Several years ago researchers presented modern males with some pretty bad news: men today have 20% less testosterone than men did at the same age just two decades ago. On the heels of those unfortunate findings has recently come another bad omen for male virility: sperm counts have dropped by more than half over the last 40 years. The average man from the mid-1970s had about 99 million sperm per milliliter of semen; today, that number is down to 47 million.
Unfortunately, there are no solid conclusions about the why behind that drop. Theories abound, of course: maternal chemical/plastics exposure while the baby boy is still in the womb, increased adiposity (fat percentage) in men, a more sedentary lifestyle, cell phones in men’s pockets, etc. The causal factor may be one of those things, or more likely, a combination of them.
You’ll actually find many researchers and scientists claiming to not be too worried about the drop, as normal fertility is considered to be anywhere above 40 million sperm per milliliter; we aren’t yet in danger of a Children of Men scenario where humans are no longer able to conceive at all. But sperm counts are getting awfully close to that critical threshold, and if you extrapolate that same fall over the next 40 years, you’re looking at a real problem.
Even if the current population-wide drop in sperm doesn’t yet affect fertility, every man who has even a glimmer of interest in one day having a kid should know how to protect the health of the sperm he does have.
While fertility is a subject most often aimed at women, it takes two to tango, and you ought to understand your role in the equation. When the time comes that you’re ready to beget some progeny, you’ll want the process to go as smoothly as possible, and while you can’t control all the factors at play in reproduction, you can take steps to raise your chances of a quick conception that results in a healthy baby.
Below we’ll get into the details of how to keep your swimmers in tip-top condition, but first let’s take a look at how sperm is made, and the three elements of sperm health.
How Is Sperm Made?
When Brett did his series on testosterone, sperm was also briefly covered because the beginning process for the two is the same. Each shares several steps before the processes diverge into their own unique systems. Let’s then take a brief look at how sperm (and T) is created in the testicles (from Brett’s article a few years back):
- The process gets kicked off in our brain. When our hypothalamus detects that our body needs more testosterone, it secretes a hormone called gonadotropin-releasing hormone. The gonadotropin-releasing hormone makes its way over to the pituitary gland in the back of our brain.
- When our pituitary gland detects the gonadotropin-releasing hormone, it starts producing two hormones: 1) follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinzing hormone (LH). The FSH and LH hitch a ride down to our testicles on the freeway that is our bloodstream.
- When the FSH and LH reach our testicles, they tell them to do two different things. FSH kicks off sperm production, while LH stimulates the Leydig cells in our testicles to create more testosterone.
While the processes by which sperm and testosterone are created are intimately connected, it should be noted that low T does not necessarily mean low fertility — though one does make the other a little more likely. The inverse is also true — high T does not necessarily make for a very fertile man. There could be damage to the testicles or other problems that are unique to the sperm-production process. In general though, the testosterone and sperm producing systems work in a feedback loop.
There’s much more to it than that, of course, but we’ll be concentrating more on the practical side of things in this piece. If you’re interested in more of the science though, here’s a good resource.
3 Important Health Metrics for Your Sperm
The average male produces 1,500 sperm every second. Over the course of a lifetime, that’s 500 billion sperm. While that’s obviously a ton of little swimmers, only a tiny overall percentage of the billions of sperm created are actually able to make a little human.
Whether your sperm can get the job done depends both on their sheer numbers, as well as a couple other metrics:
Count (Quantity). A man is considered “fertile” if he has a sperm count at about 40 million per milliliter or higher (it can be all the way up to 300 million!). Under 10 million/ml is considered “poor” fertility. Numbers in between may be okay, if the factors below are in good shape.
Health (Quality or Morphology). A man is considered fertile if more than 4% of sperm have a normal shape and structure. That means the sperm has a nicely-shaped oval head without irregularities, and a long tail. If the head is too large or small, or tapered in any way, or if the tail is kinked or too short, the sperm is not considered healthy.
Swimming Ability (Motility). A man is considered fertile if 40% or more of his sperm are swimming. Even if you have a lot of healthy sperm, they need to be able to travel those few inches up the cervix to the egg. In short, they need to be able to wiggle really well to make a baby.
Now that we have a few basics covered, let’s get into what you can do to increase the count and general health of your sperm.
How to Boost the Health of Your Sperm, and Your Chances of Conceiving
Just because you’ve had problems conceiving in the past doesn’t mean you’re doomed. Sperm production takes about 2.5 months, meaning there are plenty of lifestyle changes you can make that will have an effect on your sperm count and health in a relatively short span of time. The below tips should really be followed at all times for your overall sperm health (primarily in the years before trying to conceive; if you’re done with kids some of these things don’t matter so much!), but especially starting a few months before you officially start trying to conceive, and of course continuing throughout that process.
NATURALLY raise your testosterone. As noted above, T and sperm production are connected. When your body makes more T, it’s generally also going to make more sperm. With men’s T levels at a historical low, it’s really no surprise then that sperm count levels are as well. So, if you take steps to naturally raise your testosterone, you’ll also naturally raise your sperm count (again, generally — it’s no guarantee, but it’s a good bet). That said, I can’t recommend enough reading Brett’s article on the topic. He goes deep into diet, lifestyle, and vitamin/supplement recommendations that are proven to boost your T. Heed his advice. (And much of the below in fact piggybacks on those recommendations.)
One additional note: Testosterone replacement therapy (or TRT) in any form tricks your brain into thinking you have enough T in your system, and will therefore stop giving orders to the testes to make both testosterone and sperm. In fact, up to 90% of men doing TRT have sperm counts that eventually drop to zero. And even when you stop TRT, sometimes the body doesn’t go back into natural T production for up to 2 years (if at all). The research isn’t quite there yet to make any sweeping pronouncements about what happens to fertility after coming off TRT. If you’re on it now, though, and want to conceive in the near future, consult your doc ASAP.
Avoid nicotine and other drugs altogether. If you’re trying to conceive, it’s best to avoid nicotine entirely (regardless of how it’s delivered — smoking, chewing, vaping, etc., though smoking may have even more deleterious effects than nicotine alone), as it comes with a host of problems for your swimmers. It not only decreases your sperm count, but also the quality and motility of the sperm (and even lowers your libido and increases your chances of impotence). On top of that, nicotine can harm the sperm’s DNA, potentially causing problems for your unborn child.
Marijuana, even though legal in many states now, can decrease motility and diminish sperm quality. Harder drugs like heroin and cocaine cause all kinds of systems in your body — including all parts of the reproductive system — to do weird things. Not only are those drugs illegal, addictive, and harmful in numerous other ways, but they’ll screw with your chances of conceiving a child.
Limit alcohol. While not as damaging as nicotine, too much alcohol consumption diminishes both the quantity and quality of your sperm. For men, limiting alcohol means sticking to 1-2 drinks per day.
Cut down on your caffeine intake (mainly in soda form). Some researchers theorized that caffeine intake could be a driver in the declining sperm counts of modern men. Upon initial testing, there was found to be some correlation between caffeine and lower sperm counts/quality. However, further research revealed that it was not coffee or tea that was the problem, but rather the sugary soft drinks that were delivering that caffeine. Limit your sodas, but also don’t go crazy with coffee or tea. One of the general rules is that whatever is good for your overall health is good for your reproductive health. So even though it’s not proven specifically, guzzling down half a dozen coffees probably isn’t going to be great for your swimmers. Limiting your overall caffeine intake is bound to have some other benefits as well.
Lose a few pounds. There is a correlation between being overweight and having a low sperm count. While not proven to be causal, it would be a good idea to lose a few pounds for numerous reasons, let alone the possibility of it impacting your chances of conception.
There are a couple reasons being overweight may lead to lower sperm production: 1) inside the body, fatty tissue can negatively affect the secretion of gonadotropin (which, remember, is what tells the testes to produce sperm), 2) outside the body, fatty tissue in the groin area can actually be heating up your testicles above the ideal ~93 degrees. And of course there may yet be other reasons that extra poundage is affecting your sperm count. Either way, the point remains: make an effort to lose a few pounds, and your sperm will likely be happier for it.
Hit the gym/pavement. Not only do you want to lose fat, you want to put on some muscle. Research has shown that men who work out regularly (7+ hours a week) have 50% higher sperm counts than men who don’t work out at all or sparingly (1 hour or less a week). Specifically, as Brett noted in his testosterone series, lift heavy things and do HIIT cardio workouts. Not only do you get benefits directly from the workouts, you also get lower stress (good for reproductive health) and vitamin D if you’re working out outside (which may help boost your sperm count).
Eat well. Eat not only for optimal testosterone, but for antioxidants as well, which are shown to improve the quality and quantity of sperm. Fruits, vegetables, a glass of red wine with dinner — all of these will help your swimmers.
Also avoid soy, which contains phytoestrogens that mimic estrogen. Your body may respond by producing less T, which means less sperm. Soy sauce, edamame, tofu, veggie “burgers,” etc. This is especially important for guys who may already have lower sperm counts. It’s unlikely that soy would make a fertile man infertile.
Learn to manage your stress. Cortisol — a stress hormone — decreases testosterone production. And when that slows, so does sperm production. In short bouts — the way stress was biologically meant to be experienced — this isn’t a problem. After the stressful experience, your testosterone production goes back up to normal like nothing happened. But when stress is chronic, and you’re feeling it in high doses every day, your sperm production is going to take a major hit. Learn to manage and decreases your stress levels if you’re trying to make a baby.
Keep your balls cool. One of the most important factors in maintaining the production and health of your sperm is maintaining a cool temperature for your man parts. This is in fact why male reproductive organs are on the outside of our body, differing from the ladies. Your residual body heat is too much for sperm to thrive in. Heed the below tips:
- Limit or eliminate hot tub/bath times. Don’t spend more than 10-20 minutes in a hot tub, bath, or sauna at a time, and no more than a couple days per week. Many experts even say you might as well skip it altogether when trying to conceive.
- Limit bike time. Spending more than 30 minutes on a bike seat, especially when wearing tight bike shorts, will increase scrotal temperature and possibly harm your sperm.
- Don’t keep your laptop on your lap. Computers get hot. When they’re on your lap, your man parts will also get hot. Keep computers on tables and desks, or put a lap desk between your crotch and your laptop.
- Skip the tighty whities. At least while actively trying to conceive. They constrict things down there and heat up your groin area too much.
- Stand up more! If you sit all day for work, it’s likely your groin is getting overheated from being compressed by your legs and abdomen. Get up and walk around, move a little, air out your man bits.
- Consider keeping your phone out of your pocket. Partially due to radiation from electronic and radio waves, and partially due to the heat that phones create with high use and charging, some experts recommend that men keep their mobile devices in shirt pockets or on the desk/table when trying to conceive.
Avoid lubricants during sex. Lubricants and lotions can interfere with sperm motility, making it harder for your swimmers to find their target. Certain chemicals in certain lubricants can also actually kill your sperm. If lubrication is needed, use natural oils instead.
Ask your doctor about the medications you’re on. Some medications can have an effect on your sperm production and sperm health. If you’re trying to make a mini-me and are taking medicines, make an appointment with your doc to discuss it.
This is especially true for cancer treatments, which may render you permanently infertile. So even if you aren’t trying to conceive, but are dealing with cancer, ask your doctor about saving and freezing your sperm.
Take fertility-boosting vitamins/supplements. No, not that “Fertility Magic” stuff you might see on the web. That’s probably marketing baloney with jacked-up prices. It is shown, though, that deficient levels of vitamin C, zinc, and/or folic acid can contribute to not only low sperm counts, but also chromosomal abnormalities in your sperm, which can result in miscarriages. It’s in fact estimated that more than half of first trimester miscarriages are due to these abnormalities (which come from deficits on both the female and male sides of the equation).
First, zinc. It’s necessary for all three facets of sperm health, and while important for women, it’s even more crucial for men. Boosting your zinc has been proven to boost sperm count, quality, and motility. Good zinc-heavy foods include oysters, beef, lamb, sesame/pumpkin seeds, shrimp, and yogurt. Unfortunately, cooking these foods reduces zinc levels by up to 50%, so for things you can safely consume raw, do it that way.
Next, folic acid. While you’ll often see that women trying to conceive need to be taking a multivitamin that includes folic acid, it helps if dad does too. You can also eat folate-rich foods like beans, leafy greens, and whole grain breads and pastas. In total you should be getting about 400 milligrams daily.
Finally, vitamin C. Studies have shown that 1,000 milligrams (aka 1 gram) a day of supplementation can boost sperm count, health, and motility. Beyond just improving the sperm itself, vitamin C protects the DNA from chromosomal defects, possibly protecting against early miscarriage.
Avoid xenoestrogens and other chemicals. Brett covered this topic very well in his article and experiment in naturally raising his testosterone, so I’ve cribbed and modified a large chunk below. Just as xenoestrogens hurt your T levels, they hurt your sperm count as well:
Many endocrinologists are sounding the alarm about the damaging effects that come with exposure to common household chemicals. Called “endocrine disruptors,” these chemicals interfere with our body’s hormone system and cause problems like weight gain and learning disabilities. One type of endocrine disruptor is particularly bad news for our testosterone levels.
Xenoestrogen is a chemical that imitates estrogen in the human body. When men are exposed to too much of this estrogen-imitating chemical, T levels drop significantly. The problem is xenoestrogen is freaking everywhere — plastics, shampoos, gasoline, cows, toothpaste. You name it and chances are there are xenoestrogen in it. The ubiquitous nature of this chemical in our modern world is one reason some endocrinologists believe that testosterone levels are lower in men today than in decades past. It’s also a reason doctors say the number of boys born with hypospadias — a birth defect in which the opening of the urethra is on the underside of the penis and not at the tip — has doubled.
Despite the stacked deck, there are still steps you can take to avoid xenoestrogens the best you can:
Store food in glassware and never, ever heat food in plastic containers. Most modern plastics contain phthalates. Phthalates are what give plastic their flexibility, durability, and longevity. But they also screw with hormones by imitating estrogen. So prepare/store your food in glassware, and never heat it in plastic containers, as heat increases the transfer of phthalates into food.
Avoided exposure to pesticides and gasoline. Gas may be a manly smell, but it contains xenoestrogen. Same goes for pesticides. Limit your exposure to these products. If you do come in contact with them, make sure to wash it off thoroughly.
Eat organic when possible. Pesticides and hormones that are used in our food can imitate estrogens in our body. When possible, eat organic. If budget doesn’t allow, at least make sure to wash your fruits and veggies before eating and find meat and milk that comes from cows that haven’t been treated with hormones.
Use natural grooming products. Most grooming products these days contain parabens, another type of xenoestrogen. And by most, I mean more than 75% of all products. When possible, choose natural, paraben-free grooming products.
Avoid BPA. Studies suggest that BPA, a chemical that lines food cans and thermal printer paper, may reduce testosterone. Look for foods and products that are BPA free.
While there are hacks and different plans out there for protecting the health of your sperm, you actually tend to see the same wellness advice over and over from experts: eat plenty of fruits, veggies, good fats, and proteins; avoid processed foods/sugars as much as you can; work out regularly with a good variety of exercises (but don’t workout too much); don’t drink or smoke or get too stressed. Doing these things will of course not only make your reproductive system healthier, but all of your body’s other systems as well. A few things — keeping your testicles cool, avoiding lubricants, taking some supplements — are directly sperm- and fertility-related, but a lot of this is stuff you should be doing throughout your life anyway.
You can’t control all the factors out there that are diminishing men’s sperm counts. Nor can you can control all the factors that go into conceiving a healthy baby. But you can do everything possible to nurture and protect the seed you have and may one day contribute towards the creation of new life.