male partners of couples attempting fertility. Academic.oup.com. January 2017. Accessed June 5, 2023. https://academic.oup.com/humrep/article/32/1/215/2513723?login=false.
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