It is estimated that about one in seven couples faces difficulty conceiving. If you’ve been having regular unprotected sex for more than 12 months (or less, if you’re over 35) and you’re still not pregnant, you may begin to wonder if you have a fertility problem. While people think that most fertility problems involve the woman, around 40% of infertility cases are actually attributed to the male partner. Male infertility can stem from a variety of reasons including low sperm count, abnormal sperm shape (morphology), suboptimal movement (motility) and/ or function. And with up to a fifth of young men in the UK being diagnosed with low sperm count, many couples may wonder, what affects sperm health?
Why Do I Have Low Sperm Count or Poor Morphology?
- Do you sit for a long period of time (e.g. long-distance driver) or are you an avid bicyclist? Do you use hot tubs or heated car seats? Or wear tight underwear? Heat can have a detrimental effect on normal sperm production. This is the reason why the testicles are located outside the body in the scrotum rather than in the abdomen like the ovaries. Studies show that actions or activities that raise testicular temperature can decrease sperm count.
- If your semen analysis reveals abnormalities, visit a urologist to rule out a varicocele, which is a fairly common condition among men. Varicoceles are enlarged/ dilated veins in the scrotum which results in an elevated temperature in the testicles, which can lead to fertility problems.
- Sperm health can be affected by overexposure to certain environmental elements such as industrial chemicals (e.g. benzenes, toluene), pesticides and heavy metals. A 2015 Harvard study revealed that men who ate fruits and vegetables with higher levels of pesticide residues (e.g. strawberries, spinach, peppers) had lower sperm counts and lower percentages of normal sperm than those who ate produce with lower pesticide levels.
- It turns out that processed meats such as bacon and sausage may also decrease sperm count. In another Harvard study, researchers found that men who ate between one and three servings of processed meats per day had worse quality
sperm than those who ate the fewest servings. In comparison, sperm quality was better in men who ate the most white fish (e.g. cod, halibut).
And men who ate the most fatty fish like salmon, bluefish or tuna had a 34% higher sperm count than those who ate the least amount of fish. Note that soy can also negatively affect sperm quality as it contains isoflavones which mimic estrogen, a primary female sex hormone.
- Smoking over 20 cigarettes a day has been shown to reduce both sperm count and sperm motility.
- Heat and radiation from mobile phones have an effect on sperm health. Studies show that using Wi-Fi can decrease a man’s fertility by decreasing sperm motility and increasing sperm DNA fragmentation. Click here to read more.
- Exposure to radiation from X-rays or cancer therapy can reduce sperm production. With high doses of radiation, sperm production can be permanently reduced.
- If you are overweight, it’s time to shed those extra pounds. Yet another Harvard study found that overweight men are 11% more likely to have a low sperm count and 39% more likely to have no sperm in their ejaculate. Obesity can reduce fertility by lowering testosterone levels (greater fat storage can end up turning testosterone into the female hormone estrogen, leading to a slowing or cessation of sperm production), directly raising testicular temperature due to extra insulating fat tissue and increasing the risk of erectile dysfunction.
- Skipping sex for too long may reduce fertility. Men with normal sperm counts who are abstinent for 11 or more days may experience significant decreases in the percentage of sperm motility and normal morphology.
- Untreated infections can decrease sperm count and quality, or cause scarring that blocks the passage of sperm. These include inflammation of the epididymis (epididymitis) or testicles (orchitis) and some sexually transmitted infections (STI), including HIV and gonorrhea.
If you are a man and would like to know more about your fertility status, get a comprehensive semen analysis done. A comprehensive semen analysis gives specific details on sperm count, sperm motility and sperm morphology (and if there are defects, where the defects lie- in the head, body, tail, etc.). It also rules out possible infection.