The final post in a five-part series about fertility and the endocrine system.
By Andrea Fay, Nutritionist
Infertility is something that affects both men and women, but female reproduction seems to be disproportionately the focus of fertility issues in many cultures, including our own. That focus is probably because it’s the birthing person who carries and births the sweet babe. Sometimes old (and wrong) ideas die hard; for years common thought was that men’s contributions factored little into the ability to conceive or the overall health of the baby.
But research shows that simply isn’t true. The adage, “it takes two to tango” is real. Sperm plays a 50% role in the overall ability to procreate and approximately 30% of the responsibility for infertility. The other 30% is female related and the other 30% + is due to a combination of male/female issues and some unknown factors. Getting a proportionally accurate idea of infertility and realizing that those factors come from both men and women and involve lifestyle, diet, environment, diseases and genetics, helps us realize that we can change some things in our lives to increase fertility outcomes.
We’re not going to look at genetics or diseases but since lifestyle, diet and environment are areas we can affect, we’ll focus on those in this post. First, let’s start with the basics.
It’s the birds and bees, right?
It’s how babies are made: multiple sperm swim with all their might to fight their way to an egg or oocyte and after what seems like forever, one sperm penetrates through the layers of the oocyte, those two unite and bam, conception occurs. The cells multiply a bazillion times and voila— a baby. It’s an extremely simplified and slightly non-physiologically correct version—but how it actually happens is pretty magical, extremely specific, and the biology involved is off-the-charts amazing; it would take up this entire post, so we won’t go there today.
That description is something I’m sure you’re well aware of (I mean–I hope so if you’re reading this). And sperm is a vital part of the whole process, either through sex, insemination or IVF. The one invested in partnering for conception, should also be invested in delivering the healthiest sperm possible since sperm quantity, quality (shape of head and length of tail) and motility (ability to move forward/strength of tail) has an effect on the ability to conceive and has also shown to have an effect on the health of the baby produced from that one small but extremely important seed.
The rate of sperm health has dramatically lowered in countries that eat a Western-style diet; in fact, a whopping 60% decline in sperm count has happened in the past 40 years. Testosterone levels have also lowered over the years. There are quite a few factors that can contribute to that including endocrine disruptors and diet. And since sperm health has been shown to be associated with overall health and life expectancy, it seems we should start there.
Move Your Body
Research shows that men who exercise on a consistent basis and have a healthy weight have better sperm health and higher testosterone levels. It’s especially true for weight around the middle portion of your body. That type of fat converts testosterone into estrogen; males have estrogen in their bodies all the time, but if one endocrine balance of hormones is off, the whole system can be turned on its head. A balance of the correct levels of estrogen with naturally higher levels of testosterone are important because they increase sex drive and causes the production of sperm, increasing the overall sperm count.
We’ve talked about the importance of movement throughout this blog series and it applies to both men and women. The goal isn’t to be Adonis but to get your heart rate up and down and to increase the amount of oxygen circulating in your body. That oxygen makes its way to all your organs (including testicles) and increases sperm’s overall health and vitality. Too much exercise can have an opposite effect on fertility by decreasing testosterone levels, so be aware of your workouts. Do interval movement to get your heart rate up and down for 30 minutes every day.
We know that research shows lowered sperm count, shape and motility is affected by a western diet, some of those studies showed that men who ate a diet high in fruits, vegetables and beans had significantly better sperm health. There are some foods that are better than others. Try incorporating the following foods into your diet.
Antioxidants are extremely important in reducing the amount of damage free radicals can inflict on sperm. Eat vegetables, vegetables, fruits, beans and nuts. Those foods have a high level of antioxidants in them and are excellent for sperm and overall health. A study of 250 men showed that those who ate a greater amount of vegetables (specifically leafy greens and beans) and fruit had a greater sperm count and an increase in motility. Some antioxidants that have shown to specifically be associated with higher sperm counts are:
1. Co-enzyme Q10
- Fatty fish (tuna, mackerel, salmon, sardines)
- Organ Meats
- Sesame Seeds
2. Lycopene (think red):
- Cooked Tomatoes
- Red Cabbage
- Red Peppers
3. Vitamin C
- Sweet Potatoes
4. Vitamin D
Eighteen different studies have shown that vitamin D levels influence sperm count and testosterone levels. Lower levels of the vitamin were associated with low sperm count and motility as well as low testosterone. Vitamin D can be taken in a supplement form (D-3) but getting nutrients from food is often a better source since the different vitamins work in synergy together. One of the best ways to get vitamin D is by basking in the sun for 30 minutes a day.
- Fatty Fish (tuna, mackerel, salmon, sardines)
- Fortified foods (milk, cheese)
- Egg Yolk
This vitamin has been linked to sexual health and an increase in sperm concentration and count.
- Meat (beef, pork, lamb)
- Nuts (cashews, pine nuts, almonds)
- Seeds (hemp, sesame, pumpkin, flax, quinoa)
A vitamin that’s essential for both male and female reproduction (and pretty much every process in the body). For preconception, a folate vitamin should be taken, preferably a whole food vitamin or in the folate form.
- Leafy Greens (lettuce, kale, spinach)
- Nuts (walnuts)
- Citrus Fruits
- Fortified foods (cereal and grains)
A study showed that there was a 52% increase in sperm motility in men that took a 200-mcg supplement of selenium. That’s a high percentage affected. Only take a selenium supplement if directed by a medical professional since it is a mineral that can become toxic in your body. However, there are great foods to eat that contain selenium.
- Meat (beef, pork, chicken, turkey, lamb)
- Fish & Shellfish
- Brazil Nuts
- Sunflower Seeds
Polyunsaturated fats and specifically Omega-3 fats are amazing for overall health, and they’re instrumental in the development of the sperm membrane. Omega 3’s also significantly increase sperm count and motility. You can get Omega 3’s from many food sources but it can also come in the form of a supplement, such as fish oil (which often contains vitamin D as well).
- Fatty Fish (tuna, mackerel, salmon, sardines)
- Chia Seeds
- Walnuts & Pecans
- Flax Seeds
- Hemp Seeds
- Algae & Seaweed
- Krill & Fish Oil
Not all fats are good. You should limit saturated fats (fatty meats and dairy) and eliminate trans-fats from your diet entirely (check the label of foods you eat, it doesn’t show up in whole foods, only processed stuff).
We’ve looked at endocrine disruptors throughout this series and all those things apply to both men and women. They can come from many different sources. Be aware of the chemicals you use to clean with, pesticides in foods, chemicals cosmetics such as lotions, shampoos, plastics, and artificial fragrances.
BPA lined food cans, non-stick cooking skillets and pans are also a source of disruption to your endocrine system since they bind to estrogen receptors and affect male fertility. Pollution and environmental factors lower sperm counts; it’s been shown that in highly industrial areas men have lower sperm counts. We can’t eliminate our exposure to these different chemicals but being aware and limiting them can help aid in fertility and overall health.
Foods to Avoid
There are foods in the western diet that studies show lower sperm health. I get it, sometimes those things really taste great. A buttered bagel, BLT, or steak can make most people’s mouth water but it isn’t the greatest for health and if you’re eating to better your overall and fertility health, there are some foods to avoid.
- Processed meats
- Red meats
- High saturated fats
- Caffeine (has shown to damage DNA in sperm and decreases sperm count.)
- Alcohol (5 drinks per week is associated with decreased sperm count)
- High calorie diet
- Soy products (they mimic estrogen in the body throwing off the endocrine system)
Stress has also shown to cause lower sperm production. Take time to relax: breathe, get a massage, go for a walk and be mindful of taking care of yourself. This fertility journey can be some tough stuff and it takes its toll on both partners. Go out for date night and simply enjoy your partner. Sometimes planning for the future but living in the moment can help ease anxiety or stress from what life throws our way.
We hope you’ve journeyed with us through all of the posts on fertility in this series. We’re in this with you and want your absolute success on this path toward fertility. We’re cheering you on, every step of the way—you’ve got this!