When I was in college, the National Council on Folic Acid (yes, that’s a real thing) started a major campaign on university campuses. The goal? To get young women to start folic acid supplementation well before they were interested in trying to conceive.
This campaign was specifically geared toward reducing neural tube defects in babies, but its prevalence across university campuses sent a different message to me entirely:
At an age when many people are still quite young in their understanding of reproductive health, we were already being fed a clearly coded message: fertility is a woman’s problem, and having healthy babies is her responsibility.
And yet, what’s the truism people like to use when they talk about conception? It takes two to tango?
It turns out, male fertility is equally as important as female fertility in the conception process, despite the narrative many of us have been fed. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) reports that fertility struggles “affect men and women equally,” and our focus on female fertility has done a huge disservice to people of every sex.
Women often bear the burden of feeling guilty for fertility struggles, of having their bodies poked and prodded for tests, of being blamed for not yet having children.
Meanwhile, men are often left unaware of the role their own sperm (and behavioral habits that directly affect sperm) can play in conception. And because we talk about fertility as a female issue, men often feel alone or ashamed in silence when they undergo their own fertility struggles.
For the sake of everyone involved, it’s time we dispel this crazy myth. Fertility is a two-person endeavor, and it’s not always as simple and straightforward as we’ve been led to believe.
This is why we need to talk about sperm health: so every family hoping to grow has a better understanding of steps they can take, how much fertility struggles are no one’s “fault,” and how common it is to need to take steps to support your conception goals.
And because many of us would have to do a ton of googling to fully understand or remember the roles of both male and female reproductive systems, we’ve aggregated the information you need to better consider the role of sperm health in your growing family.
A huge thank you to Fairhaven Health for sponsoring this article. Their support has allowed us to do a tremendous deep-dive into all things sperm health, and their products supported my husband and me through our own fertility journey. Get 15% off your Fairhaven Health supplements using code UM15.
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- What Is The Role of Sperm Health In Fertility?
- How to Cope with Having Poor Sperm Health
- Easy Lifestyle Changes to Improve Sperm Health
- Sperm Health and YOU
- Sperm Health FAQ
What Is The Role of Sperm Health In Fertility?
Most of us took some form of sex education class, so you may be able to rattle off factors that contribute to women’s fertility: egg health, ovulation (or anovulation), regular menstrual periods, etc. But what is the role of sperm health in fertility?
Most of us assume that sperm has one job–to swim through the vagina and meet the egg in the fallopian tube–and once it does, boom! a baby is conceived.
But when you’re hoping for a successful pregnancy, it’s important to focus on more than just the egg and ovulation tracking.
Sperm health is actually equally important as a woman’s reproductive health. According to the University of California at San Francisco’s Center for Reproductive Health, sperm “must be deposited and transported to the site of fertilization” and “union between sperm and egg must result” in order for conception to occur. Aha, two to tango!
In short, the sperm must be mobile enough to move through the cervix, vagina, and fallopian tube, and it must be able to break through the membrane of the egg in order to fertilize it.
In order for sperm to reach the egg and fertilize it, 3 conditions really need to be met. Sperm must be:
- Plentiful (sperm count)
- The correct shape (morphology)
- “Good swimmers” (motility)
If you’re struggling to conceive, it’s entirely possible that sperm health could be a factor, and it’s equally important for male partners to attend to their sperm health as it is for female partners to worry about things like their chances of getting pregnant on ovulation day.
While many women undergo initial fertility workups, many reproductive specialists also suggest men undergo a semen analysis, which can tell you whether you have any abnormalities in sperm count, shape, or mobility.
What Is Low Sperm Count?
It’s no secret that there’s a cultural narrative about the “macho” sperm that manages to sprint to the egg the fastest and “win” at fertilization.
Society has turned the science of ejaculation into a sports competition in which the strongest and fastest sperm gets to the egg first and voila, conception occurs. Anyone who’s ever watched the opening credits to the movie Look Who’s Talking knows what I’m talking about.
The reality isn’t as simple as the opening credits to a Hollywood blockbuster would have you believe, though.
Just like the complicated system of female reproduction, male reproduction isn’t just 1.5 to 5.0 milliliters of sperm per emission (and 20 to 150 million sperm per milliliter) hightailing it to meet–and fertilize–a single egg.
While the average male does ejaculate these millions of sperm per emission (which can sound like more than enough sperm for one of them to make it to a single egg), this isn’t always enough. According to Dr. Charles Lindeman, low sperm count, medically known as Oligospermia, is actually classified as a concentration of sperm that falls below 20 million sperm per milliliter.
Some sources, such as the Mayo Clinic, suggest that low sperm count is classified as less than 15 million sperm per milliliter of semen. Although different sources classify “low sperm count” a little differently, it’s important to talk to your doctor about how they are classifying your results.
And no matter the number of sperm produced per ejaculation, sperm still have to have a normal shape and be able to move to the egg in order for conception to occur. According to the National Library of Medicine, at least 60% of sperm that are ejaculated have to have a normal shape and “show normal forward movement (motility)” in order to be considered “normal.”
What Is Low Sperm Quality?
In addition to being plentiful in number, sperm have to be of high quality (morphology and motility) to increase the likelihood of pregnancy! So what’s the role of the quality of sperm in terms of fertilization?
Sperm have to be in good shape and extremely mobile; it’s not a given that even if you have a normal sperm count that you’ll have perfect sperm quality.
“Sperm quality” simply refers to how healthy your sperm are. Factors of sperm quality include shape (are they the correct shape to help them move toward the egg?) and motility (are your sperm able to make the trek through the cervix and vagina into the fallopian tube?).
The shape of the sperm, or their structure, is called morphology. The Mayo Clinic notes that while morphology is not as important a factor as sperm count or their motility, it’s still necessary for sperm to have “oval heads and long tails, which work together to propel them” toward the egg.
The shape of the sperm is divided into three parts:
- The head, which contains nuclear material;
- The tail or flagellum, which propels the sperm forward, and
- The neck, or connecting piece, which connects the head to the tail.
Essentially, the shape of the sperm needs to be streamlined to help it meet the egg. If the head or tail of the spermatozoa (the scientific name for sperm) is in any way misshapen, motility is likely to decrease.
Sperm motility is where we usually get the joke about having “good swimmers.” Not to reintroduce the toxic narrative about macho sperm racing to the egg to deposit its particular superior paternal genome, but this phrase actually does hold some weight.
The shape of the sperm (oval heads and long tails) helps them make the journey from emission to the egg, and they do have to be good swimmers, or motile, in order to make it into the fallopian tube to fertilize the egg.
A semen analysis records the total motility count (TMC) to ascertain the number of sperm that are motile (actually) swimming within the ejaculate sample. Healthy sperm motility is defined as at least 40% of the sperm in ejaculate moving.
Unfortunately, having less than 40% TMC “is considered as one of the predominant contributing factors” for men with fertility issues.
How to Cope with Having Poor Sperm Health
Here’s the thing: having poor sperm health, whether that be low count, irregular shape, or reduced motility, does not mean that having a family is out of the question.
On the contrary, having a semen analysis and understanding your sperm health is a great step in starting your journey to parenthood!
While a diagnosis of poor sperm health (in whatever capacity) might sound scary, there are steps you can take to improve your sperm health. In fact, research suggests that “lifestyle and other environmental factors contribute considerably to semen disorders leading to male” fertility struggles.
In addition to being sure you’re being treated for any possible infections or STIs, there are some lifestyle changes you can make to really support sperm health.
Easy Lifestyle Changes to Improve Sperm Health
If you’re looking for the silver lining, you’ve just read it! There are lifestyle and environmental factors that contribute to problems with sperm health, so why not start by changing the lifestyle and environmental factors that could be contributing to unhealthy sperm?
Let’s talk about what you can do to control what you can to improve your sperm health.
1. Foods for Sperm Health
Most of us know that a diet including lots of vegetables and minimally processed foods is preferable for optimum health. We also generally understand that there’s a direct correlation between unhealthy food and health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity.
So why should sperm health be any different? Spoiler alert my friends, it is not.
Sperm health has been directly linked to diet in numerous ways.
- Poor sperm health is associated with increased intake of different kinds of meats
- Sugary beverages have been shown to reduce semen quality and reproductive hormone levels in young men
- Soy products can “wreak havoc on sperm concentration”
- High-fat dairy products have been associated with low sperm motility
And this isn’t even a comprehensive list of the food products that can affect sperm health! What you ultimately need to know is that there are direct correlations between the food you consume and your sperm health.
We’re not suggesting that you immediately rid your pantry and fridge of all meat products, processed foods containing soy, and high-fat dairy products. On the contrary, we’re simply suggesting that you might want to consider replacing some of these food items with healthier alternatives that have been proven to benefit sperm health.
According to UChicago Medicine, there are three easy alternatives to the “unhealthier” items mentioned above. See if you can make some of these simple swaps to help your sperm have the best chance at reaching their full potential:
- Swap red or processed meats for lighter fish options
- Get more organic fruits and veggies (particularly leafy greens and legumes) to increase your access to micronutrients that have been known to increase sperm motility, such as vitamin C and lycopene, and to be sure you’re consuming plenty of antioxidants
- Swap salty, processed snacks for a handful of walnuts in order to increase sperm vitality
While you’re making some swaps in the food department, you’ll also want to think about the vitamins and supplements you’re taking. And just like with food, some options are better than others when it comes to sperm health and fertility.
The great news is that there are some really easy alternatives to your regular daily multivitamin when you want to focus on improving your chances of becoming a parent. First up, the vitamin that we used when we were going through fertility struggles: FH PRO for Men from Fairhaven Health.
FH PRO for Men is an herb-free antioxidant-based fertility supplement that provides a comprehensive approach to fertility support.* It offers comprehensive antioxidant, vitamin, and mineral support, with over 25 ingredients, to support male fertility and sperm health.
In a prospective clinical trial presented as an abstract at the annual conference of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), 148 participants were given FH PRO for Men for 90 days. Compared to pretreatment results, there was significant improvement in semen parameters, including a 38% increase in sperm count, 102% increase in progressive motility, 17% decrease in DNA fragmentation, and 39% increase in normal morphology. While these are preliminary findings, these results suggest a possible benefit of FH PRO for Men on sperm health.*^
If you want to supplement vitamins individually instead of using pre-formulated options, you might want to consider including:
- CoQ10: Coenzyme Q10, or CoQ10, is an antioxidant that can improve sperm count, motility, and morphology.* It can also reduce oxidative stress in the body, which can harm sperm health.*
- L-carnitine: L-carnitine is an amino acid that can improve sperm motility and reduce DNA damage.* It works by helping sperm cells produce energy.*
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D is essential for overall health, and while further studies are needed, evidence suggests it may also improve sperm quality*. Research has shown that low levels of vitamin D are associated with reduced sperm count and motility.*
Ultimately, the research suggests that supplements for sperm health (as long as you’re taking the right ones), can improve sperm quality, but it’s important to talk to a healthcare provider before starting any new supplements, as they can interact with other medications and have side effects.*
3. Smoking and Sperm Health
Whether you’re smoking cigarettes, vaping, or even chewing nicotine gum, we’re sorry to break it to you, but quitting nicotine is one of the best things you can do for your sperm health.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) specifically cites smoking as a cause for changes to sperm DNA, which can affect the motility and shape of the sperm. Some studies even suggest that nicotine can put you at a higher risk of erectile dysfunction, regardless of age or comorbidities.
Whether it’s by changing the speed and shape of your sperm or by causing you to suffer from erectile dysfunction, any way you spin it, smoking isn’t great for semen quality.
If you are a smoker, this particular lifestyle change is likely much more difficult to make than the others on this list. Please know there’s no judgment or fault being cast here! Quitting smoking is HARD!
The following suggestions are meant to help guide you as you consider quitting smoking for the health of your sperm:
- Enlist your partner or a close friend. One of the best things you can do for yourself is to have some accountability. If you are open to letting your partner or a close friend help you, consider making them your accountability partner. One source suggests that quitting smoking with the help of a partner can increase your rate of success sixfold!
- Find a Therapist Who Practices CBT. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a proven form of therapy to help break smoking addiction. It focuses specifically on mindfulness intervention to help you break the habit. Many therapists today focus specifically on CBT-based practices for all kinds of addictions. To find a therapist who uses CBT, check out the therapist locator on Psychology Today’s website.
- Try Physical Activity. Replacing one habit with another, healthier one is always a good idea. Moving your body (whether this be a quick walk or a trip to the gym) when you feel the need for a cigarette is a great way to practice mindfulness and refocus yourself on the goal at hand: quitting smoking for better sperm health.
4. Trade Traditional lube for Baby Dance
Did you know that most lubricants on the market make it harder for you to get pregnant? Most everyday lubricants have a low pH and a very high salt concentration, which is harmful to sperm. This is where Fairhaven Health’s BabyDance Fertility Lubricant comes in.
Ditch your KY Jelly for BabyDance, and you’ll get the added benefit of a lubricant that is specifically designed to be safe for sperm.
BabyDance has a pH of ~7 and mimics the consistency of cervical secretions, which help the sperm to swim through your cervix to meet the egg for conception. Not only does BabyDance mimic the body’s own fluids, it contains no ingredients that can be harmful to eggs or sperm.
Being cleared for fertility (PEB category) is a sure way to know a lubricant, such as BabyDance, is safe to use when you are trying to conceive.
5. Moderate Alcohol
Just like quitting nicotine, moderating your alcohol is probably a tough pill to swallow. Not many people want to give up weekends of carefree drinking, but the fact of the matter is that heavy alcohol use has been shown to decrease sperm production.
The good news is that the same study states that low-to-moderate alcohol consumption has been shown to have little to no effect on sperm.
So, if you’re a heavy drinker (you consume more than 5 drinks on any occasion), you’ll want to scale that back, but moderate drinking (1-2 drinks 1-2 nights per week) is fine!
Consider low or zero-proof options on nights you choose to take a break, and focus on the 1-2 drinks 1-2 nights a week formula for moderating alcohol consumption.
Sperm Health and YOU
In addition to these easy swaps, we recommend learning how to make sperm stronger for pregnancy so you can increase your chances of conceiving as much as possible. Other small changes, like reducing exposure to pesticides and certain chemicals, can also many a big difference, and we’ve detailed those changes in this article.
And if you and your partner are concerned about the role of sperm health in terms of fertility, please know that you aren’t alone!
Many men have been fed the narrative that they should be virile, voracious sexual partners who are able to get a woman pregnant with a wink. But the reality is much different, and fertility issues can be especially emotionally taxing because of this narrative.
But if you’ve learned anything from this article, you know that fertility is a complex, two-to-tango process that truly involves the health of your sperm. The silver lining here is that you can take steps to change your lifestyle and increase your chances of improving your sperm health!
How do you plan to improve your sperm health? Tell us your ideas in the comments!
Sperm Health FAQ
According to the Mayo Clinic, some symptoms of low sperm count include problems with sexual function, pain or swelling in the testicles, and decreased facial or body hair. That said, if you’ve been trying to conceive for a year or more without luck (or for 6 months if over the age of 35), you should talk to your doctor about a semen analysis even without any of these symptoms.
Some simple ways to improve sperm health include making small, easy lifestyle changes. Consume leafy greens and healthy fish instead of red meat and heavily processed foods. Change out your daily multivitamin for a vitamin formulated for fertility health, like FH Pro by Fairhaven Health. Moderate your alcohol intake, avoid exposure to harmful pesticides, and avoid hot tubs.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
^*For more information on the clinical study, please visit www.fh-pro.com.
Katy Huie Harrison, PhD, is an author, mom, recurrent miscarriage survivor, & owner of Undefining Motherhood. She lives in Atlanta with her husband (affectionately known on the internet as “Husband,”) son (Jack), and daughter (Branham). She believes our society puts too many expectations on women that make womanhood and motherhood restrictive. Her goal is to shift the paradigm about what it means to be a woman and mother, giving all women a greater sense of agency over their own lives. You can find Katy and her work featured in places like CNN’s Headline News, Romper, Scary Mommy, Love What Matters, & more.