Fertility clearly isn’t just a woman-thing. Up to 30 percent of cases of infertility worldwide are thought to be due to sperm-quality issues1. In the UK, 1 in 7 couples have difficulty conceiving, and one in four of these are from unknown causes – unknown, that is, to conventional medicine. The conventional avenues of treatment are drugs, surgery or assisted conception – including intra-uterine insemination (IUI) and in vitro fertilisation (IVF)2, but aside from addressing a blockage these generally focus on the woman rather than the man.
So, couples are increasingly turning to nutrition and lifestyle medicine to address the root causes of infertility, including sperm quality.
Sperm quality is multi-faceted: it’s about motility (how effectively they can travel up the female reproductive tract); it’s about density (how many there are of them) and morphology (their size and shape). It’s also about the viscosity of the semen. And like all of the body’s systems and processes, the reproductive organs need to be nurtured and fed with the right nutrients (and protected from harmful anti-nutrients) for the miracle of new life to occur.
The Mediterranean diet has been researched extensively. A search for peer-reviewed journal articles on ScienceDirect.com produces over 40,000 hits on the subject, and the health benefits of eating like you’re on a sun-kissed Greek island are undisputed. Fertility is no exception. Men who scored the lowest in terms of the similarity of their diet to Mediterranean fayre were found to be two and a half times more likely to have poor sperm count, density and motility compared to those scoring the highest. This way of eating focuses on fresh vegetables and fruits, as well as beans, whole grains (in moderation), herbs, spices, nuts and healthy fats (especially olive oil). But beware of pesticides on your produce. A high intake of chemicals via food is also associated with reduced sperm quality, so buying organic is well worth it for couples trying to conceive.
Today’s farming methods are giving rise to another problem besides pesticide residues: intensively growing single crops over decades has depleted soils of their nutrients – and if it ain’t in the soil, it ain’t in the vegetable! This is where supplementation comes in, and a nutritional therapist may recommend increasing levels of certain nutrients that support both female and male reproductive systems. For sperm quality, micronutrients including CoQ10, zinc, selenium, L-carnitine and L-acetylcarnitine have been studied for their positive effects, and so professional-quality supplements may be recommended in addition to the healthy (Mediterranean) diet.
On the other end of the spectrum from the Mediterranean diet is the Standard Western Diet (or in the US the Standard American Diet), which tends to be high in refined carbohydrates, and the UK is the worst in Europe in terms of diet quality, with around 60% of calories consumed in the form of ultra-processed food. In the bread, pasta, pastry, cakes, biscuits and starches in processed foods is gluten, one of the proteins contained in wheat, rye, barley and other grains. Gluten is the culprit in coeliac disease, an autoimmune condition in which the immune system mounts a serious allergic response to gluten that . However, even when a person does not have coeliac disease, gluten is known to be a potential spanner in the female works when it comes to conceiving. In all of us, gluten triggers a resident protein in the gut called zonulin which regulates the size of the gaps between the cells in our gut lining. When the gaps are too large, particles get through into the bloodstream and can set off immune reactions and inflammation, which is why a “leaky gut” is often at the root of autoimmune or chronic diseases. When a woman is having trouble conceiving, a gluten-free diet can often result in pregnancy. But what about the man? Well, it turns out that gluten can significantly impact sperm size and shape as well for the same reasons3 , so a gluten-free diet for both partners is one tactic that can increase the chances of a successful and healthy pregnancy.
Stop exposing yourself!
We live in a world that our bodies are not designed for. A world that has changed so fast that our biochemistry can’t keep up. There are 85,000 synthetic chemicals in commercial use listed on the US Environment Protection Agency’s chemicals database, but only 1% of these are tested for toxicity to human health. Toxins and hormone-disrupting chemicals4 surround us in our daily lives: in our air, water, food, cosmetics, personal products, cookware, cleaning and other household products.
The overall impact of poor air quality on sperm quality is still unclear, but some studies have found that air pollution can affect sperm motility, and the smaller the particulate matter, the greater the detrimental effects. If you live or work in an urban environment, you may not be able to do anything about your exposure to pollution, but it’s important to try to minimise your overall toxic load as far as possible to give your body’s detoxification pathways in the liver and other cells a fighting chance.
So, drink only filtered water (ZeroWater filter jugs remove virtually all dissolved solids including heavy metals); avoid using plastic containers for food storage and consumption, especially water bottles, and try to use glass instead; avoid cling film, aluminium foil and Teflon (non-stick) cookware; use natural cleaning products, and minimise use of personal products containing chemicals. Alcohol is also detoxified by the liver, and excessive drinking is another lifestyle factor that has a considerable impact on fertility6.
Another form of exposure that is difficult to escape in our modern world is the electromagnetic radiation (EMR) emitted from our mobile phones and transmitters. The effects of EMR on sperm are still the subject of much research, but studies in Eastern Europe and Western Asia have found that mobile phone use is correlated with a decline in sperm density and motility. It’s a good idea to keep your Apple away from your plums 😉
Certain drugs can have also an impact on male fertility, such as aspirin, paracetamol and proton pump inhibitors. The latter, very frequently prescribed for acid reflux, not only reduce absorption of certain micronutrients and impair protein digestion, but are also implicated in reduced sperm motility. The dramatic reduction in the birthrate noted in the first quarter of this year (2022) in several countries has led researchers to point the finger at the Covid-19 spike protein. A study conducted by Israeli researchers found that the Pfizer Covid vaccine did reduce sperm count after around 2.5 months, although on average there was a recovery after six months, post-vaccination7. As part of our fertility recommendations to clients, we may suggest a range of nutritional supplements and botanical extracts to support detoxification from the spike protein and mitigate its effects.
And it’s good night from him
Last but certainly not least, poor sleep has been linked to poor sperm quality. In fact, sleep is so critical for general physical and mental health that this paragraph really should be at the top of the page. If you have trouble getting enough sleep (7-8 hours a night), consider seeing a sleep specialist or a nutritional and lifestyle therapist to get you back on track. We highly recommend the book “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker, PhD.
Please contact us on the form below if you would like to arrange a free exploratory call or a Nutritional Therapy consultation:
- Dcunha R, Hussein RS, Ananda H, Kumari S, Adiga SK, Kannan N, Zhao Y, Kalthur G. Current Insights and Latest Updates in Sperm Motility and Associated Applications in Assisted Reproduction. Reprod Sci. 2022 Jan;29(1):7-25. doi: 10.1007/s43032-020-00408-y. Epub 2020 Dec 7. PMID: 33289064; PMCID: PMC7721202.
- Bold J, Rostami K. Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity and reproductive disorders. Gastroenterol Hepatol Bed Bench. 2015 Fall;8(4):294-7. PMID: 26468350; PMCID: PMC4600520. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4600520/
- Sharma A, Mollier J, Brocklesby RWK, Caves C, Jayasena CN, Minhas S. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals and male reproductive health. Reprod Med Biol. 2020 Apr 14;19(3):243-253. doi: 10.1002/rmb2.12326. PMID: 32684823; PMCID: PMC7360961. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7360961/
- Yu, G., Bai, Z., Song, C., Cheng, Q., Wang, G., Tang, Z., & Yang, S. (2021). Current progress on the effect of mobile phone radiation on sperm quality: An updated systematic review and meta-analysis of human and animal studies. Environmental pollution (Barking, Essex : 1987), 282, 116952. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2021.116952
- Finelli, R., Mottola, F., & Agarwal, A. (2021). Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Male Fertility Potential: A Narrative Review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 19(1), 328. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19010328
- Gat, I., Kedem, A., Dviri, M., Umanski, A., Levi, M., Hourvitz, A., & Baum, M. (2022). Covid-19 vaccination BNT162b2 temporarily impairs semen concentration and total motile count among semen donors. Andrology, 10.1111/andr.13209. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1111/andr.13209