The Facts About Sperm Health
Contributing your sperm is half the equation when it comes to conceiving a child with your partner, and sperm health plays a key role in your chances of success.
You may never have given a thought to the health of your sperm, but now that you want to father children, knowing whether your sperm is healthy is important. While you can make a difference with lifestyle choices, sperm health also depends on genetics and possible diseases.
If you and your partner are unable to conceive after one year of unprotected sex, then one or both of you may have medical issues preventing pregnancy. For men, here is some information to consider before scheduling an appointment with a physician who specializes in fertility.
An overview of sperm health
Generally, the quality of your sperm's health is determined by four factors: sperm count, shape and structure, and motility or movement.
Healthy sperm are abundant in your semen when you ejaculate, have oval heads and long tails to propel them successfully to the fallopian tubes and have good motility—or at least 40 percent of them do.
However, sperm is a lot more fragile than you might think, and there are a number of factors that contribute to its quality, quantity and health, such as health conditions and medical treatments.
Signs of unhealthy sperm
You may have unhealthy sperm for one or more reasons:
- Sperm disorder
- Hormonal imbalance
- Prior chemotherapy even if it's for another cancer can impact fertility
- Swollen veins in your scrotum, a condition known as varicoceles
- Antibodies from an injury or infection
- Chromosomal defects
There are also sperm disorders that can affect a man's fertility by inhibiting his ability to grow sperm, hindering the shape of the sperm (which in turn causes the motility to suffer) and causing sperm to move slowly. For example, the sperm disorder oligospermia has you not producing enough sperm to be considered fertile. Another sperm disorder is azoospermia, in which you can't produce sperm in the ejaculate.
Causes of sperm disorders
Sperm disorders can have many causes: They may be hereditary or the result of lifestyle choices such as tobacco use, prescription and recreational drugs and alcohol abuse.
Hormone imbalance can also be a problem. For example, having too little testosterone—the hormone largely responsible for healthy sperm growth—is a sign you may have unhealthy sperm resulting from a sperm disorder. You may also have too much estrogen, which could inhibit the growth of healthy sperm.
If you received radiation therapy or a combination of radiation therapy and chemotherapy for testicular cancer, your sperm could be permanently damaged. Radiation therapy can change how much sperm you produce and lower the quality in terms of structure and shape.
Varicoceles—swollen veins in your scrotum—can also cause unhealthy sperm. It does this by inhibiting blood from draining properly, allowing blood from your abdomen to flow back into your scrotum. This raises the temperature of your scrotum (which should ideally be a few degrees below your body temperature) and makes it too hot for sperm to grow. About 40 percent of men who are experiencing fertility issues suffer from varicoceles.
Additionally, autoimmune diseases can negatively affect sperm health. An autoimmune disease is one in which your body mistakenly believes healthy cells or tissues are a virus or infection and tries to destroy them. In the case of an autoimmune disease, your body's antibodies will attack sperm as they grow.
Chromosomal defects contribute to unhealthy sperm, too, as genetic conditions can cause your sperm to reproduce incorrectly, lacking the DNA needed for conception.
A genetic condition that can lead to unhealthy sperm is Klinefelter syndrome. The identifying genetic characteristic of Klinefelter syndrome is an additional X (XXY) chromosome. Physical manifestations of Klinefelter syndrome include small testicles, enlarged breasts, small penises, little pubic or facial hair and a low desire for sex. Klinefelter syndrome also causes little to no sperm production and growth.
How to improve sperm health naturally
Many unhealthy sperm conditions can be addressed and improved naturally. If your sperm is less healthy than is optimal, there are lifestyle changes you can make to give you and your sperm a boost into better health.
Making some smart dietary changes can greatly improve your sperm health. For example, try adding lean proteins such as chicken and fish to your diet and eliminating all processed meats: bacon, salami, hot dogs and pepperoni. Also, eating more vegetables and fruits is good, especially fresh or frozen varieties, since the process of canning fruits and vegetables generally reduces nutrients, adds sugar and loads up on sodium.
You can also boost your sperm health by including healthy sources of fat, such as the fats you get from walnuts, olive oil and avocados, in moderation.
Another natural way to possibly ensure healthy sperm is to supplement your diet with CoQ10 (ubiquinone). Ubiquinone is one of your body's naturally occurring antioxidants that prevent or moderate cell damage caused by free radicals, the cells the body produces in response to your environment.
Ubiquinone can improve the integrity and movement of abnormally structured sperm, so it is worth looking into if you have a low sperm count or if your sperm don't travel well when you ejaculate.
Adding a daily exercise routine is another way to naturally help improve sperm health. While you want to avoid high-intensity daily training since that can cause the temperature to rise in your scrotum and decrease sperm production, you should engage in moderate exercise regularly.
Carrying around excess weight can be detrimental to healthy sperm production, and exercising will help you lose extra pounds. Additionally, exercise can help reduce your stress levels, which can also impact sperm health.
Aim for 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week. Go to the park or walk around your neighborhood before you start work in the morning or after you eat dinner.
You can also improve the health of your sperm naturally by limiting—or eliminating —alcohol and by discontinuing any recreational drug and tobacco use.
When to see a doctor about your sperm health
If you've taken lifestyle steps to improve your sperm health and you and your partner are still unable to get pregnant, you should consult with a urologist with experience in fertility issues. Since they can arise from either partner (or both), your partner should consider evaluation by an OB-GYN.
A urologist will do comprehensive testing, including physically examining your genitals for abnormalities, taking a semen sample and possibly doing bloodwork. If your urologist believes there is a need to do an ultrasound of your testicles to check for tumors, that may also be ordered during the visit.
Once your urologist has evaluated the results of the tests, they will make recommendations on the next steps to increase your fertility, so you and your partner might be able to conceive successfully.
You may need to make more lifestyle changes. If you are taking prescription medications that could be affecting the health of your sperm, the urologist may change them or take you off them temporarily.
Medical conditions that cause poor sperm health—even cancerous tumors in your testicles—do not necessarily mean you cannot father children. Talk with your urologist and learn about the procedures available to you for increasing your chances of conceiving.
Poor sperm health, in many instances, is treatable, but it's important for you and your partner to take the first step to success: find a source of trusted medical help to assess the viability of your fertility.