Do your sperm pass muster?
If you and your partner are planning a pregnancy, you might be wondering about the health of your sperm. Start by understanding the various factors that can affect male fertility — then consider steps to help your sperm become top performers.
What determines sperm health?
Sperm health depends on various factors, including quantity, quality and movement:
- Quantity. You're most likely to be fertile if your ejaculate — the semen discharged in a single ejaculation — contains more than 15 million sperm per milliliter.
- Quality. Normal sperm have oval heads and long tails, which work together to propel them forward. The more sperm you have with a normal shape and structure, the more likely you are to be fertile.
- Movement. To reach and penetrate an egg, sperm must move — wriggling and swimming through a woman's cervix, uterus and fallopian tubes. This is known as motility. You're most likely to be fertile if more than 40 percent of your sperm are moving.
What's the best way to produce healthy sperm?
You can take simple steps to increase your chances of producing healthy sperm. For example:
- Practice safe sex. Sexually transmitted infections — such as chlamydia and gonorrhea — are a leading cause of infertility for both men and women. To protect yourself, limit your number of sexual partners and use a condom each time you have sex — or stay in a mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who isn't infected.
- Eat a healthy diet. Choose plenty of fruits and vegetables, which are rich in antioxidants — and might help improve sperm health.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Some research suggests that obesity negatively affects sperm quality, reducing both sperm count and sperm movement.
- Manage stress. Stress can decrease sexual function and interfere with the hormones needed to produce sperm.
- Get moving. Include physical activity in your daily routine.
Sperm can be especially vulnerable to environmental factors, such as exposure to excessive heat or toxic chemicals. To protect your fertility:
- Stay cool. Increased scrotal temperature can hamper sperm production. To protect your fertility, don't wear tight underwear or athletic shorts. If you bike or remain seated for long periods of time, take frequent breaks. Don't place a laptop computer directly on your lap. Avoid hot tubs, saunas and steamy baths.
- Don't smoke. Men who smoke cigarettes are more likely to have low sperm counts. Smoking can also decrease sperm movement and cause sperm to be misshapen. If you smoke, ask your doctor to help you quit.
- Limit the amount of alcohol you drink. Heavy drinking can reduce the quality and quantity of sperm. If you choose to drink alcohol, do so only in moderation.
- Steer clear of illegal drugs. Like cigarettes, marijuana can decrease sperm movement and cause sperm to be misshapen. Cocaine and heroin also interfere with healthy sperm.
- Avoid lubricants during sex. Personal lubricants — including saliva, most skin lotions, and K-Y jelly and similar products — can interfere with sperm movement. If necessary, use vegetable, safflower or peanut oil. You might also consider a lubricant such as Pre-Seed, which might be less likely to harm sperm.
- Be cautious with medications. Calcium channel blockers, tricyclic antidepressants, anti-androgens and various other medications can contribute to fertility issues. Anabolic steroids can have the same effect. Chemotherapy drugs and radiation treatment for cancer can cause permanent infertility. If you're considering medications, ask your doctor about the impact on your fertility — or the possibility of retrieving and storing sperm before treatment.
- Watch out for toxins. Exposure to pesticides, lead and other toxins can affect sperm quantity and quality. If you must work with toxins, do so safely. For example, wear protective clothing and equipment, and avoid skin contact with chemicals.
Does aging affect sperm health?
Women aren't the only ones who have biological clocks. Sperm movement and the number of healthy sperm might decline after age 50, affecting a man's fertility. Some research suggests that women who become pregnant by older men have a slightly higher risk of miscarriage. A father's increasing age has also been associated with a higher risk of both autism and schizophrenia in children.
When is it time to seek help?
Adopting healthy lifestyle practices to promote your fertility — and avoiding things that can damage it — can improve your chances of conceiving. If you and your partner haven't gotten pregnant after a year of unprotected sex, however, ask your doctor about a semen analysis. A fertility specialist also might be able to identify the cause of the problem and provide treatments that place you and your partner on the road to parenthood.