Maybe you’ve heard that old wedding-day advice that relationships aren’t 50/50, that partners can overcome their problems if they both give 100 percent. Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply when it comes to making babies. According to Dr. Mark Perloe, medical director of Georgia Reproductive Specialists, problems with the man’s reproductive system account for 30 percent of couples’ infertility, while obstacles that affect both the man and woman account for another 20 percent. Ironically, then, infertility is a 50/50 issue: Guys are at least partially responsible in about half the cases.
Infertility: The Nuts and Bolts
Although many couples trying to conceive start to worry after a few unsuccessful months, the term “infertility” only applies when they have been unable to conceive after one continuous year. The clinical methods for treating infertility are numerous, ranging from tracking the exact moment of ovulation through blood tests to fertility drugs, surgery, artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and the even more costly GIFT and ZIFT (gamete/zygote intrafallopian transfer) procedures.
However, there are several non-invasive measures that couples can take to improve their chances. In her book The Infertility Diet: Get Pregnant and Prevent Miscarriage, author Fern Reiss explains that, after researching hundreds of infertility studies, she found infertility and miscarriage strongly linked to vitamin and nutritional deficiencies. “Though the information was scanty and hard to find,” she writes, “I finally succeeded in putting together a list of foods that were linked to increased fertility and miscarriage prevention.” Reiss and her husband had been trying to conceive for three years, but armed with the information she had gathered, she states, “We altered our diets immediately. We conceived two months later.”
Reiss acknowledges that dietary changes alone will not prove successful for every couple struggling with infertility; however, she states, “If you are in the majority whose infertility is caused by something that might be affected nutritionally—or if doctors tell you that clinically there is no medical reason why you cannot conceive—then there is a good chance that an altered diet will dramatically improve your odds.” Dietary factors may be more significant for women, but food and diet supplements can both help and hinder male fertility as well.
Before we look at what aspiring fathers-to-be should ingest and avoid, it’s important to understand the specific ways in which the effectiveness of sperm is evaluated. A typical semen analysis measures the following three factors, described in the book Fertility Foods: Optimize Ovulation and Conception Through Food Choices by fertility specialist Dr. Jeremy Groll:
- Count, or the number of sperm in the semen. The normal amount is 20 million per milliliter; a count of 5 million is regarded as a severe lack of sperm, and it is also possible for men to have no sperm in their semen.
- Motility, which is how well the sperm move. It is calculated as a percentage of the sperm that move in a straightforward fashion; at least 50 percent of sperm should display this type of movement.
- Morphology, or the shape of the sperm cells. At least 14 percent of sperm should be normally formed. Sperm with large heads, two heads, or deformed tails are typically unable to make the long journey to fertilize the egg.
Another significant factor of sperm effectiveness, explains Dr. Perloe, is the DNA integrity of the sperm cells. The head of the sperm carries the father’s DNA in long twisted strands—the double helix. If the DNA strands are broken in several places, there is a greater likelihood of infertility and miscarriage. A test called the SCSA (sperm chromatin structural assay) can be used to examine sperm-cell DNA for structural integrity.
Substances to Avoid
There are many foods and health supplements which have demonstrated some benefit in improving sperm performance, but by far the most significant dietary change that guys can make is to restrict harmful substances. According to Dr. Groll, these include several familiar culprits:
- Cigarette smoking. Regular smoking significantly decreases sperm count, motility, and morphology.
- Marijuana. It inhibits a hormone in the brain, which leads to low testosterone levels and sperm production. Fortunately, the effects of marijuana are reversible usually after the three months it takes for sperm cells to develop and mature.
- Anabolic steroids. These can lead to a complete absence of sperm in the semen; however, as with marijuana use, the effects typically reverse themselves, although usually within 10 to 20 months.
- Saw palmetto. This herbal supplement, although touted for its benefits for prostate issues and even general fertility, acts as a testosterone blocker and can reduce sperm production.
Given the many online articles on male fertility and diet that advocate an elimination of alcohol, it may seem strange that Dr. Groll hasn’t included it in his list. However, Dr. Perloe agrees with its omission, stating that excessive alcohol consumption may cause problems with sperm production, but that the toxic effects are not clearly identifiable. Alcohol may not be as harmful to male fertility as cigarettes or recreational drugs, but it certainly won’t hurt guys to reduce or eliminate it.
Sperm-Friendly Foods and Supplements
The data for substances that improve male potency isn’t as consistent or significant as the data for what to avoid. Nevertheless, a few of the vitamins, minerals, and compounds that figure most prominently in male fertility studies are mentioned below, along with a list of foods and supplements that contain significant amounts of them.
- Vitamins C and E. Vitamin C’s antioxidant properties can protect the sperm’s DNA, according to Dr. Perloe. However, both Fern Reiss and Dr. Groll suggest not to exceed the RDA (recommended daily allowance) of vitamin C, as large doses of it have been implicated in fertility problems for both men and women. Examples of foods high in vitamin C include citrus fruits, broccoli, potatoes (with skin), strawberries, and liver; foods high in vitamin E include wheat germ oil and almonds.
- Selenium. Reiss cites studies in support of selenium’s effect on male fertility, but Dr. Groll cautions that a comprehensive view of the research on selenium is conflicting. He recommends not taking supplements; according to Reiss, enough selenium can be found in whole grains and broccoli.
- Zinc. High levels of zinc are found in the testes and prostate, and providing infertile men with zinc has been shown to improve their sperm count and motility, according to research cited by both Reiss and Dr. Groll. Oysters have large quantities of zinc, and zinc is also found in red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, and seeds.
- Arginine: Reiss states that arginine has been shown to help increase sperm count and motility. It is found in most nuts.
- L-Carnitine. This amino acid is found highly concentrated in the epididymis, where sperm reach full maturation, and it is found at lower levels in infertile men. Dr. Groll explains that oral carnitine supplements have repeatedly yielded an improvement in total motile sperm counts. Dr. Perloe agrees that carnitine can have positive effects on male infertility, but he warns that the carnitine should be pharmaceutical-quality, since that effectiveness found in many health-food supplement formulas is often lost through contact with oxygen once the package is opened.
While these dietary factors provide guys with relatively simple and inexpensive alternatives to medical intervention, they are best approached with a “no-harm-in-trying” attitude. Diet is simply unable to correct many causes of male infertility, especially physiological problems that require surgical procedures. However, before guys get to that stage, eating broccoli, oysters, and whole grains—and swearing off smoking and drinking—is definitely worth a shot. As Fern Reiss says, the only side effect is improved overall health.