Male fertility has dropped dramatically in the past generation, and it is estimated that sperm counts are half what they were in the 1970s. It is believed that dietary and lifestyle changes in the previous decades have had a huge negative impact on sperm health. However, this isn’t all bad news, the research shows us that making positive diet and lifestyle changes can have a powerful positive impact on all measures of sperm health: number, quality, motility, morphology.
How to Eat to improve sperm health
It will come as no surprise that positive dietary changes are important when trying to support and improve sperm number and quality. While specific nutrients play an important role, it is also important to look at the overall quality and balance of your diet. Men who follow a Mediterranean dietary pattern are consistently found to have better fertility and increased chances of conception. Wherever you live you can achieve a Mediterranean style diet, and what I think is really important to remember is that this dietary approach does not involve extreme changes or exclusion of any food groups, everything is allowed in appropriate ratios and the focus is on the quality of the food consumed. By following a few key principles we can all have a Mediterranean style diet (minus the sunshine):
- Fill up half plate with vegetables at each main meal, vegetables should be the main event of the meal, not an afterthought.
- Snack on whole foods such as fruits and nuts instead of crisps and chocolate bars. Sugary treats should be enjoyed at the weekend, ideally at the end of a meal.
- Eat foods rich in good fats every day, these include extra virgin olive oil, nuts, avocado and oily fish.
- Have high quality meat 3-4 times a week. Choose from grass fed red meat, organic chicken, fresh fish and shellfish.
- Choose whole grain options when possible including brown rice, whole-grain wheat and pasta.
- Drink in moderation and spread your consumption over the week instead of binge drinking at the weekend. If possible choose red wine.
Still curious about food options? Click here to read about Key Nutrients for Male Fertility
Antioxidants are essential
In my opinion the Mediterranean dietary pattern is beneficial for male fertility because it is a dietary pattern that provides an abundance of antioxidants. Antioxidants are a type of nutrient that is fundamental to male fertility, because they protect sperm cells from damage. Sperm cell are very vulnerable to damage by a type of unstable molecule called free radicals, and antioxidants protect the sperm cell itself and the DNA within it from damage. Therefore antioxidants are key in promoting good sperm quality and preventing DNA fragmentation within the sperm. The more antioxidants you have in your diet the more protected your sperm will be.
Antioxidants are present in all plant foods. Quite often the pigments that give fruits and vegetables their colour act as antioxidants, a good example is beta carotene the orange pigment that gives carrots their colour.
Following these few rules will help you ensure you are getting plenty of antioxidants:
- Eat a rainbow of colours of vegetables, don’t just go for peas and carrots every night. As mentioned above antioxidants give fruits and vegetables their colours, so by eating a range of colours of vegetables and fruits daily you will ensure you are eating a wide variety of antioxidants.
- Dress your vegetables with olive oil or butter: most antioxidants are fat soluble and more antioxidants will be absorbed from a meal when eaten with some fat. So dress salads with olive oil dressings or toss your vegetables with a knob of butter.
- Spices and herbs are the most concentrated dietary source of antioxidants, so not only will cooking with spices and herbs make your food taste better, it will up your antioxidant intake.
- Mushrooms are packed full of an antioxidant called glutathione. Glutathione is potentially the MOST important antioxidant for male fertility. It is crucially important for sperm health and protecting the sperm from damage during development and has been shown to protect sperm from damage during assisted reproduction. All mushrooms contain glutathione but shiitake and porcini mushrooms are particularly rich in glutathione.
Get more sleep
After diet a good sleep pattern is probably the second most important change that can have a real positive impact on sperm health, and a good night’s sleep is effectively free. We are all sleeping less than we used to: in 1942, less than 8% of the population was trying to survive on six hours or less sleep a night; in 2019, almost 50% of the population is. Sleeping for less than six hours has been shown to reduce chances of conceiving by half. There are two main reasons why sleep is so important for male fertility:
- Firstly, the male reproductive hormone testosterone that is used up during the day is replenished at night time. So getting a better night’s sleep pattern is a natural way to naturally support testosterone levels. As testosterone plays a role in the sperm production process (called spermatogenesis) having healthy testosterone levels is fundamental to male fertility.
- The sleep hormone melatonin also acts as a powerful antioxidant throughout the body and men who were found to have higher concentrations of melatonin in their semen had higher chances of conceiving. Melatonin specifically stabilises DNA, ensuring quality DNA within the sperm, a factor that is important in supporting both conception and reducing chances of miscarriage.
So try and get at least 7 hours sleep every night when you are trying to conceive.
Trying to reduce stress can be a frustrating recommendation and lifestyle goal, especially as for many couples trying to conceive can be one of the most stressful periods of their life. However, the physical impact of stress can have real negative consequences for male fertility. When we experience stress our body produces the stress hormone cortisol, and men who have higher levels of cortisol are found to have lower levels of testosterone, therefore stress hormones could be interfering with the sperm production process. On top of that prolonged exposure to stress can cause levels of the hormone prolactin to rise and prolactin can inhibit the activity of luteinising hormone (LH), this hormone works together with testosterone to promote healthy sperm production.
Stress might be unavoidable when trying to conceive so focus on a hobby or relaxation activity that can, at the very least, help reduce stress hormone levels (e.g. yoga, meditation, massage, moderate exercise, team sports, walking in nature) while also getting enough sleep.
Exercise (in moderation)
The relationship between exercise and better male fertility may not be obvious at first, but the more muscle tissue that a man has the more testosterone he will produce, potentially benefitting reproductive hormone balance. Regular exercise is also shown to increase levels of the antioxidant glutathione and, as we have mentioned above, this antioxidant plays a really important role in protecting sperm quality. Interestingly excessive high intensity exercise will deplete glutathione levels and the research shows that moderate exercise (such as walking and jogging) is much more effective at improving sperm quality than high intensity exercise (such as HIIT training or running). Bear in mind that high intensity exercise can be a physical stress on the body leading to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol.
Cycling is not recommended for men trying to conceive as it can promote inflammation in the male reproductive organs and actually have a negative impact on sperm quality and number.
Avoid cigarettes, alcohol and SUGAR??
It may come as no surprise that cutting out alcohol and cigarettes can support male sperm health. But, you may be surprised to learn that heavy sugar consumption can have a strong negative impact on male sperm health and male fertility. Men who eat more sugar and therefore have higher blood sugar levels have been found to have lower sperm count and higher levels of DNA damage within their sperm cells. So as harmless as sweet treats such as biscuits and chocolate bars may seem, regular consumption could be having a real negative impact on sperm health. Aim for a maximum of 2-3 treats weekly.
Every cigarette exposes the body to billions of free radicals, and as we discussed above, sperm cells are particularly vulnerable to free radical damage and male smokers are twice as likely as non-smokers to experience fertility problems and low sperm count. Smoking marijuana, on the other hand, has a strong negative impact on sperm motility and has been linked to a drop in luteinising hormone.
Heavy alcohol consumption and binge drinking at the weekends are associated with reduced sperm number, quality and motility. However, the research suggests that up to 5 alcoholic drinks weekly has no negative impact on male fertility so try and adjust your alcohol intake in line with these findings.
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