Although often not as critical as egg quality, sperm quality can in some cases have a significant effect on your likelihood of conceiving, and it is time to rethink the assumption that the father’s age and lifestyle factors are irrelevant. If you know or suspect that male factor infertility is part of your challenge in conceiving, it will be particularly valuable to apply the recommendations in the bottom of this blog post, which explains the specific nutrients that affect sperm quality. Even if you have no cause for concern about sperm quality, you will learn why it is important for all men trying to conceive to take a daily multivitamin to increase the chance of success.
Most couples who are trying to conceive are never told the basic facts about sperm quality and male fertility. This lack of information deprives men of the chance to take simple steps to improve their fertility – steps that are backed up by years of scientific research.
If a couple has difficulty conceiving due to poor sperm quality, the focus usually shifts to fertility treatments that can circumvent the issue rather than address it. A more rational approach is to tackle the underlying cause and find solutions for poor sperm quality. But first, we need to dispel some of pervasive myths surrounding male fertility.
Myth 1: Difficulty conceiving can usually be attributed to the female partner
Contrary to popular belief, male infertility contributes to nearly 50% of all cases in which a couple has difficulty conceiving. The misconception that female infertility is more common may be due to the fact that treatment in a fertility clinic typically entails many procedures, medications, and injections for women but not for men.
Even though the female partner is nearly always the main focus of fertility treatments such as IUI and IVF, in many cases these treatments are needed only to circumvent problems with sperm quality rather than any female fertility issues. Yet even with these advanced fertility treatments as a work-around, low sperm quality can remain a limiting factor and can increase the risk of miscarriage. In the end, whether a couple is trying to conceive naturally or through IVF, the male side of the equation should not be ignored.
Part of the problem is that traditional semen analysis done in fertility clinics is woefully inadequate. Three standard measures are analyzed during a conventional semen analysis (together termed “semen parameters”):
Sperm Count/Concentration: the number of sperm per unit of volume of semen,
Motility: the sperm’s ability to swim properly toward the egg,
Morphology: the percent of sperm that have a normal shape and overall appearance.
While a problem in any one of these parameters will definitely make it more difficult to conceive, this traditional semen analysis does not tell the whole story. The screening may come back perfectly normal, even though poor sperm quality remains a barrier to conceiving. This is because the traditional measures do not adequately investigate the quality of the DNA inside the sperm.
The latest research suggests that DNA quality matters more than conventional semen parameters. The term “DNA quality” reflects whether the DNA has individual mutations, extra or missing copies of chromosomes, or physical breaks in the DNA strands. This last type of damage results in fragmentation of the chromosomes and is the type of damage most often used to measure DNA quality in sperm.
Each type of damage to DNA causes its own set of problems: decreased chance of fertilization, decreased chance of the embryo successfully implanting to become a pregnancy, and increased risk of the child being born with a serious birth defect or a genetic disease caused by a new spontaneous mutation.
Evidence is emerging that DNA damage in sperm also increases the risk of miscarriage. In one recent study, researchers found much higher levels of DNA damage in sperm from couples with a history of unexplained miscarriage, suggesting that this DNA damage could be a contributing factor to pregnancy loss.
In short, the extent of DNA damage in sperm is an important factor for any couple trying to conceive.
Myth 2: Male fertility does not decline until after age 50
The reality is that a typical 45-year-old man is significantly less fertile than a man 10 years younger, with sperm quality beginning to decline as early as age 35. A large part of the reason for this decline is that sperm from older men have more DNA breakage, DNA mutations, and other chromosomal abnormalities. In fact, DNA fragmentation in sperm doubles from ages 30–45.
The age-related decline in male fertility is often overlooked. Many people wrongly assume that while an older mother is more likely to miscarry or have a baby with a birth defect such as Down’s syndrome, the father’s age has no impact on these outcomes. Research shows that fathers over the age of 40 have a 20% greater chance of having a baby with a serious birth defect. And as a result of the DNA errors that increase with age, men over 50 are twice as likely to have a child with autism when compared with men under 29. Higher levels of DNA damage in sperm also more than double the risk of miscarriage.
It is not just the DNA inside sperm that suffers with increasing age. Sperm motility starts to decline at age 35, and age also negatively impacts sperm count and morphology.
But it’s not all bad news. Research also shows that some of this decline can be prevented and reversed, with several studies finding that older men following a healthy diet and taking the right supplements have sperm quality similar to younger men. This brings us to the most significant myth of all.
Myth 3: Nothing can be done to improve sperm quality
Decades of scientific research contradict this widely held belief and show that it is possible to improve sperm quality and even improve the quality of the DNA within the sperm. Doing so has a whole host of benefits: increasing the chance of conceiving (whether naturally or in conjunction with assisted reproduction such as IVF) and reducing the risk of miscarriage and birth defects.
To understand what you can do to improve sperm quality, it helps to first understand how sperm become damaged in the first place.
The cycle of producing each sperm takes a little over two months. During this time, many different environmental and lifestyle factors can impact the process, for better or worse. Yet by far the most important factor impacting sperm quality during this time is the level of oxidation.
Oxidation is a chemical reaction in the body that is analogous to metal rusting or an apple turning brown. As sperm are produced, a normal, healthy level of oxidation takes place as a result of biological processes, and an army of defenders stop this oxidation from getting out of control. The defense system includes antioxidants such as vitamins C and E (semen contains a particularly high concentration of vitamin C), along with special enzymes that exist solely to protect sperm against oxidative damage.
When lifestyle factors such as toxin exposure or vitamin deficiencies cause too much oxidation or compromise the antioxidant defense system, the result is oxidative damage, which is thought to be a contributing factor in up to 80% of all cases of male infertility.
Oxidation impacts the conventional semen parameters (sperm count, motility, and morphology) as well as the amount of damage to sperm DNA. Research at the Cleveland Clinic has confirmed that men with high levels of oxidation in semen have more extensive DNA fragmentation and fewer normally functioning sperm.
Medical problems such as infections, blockages, and enlarged veins (varicocele) account for about a quarter of cases of male infertility. If you are affected by one of these conditions, you may need medication or a minor surgical procedure to improve your sperm quality. Yet such conventional medical treatment does not obviate the need to also pay attention to lifestyle and nutritional factors that can improve sperm quality.
The reality is that natural approaches to improving sperm quality may be even more critical in men with urological conditions because many conditions contribute to infertility by causing an increase in oxidative damage to sperm.
Improving sperm quality may also be particularly critical when the female partner has poor egg quality. Unlike sperm, eggs have specialized machinery that can repair DNA damage, which allows eggs to overcome some of the negative effect of damaged sperm. Yet the DNA repair process only works effectively in good-quality eggs. An egg from an older woman may not be able to adequately repair the DNA damage from poor-quality sperm, making it even more difficult to conceive.
The good news is that for most men, sperm quality is at least partly within your control through vitamin supplements and other simple steps you can take to guard against oxidative damage and thereby protect your fertility.
Take a daily multivitamin, ideally several months before trying to conceive, and consider also taking a CoQ10 supplement,
Further boost your vitamin and antioxidant levels with a diet rich in brightly colored fruits and vegetables,
Take steps to reduce your exposure to toxins known to damage sperm: phthalates, BPA, lead, and the chemicals in commercial lubricants,
Reduce alcohol consumption, particularly in the lead-up to IVF,
Keep your cell phone out of your pocket when you can,