Modern men are experiencing an unwelcome slump in their reproductive power. Gynaecologist Dr Andrew Murray explains the ins and outs of male fertility.
When we talk about fertility problems, we tend to focus on women. What with unpredictable periods and ovulation times, and blocked fallopian tubes, women certainly seem to be dealing with far more complex issues. Men, well, they just have to point and shoot! But is it really as simple as that? What about the bullets?
Health experts have known that sperm counts are in decline for some time. Two years ago, a leading fertility clinic published research to show that during the past 20 years, the average concentration of sperm among donors has halved. And what’s even more worrying is that no one knows why. Consequently, theories abound, most of which blame environmental factors. These include the contraceptive pill’s oestrogen getting into the water supply, pesticides contaminating our fruit and vegetables, and digital devices irradiating blokes’ testes. The problem is, there’s no proof one way or another, and experts still consider the average sperm count among the general population — although lower than ideal — as fertile.
What harms sperm?
Think of sperm as DNA delivery vans: The sole aim of a sperm is to deliver male DNA to a female egg. A sperm count reflects how many vans a man has and how fast they drive, and sperm DNA is the cargo inside those vans.
Risk factors for damage to this valuable cargo include obesity, excess alcohol, smoking (both tobacco and cannabis), previous testicular surgery or injury, heat and long-distance cycling. Cannabis smokers also tend to have very poor sperm motility (the capacity to move); it’s almost as if the sperm are stoned, too.
This DNA damage is the work of free radicals, highly unstable molecules that act a lot like loose cannons in the body. This assault on healthy cells can wreak havoc on fertility, trigger miscarriages, and even heighten cancer risk in the children that result from any ‘successful’ pregnancies.
Sperm can also be misshapen: The DNA-delivery vans are often dented, yet still on the ‘road’ in good working condition. In fact, only 4 per cent of a man’s sperm need to be normally shaped for him to be fertile. However, any amount below this percentage can be a sign of reduced fertility.
So what can a man do?
The good news is that the sperm factory (the testes) sends out new models every 72 days, giving men the chance to improve the quality on the production line.
Eating a diet high in antioxidants helps reduce the harmful impact of free radicals. Antioxidants defend the body against the damage that stress, pollution and ageing cause to cells and DNA. The bright reds, greens and blues of fruits and vegetables indicate their high levels of antioxidants, such as vitamin A (beta-carotene) and vitamin C. Peanuts, almonds and Brazil nuts are also good sources, as are tomatoes, which release more of the antioxidant lycopene during cooking, making it easier for the body to absorb. You can also buy antioxidant supplements, but they’re not as nutritionally complete as whole fresh fruit and vegetables.
To have fighting-fit sperm, a man needs to be fit. It’s essential to address excess weight — there’s no advantage in having a big roof over the tool shed!
If a bloke can’t see his manhood when he looks down, it’s time for him to get off the couch, get that computer off his lap and get moving!
Along with eating well and staying fit, men who want to improve their fertility should limit alcohol and stub out their cigarettes — neither drinking nor smoking does sperm any favours. Ideally, men who decide to have children should address all of these issues before trying to conceive.
So if you or the man in your life is having problems, pause to look at the bigger picture and figure out just how healthy those bullets are.
Foods to boost a man’s fertility
Instead of Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes... TRY porridge topped with Brazil nuts. These nuts contain the trace mineral selenium, which enhances fertility, and porridge has a low glycaemic index (GI), so he’ll be less tempted to snack on unhealthy food throughout the day.
Instead of white toast and jam... TRY two hard-boiled eggs and wholegrain toast. Eggs are another good source of selenium and provide excellent nutritional value for relatively few kilojoules. The combination of protein (from the egg) and fibre (from the grainy toast) will keep him going until lunchtime.
Instead of a meat pie... TRY a hot meal that’s full of colourful vegies. Whip up a Thai beef salad, or a grilled meat (or chicken) dish with lots of roast vegetables instead of hot chips.
Instead of a ham and cheese sandwich... TRY a wrap or sandwich made with tuna or chicken breast, and add baby spinach and tomato for more antioxidants. Finish the meal with a piece of fresh fruit.
Instead of steak and potatoes... Try grilled salmon with baked sweet potato and plenty of leafy green vegetables for a meal packed with fertility-friendly nutrients.
Instead of pasta with creamy sauce... TRY a stir-fry of skinless chicken breast with broccoli, carrots and baby spinach for extra fibre and vitamin C. He’ll also cut down on fat and kilojoules.
Keep sperm fit with healthy fats
When US-based researchers at Harvard Medical School analysed the sperm of 99 men, they found that a high total fat intake was associated with a lower total sperm count. In contrast, men who had a higher consumption of ‘good’ fats — in the form of healthy omega-3 fatty acids — produced sperm of a better shape than did men who consumed low levels of these fats. And well-formed sperm boost a man’s chances of successful fertilisation. In another US study, scientists found the omega-3 fat DHA to be particularly essential to healthy sperm structure.
Such studies suggest an important link between men’s fertility and the type and amount of fat they consume.