How much do you know about your sperm? For many men that are trying to conceive, the answer is “not enough.” With so many infertility resources geared towards women, it can be easy to overlook the effect that sperm production has on fertility. Did you know that almost 50% of couples that struggle to conceive have experienced male factor infertility in some capacity? In addition, as many as one in five healthy men between the ages of 18 to 25 has a low sperm count.
Learning more about your sperm is the first step of your male factor infertility journey. Fortunately, it’s not difficult to determine your current sperm count. Once you do, there are a number of ways to improve your sperm production and, with it, your chances of getting pregnant.
How does sperm count affect fertility?
When a man ejaculates, tens of millions of sperm cells are released. To reach and fertilize an egg, a sperm has to make it past the vagina, through the cervix and uterus, and into one of the fallopian tubes. In an extreme example of natural selection, less than one percent of released sperm actually make it to the fallopian tubes.
Because so many sperm are lost along the path to the egg, starting out with significantly less sperm can greatly impact your chances of conception. Definitions of a “normal” sperm count vary from 20 million sperm per mL to 300 million sperm per mL, with some studies suggesting that a minimum of 48 million sperm per mL is needed to be in the “fertile” range. So what does this mean for you?
If you and your partner have been struggling to conceive, your first step should be to get a semen analysis. This test can determine your sperm quality and production rates. It can also reveal any abnormalities in your sperm that might contribute to male factor infertility. After you get your test results, you will have a good idea about your:
- Sperm concentration — the number of sperm per mL of semen
- Total sperm count — the amount of sperm present in your semen sample
- Sperm motility — the percentage of sperm that is moving
- Sperm morphology — the percentage of sperm that has a normal shape
Another option to determine your sperm count is an at-home sperm count test. These tests only measure sperm count, not any other sperm characteristics, but they can be a quick, cost-effective way to get a first look at the state of your sperm production.
If the analysis results show a low sperm count, it doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to conceive, especially if other factors such as sperm motility and morphology are within normal ranges. What it does mean, however, is that it will probably take you longer to conceive. The good news is that there are many steps that you can take to raise your sperm count and improve your fertility.
Why do some men have lower sperm counts?
There are a variety of factors that can influence a man’s sperm count. These include genetics, environmental factors, physical activity levels, and diet. If any of the below factors apply to you, you might be at risk for a low sperm count. In the next section, we will discuss actions that you can take to help overcome these conditions and raise your sperm count.
- Low testosterone — Testosterone plays an important role in male fertility and sperm production. Low testosterone levels can also lead to a lower sex drive. However, if conceiving a child is your goal, turning to testosterone supplements is probably not the answer. These supplements have been found to actually reduce patients’ sperm counts even further. Other factors that can lower testosterone levels are alcohol consumption and usage of certain medications such as Cimetidine. Other drugs, such as anabolic steroids, opiates, and marijuana can also decrease testosterone production and affect fertility.
- Varicoceles — A varicocele is an enlarged vein within the scrotum that can decrease both sperm production and sperm quality. Many varicoceles don’t need treatment, but surgery may be recommended when the varicocele is causing pain or infertility.
- Obesity — Obesity is a known contributor to many medical conditions, including infertility. A 2012 study found that, compared to men of a healthy weight, obese men were 42% more likely to have a low sperm count and 81% more likely to have no sperm present in their semen at all.
- Stress — Like obesity, stress is known to contribute to a variety of health problems. If you regularly experience high levels of stress, it could impact your fertility by affecting your sperm production and lowering your sperm count.
- Age — As you get older, it’s normal for your sperm production to start to slow down. If you are over the age of 35 you should pay special attention to other factors in your life that could affect your sperm count.
- Frequent ejaculation — It takes time for your body to produce sperm, so having sex too frequently could decrease the sperm concentration of your semen. Limiting sex to two or three times a week will increase your chances of keeping your sperm count at a fertile level.
- Contact with endocrine disruptors — Endocrine disruptors are environmental factors that affect your endocrine system and cause hormone imbalances. These hormone imbalances can affect your reproductive system, including your sperm count. Men with lower sperm counts should make an effort to avoid exposure to endocrine disruptors.
What can I do to increase my sperm count?
If you’re affected by any of the issues or conditions listed above, taking extra steps to increase your sperm count can help you conceive faster. The main thing that you can do to increase your sperm count, and overall fertility? Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Staying physically active and sticking to a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables will work wonders for your reproductive health. This is especially important for men that are currently overweight or obese. Avoiding alcohol and smoking is also recommended.
Additionally, there are a few nutritional supplements that can have a positive effect on your sperm production. However, you should talk to your doctor before adding any supplements to your diet, especially when you’re trying to conceive.
- Vitamin C — Vitamin C has been shown to increase both the quality and quantity of sperm among men who took 1,000 mg twice a day.
- Zinc — Zinc is a trace element that can help contribute to a healthy immune system. Research has shown that it also has a positive relationship with sperm production. Taking a zinc supplement could help increase your sperm morphology, motility, and concentration.
- Folic acid — Low levels of folate can indicate a deficiency in sperm production. Adding natural sources of folic acid to your diet can help increase your sperm count and overall fertility. Some foods high in folic acid are asparagus, dark leafy greens, avocados, lentils, and broccoli.
You should avoid foods that have a high soy content, such as certain cereals, crackers, meat products with fillers, and sauces. These foods have been shown to decrease sperm production and concentration.
In addition to making dietary and lifestyle changes, you can be proactive about raising your sperm count by taking steps to keep your testicles cool. Stay away from hot tubs while you’re trying to conceive, as well as any other activities that raise the temperature of your testicles for extended periods of time. Exposing your testicles to high temperatures, especially for more than 15 minutes at a time, can overheat the cells that produce sperm and lower your sperm count.
Having a low sperm count right now doesn’t mean that you and your partner will always struggle to conceive. Because sperm is constantly being produced, many factors that contribute to your lower sperm count can be reversed with the right efforts. Every step that you take to increase your sperm count will take effect in as little as three months, the length of time that it takes for sperm cells to mature. If you need help, a fertility specialist can help you come up with a specific plan to increase your sperm count and maximize your chances of having a baby. The tools are at your disposal. Start taking an active role in improving your sperm production and overall fertility today.