Every year, researchers work to gain a more complete understanding of the complicated biological mechanisms behind male factor infertility. Male fertility is influenced by a wide range of factors, both environmental and genetic. Learning more about these underlying factors can open up new treatment possibilities for couples struggling with infertility. A study published earlier this year from may have done just that. In the study, University of Missouri professor Peter Sutovsky and doctoral student Karl Kerns designed an experiment to highlight the impact of zinc content on fertility. They found that zinc may play a bigger role in male fertility than previously thought. The research began as a search for alternatives to costly infertility treatments and assisted reproductive technologies. Could adding zinc to your diet be an inexpensive way to improve male factor infertility?
What is zinc?
Zinc is an essential trace element that plays an important role in your overall health, especially your immune system. It can be found in different cells throughout your body and is naturally present in some foods. Your body needs zinc for many aspects of cellular metabolism, including enzyme activity, protein and DNA synthesis, and wound healing. In addition, zinc is required for your senses of taste and smell.
Zinc is necessary for a healthy immune system. It is needed to activate T lymphocytes (T cells) in your body that regulate immune responses and fight off infected or cancerous cells. For this reason, a zinc deficiency can affect the function of your immune system and cause you to be more vulnerable to illness and disease.
Zinc is an antioxidant and works as an anti-inflammatory agent. Studies have also found that zinc supplements can decrease the duration of the common cold and reduce your risk of inflammatory diseases.
How does zinc affect your sperm?
If you’re exploring treatment options for male factor infertility, you’re not alone. Sperm counts have steadily declined over the past four decades, according to a review of recent scientific studies. This means that an increasing number of couples are looking for ways to treat male factor infertility by improving sperm quality and quantity. When talking about the health of your sperm, there are three main characteristics that physicians look at:
- Sperm count—The concentration of sperm in semen
- Sperm motility—The percentage of living sperm that is actively moving forward
- Sperm morphology—The shape of the sperm
Sperm count, motility, and morphology all play a role in male fertility. For sperm cells to make it through the female reproductive tract to fertilize an egg, they must survive a variety of environmental changes. Sperm that is healthy, active, and has a normal shape is more likely to make it through uterus and cervix and into the fallopian tubes.
There are many physiological functions that contribute to the production and quality of sperm. Research is still being done to understand the processes needed to make sperm capable of fertilizing an egg. In addition to the biological processes involved, there are also medical treatments and lifestyle changes that can increase the sperm’s ability to fertilize an egg. However, we do know that zinc plays an active role in male reproductive health, especially in the production of healthy sperm.
Studies have found that zinc concentrations in the semen of infertile males tend to be significantly lower than those in fertile males. For this reason, the University of Missouri study found that measuring zinc levels in seminal fluids can be an accurate indicator of fertility in males. These findings can help couples trying to conceive become more informed about what can cause male factor infertility. Knowing more about the different things, such as zinc, that can impact male fertility can allow couples to make informed decisions about fertility treatments and assisted reproductive technologies.
Adding zinc supplements to your diet can help improve sperm health from the moment of production. With higher concentrations of zinc in your reproductive system, the sperm that your body creates will be healthier and better suited to survive the journey to fertilize an egg. In fact, zinc supplements have been found to significantly increase sperm count and motility, as well as improve sperm morphology in men experiencing infertility. Another study found that zinc sulfate supplements taken with folic acid were able to raise sperm counts in men experiencing infertility. The increased sperm quality from zinc supplements may also help sperm defenses after an egg has been fertilized by keeping other sperm from penetrating the egg.
How does zinc affect prostate health?
Your prostate plays a vital role in your chances of conceiving. This means that poor prostate health can have a negative effect on male fertility. The main function of your prostate gland is to produce prostate fluid, a component of semen, and help propel seminal fluid through the urethra during ejaculation. The high zinc content found in prostate fluid significantly increases the zinc concentration of semen and serves to improve overall sperm motility. Prostate conditions, such as prostatitis—swelling and inflammation of the prostate gland—can negatively impact fertility. Adding zinc to your diet, through zinc-rich foods or zinc supplements, can decrease your risk of prostatitis, as well as other prostate conditions and prostate cancer.
How does zinc affect testosterone production?
Zinc not only plays a direct role in sperm health, it is also necessary for the production of testosterone. In fact, low testosterone, also called hypogonadism, can be a symptom of zinc deficiency. Testosterone, together with follicle-stimulating hormones, regulate sperm production in the testicles. If you aren’t producing enough testosterone, your body won’t produce as much sperm. You’ll also likely experience decreased energy and sex drive. Zinc supplements may be an effective way to increase your body’s testosterone production. This can, in turn, improve your fertility.
Note: Taking synthetic testosterone supplements is not a recommended treatment for hypogonadism in men trying to conceive.
How can you add zinc to your diet?
If you’re struggling with male factor infertility, consider asking your physician for a zinc test, especially if you’re experiencing any symptoms of zinc deficiency. Symptoms can include appetite loss, an impaired immune system, diarrhea, and delayed wound healing. Because these symptoms can also be caused by other health conditions, a zinc test is recommended to confirm any suspected deficiency.
There are a few different ways to test for zinc deficiency, including testing your blood plasma, urine, or hair to determine zinc content. People who have had gastrointestinal surgery, suffer from digestive disorders, or consume high amounts of alcohol are more likely to have zinc deficiencies. However, if your test shows a zinc deficiency, there’s no need to worry. There are plenty of ways to increase your daily zinc intake.
Your body doesn’t have a zinc storage system, so it is necessary to consume zinc-rich foods, or zinc supplements, daily to maintain a healthy zinc content. According to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements, males over 19 years old should consume about 11 mg of zinc each day.
Zinc is naturally found in some foods, while other foods may have zinc added to them. It is also available as a dietary supplement and found in certain remedies for the common cold.
Foods that are high in zinc include:
- Nuts, especially pecans and peanuts
- Seafood, including crab, raw oysters, and lobster
- Animal meats, especially chuck roast, ground beef, and pork loin
- Dairy products, especially yogurt
- Whole grain cereals
- Wild rice
If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you should take special care to include zinc-rich foods in your daily diet, as plant-based diets tend to include significantly less zinc than diets that include meat. Nutritionists often recommend obtaining zinc (and other nutrients) from food sources when possible, but zinc supplements may be helpful for people with severe zinc deficiencies. However, you should always talk to your doctor before adding any supplements to your diet.
Can adding zinc to your diet help you conceive?
More and more, couples are realizing that improving the fertility of both partners is the best way to increase their chance of conceiving. As a male, knowing more about your sperm health is an important first step to understanding and treating any problems with your fertility. If you’re experiencing issues with sperm count, motility, or morphology, adding zinc to your diet may be an easy, inexpensive way to improve sperm production and quality, as well as your overall reproductive health.