Guide to Sperm Improvement

When it comes to sperm improvement, there’s a lot you can do on your own—simple lifestyle changes that can have a big impact on your sperm health. This guide will explain the research behind sperm improvement, and provide some steps you can take to optimize your fertility.

 

Understanding sperm parameters

There are several characteristics that can indicate the health of sperm and overall male fertility. Understanding which sperm improvements you may want to make will start with understanding these characteristics of male fertility. Normal values (below) according to the World Health Organization’s 5th Edition.

Count/concentration

Sperm count is the total number of sperm in a particular quantity of semen. Sperm concentration refers to how densely packed those sperm are within the semen. For example, a sample may include 3 milliliters of semen and a total sperm count of 45 million; that would be a concentration of 15 million sperm per mL.

Normal values: At least 15 million sperm/mL of semen

Possible issues: Having too little sperm in your semen is known as oligospermia; having no sperm at all is known as azoospermia.

 

Motility

Motility refers to the ability of the sperm to move or “swim,” which is essential for them to move through the female reproductive system and fertilize the egg. Progressive motility is the best type of movement—that means the sperm move forward in straight lines or in large circles, as opposed to in tight circles or along erratic paths.

Normal values: Motile sperm, at least 40%; progressively motile sperm, at least 32%

Possible issues: Poor sperm motility, diagnosed when there’s a low percentage of motile sperm, is known as asthenospermia/asthenozoospermia.

 

Morphology

Morphology means the sperm’s structure or shape, which is ideally a smooth oval head; a well-defined acrosome, or cap, that covers 40–70% of the head; and a long tail with no visible abnormalities. This shape is important because it impacts a sperm’s ability to travel to and penetrate an egg.

Normal values: At least 4% normal forms, may vary depending on testing criteria

Possible issues: Poor sperm morphology, as evidenced by a low percentage of normal sperm, is known as teratozoospermia.

 

DNA fragmentation

DNA fragmentation refers to damage to the genetic material carried by sperm. If the sperm contains DNA that’s broken or unstable, it may not be able to fertilize an egg, or may increase chances of miscarriage or birth defects.

Normal values: Depends on testing; DNA fragmentation is not tested as part of a typical semen analysis

 

Sperm testing

The best way to test your sperm health, and understand any sperm improvements you may need to make, is to do a semen analysis. This test involves providing a semen sample, collected via masturbation, to a lab. There, it will be examined under a microscope to determine your sperm count/concentration, what percentage of your sperm are motile, and your ratio of properly formed sperm.

The test can be done in a fertility clinic or urologist’s office, or can be done from the comfort and privacy of home with a mail-in sperm testing kit, like we offer. The results of your semen analysis will tell you which of your sperm parameters are normal, and which (if any) are abnormal. The Legacy semen analysis report also includes personalized recommendations for sperm improvement, based on your lifestyle.

Learn more in our Guide to Sperm Testing.

 

Why improve your sperm health?

Sperm are a key component of fertility in men. Without at least some healthy sperm, you won’t be able to create a healthy pregnancy without medical intervention. Male fertility issues contribute to at least 30% of diagnosed infertility cases, and in the past four decades, sperm counts have dropped about 50%. Researchers have proposed that pollution, diet, lifestyle, or exposure to chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system could be to blame.

Additionally, emerging research is illuminating the relationship between sperm health and miscarriage, suggesting that poor sperm motility and morphology may be a contributor to pregnancy loss.

The good news is that you are creating new sperm every single day; it takes about 74 days for the process of spermatogenesis to go from stem cell to final, mature sperm cell. So, if you make positive lifestyle changes, you could see improvements in sperm health within a few months.

 

What impacts male fertility, and what changes can I make to improve my sperm health?

Diet and sperm health

Studying the impact of diet on male fertility is a complex process; the difficulty of evaluating the exact composition of a person’s diet and accounting for all possible variables has resulted in a scarcity of strong evidence about how nutrition affects sperm health. However, the available data show that certain dietary patterns can be associated with worse or better semen parameters.

The common “Western” diet—high in fried foods, refined grains, added sugars, and red meat—is associated with lower sperm counts and concentration and reduced sperm motility and normal morphology. In general, diets high in processed meats, such as hot dogs and cold cuts, are associated with lower sperm morphology. The consumption of trans fats, found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils like margarine as well as in animal products, has also been associated with lower sperm concentrations. Diets high in added sugars are also associated with lower progressive sperm motility.

On the other hand, a diet high in fish, lean poultry, fruits and vegetables, legumes, and whole grains has been shown by multiple studies to be associated with improved sperm health, including better sperm motility. The “Mediterranean diet,” modeled on what’s traditionally eaten in Italy and Greece (primarily fruits and vegetables, seafood, healthy fats, and whole grains) is one example of a diet that has the potential to improve sperm health, according to several studies.

We know that fruits and vegetables are key for sperm health, as they’re an excellent source of many of the vitamins and nutrients required for the body to create healthy sperm, such as folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin E, and other antioxidants. Men who eat higher amounts of fruits and vegetables, particularly leafy greens, have higher sperm concentrations and improved motility.

Important vitamins and nutrients for sperm improvement What to eat to boost your intake Folate (folic acid) green vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, spinach, kale, peas), chickpeas and kidney beans, liver Omega-3s fish and other seafood (salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, sardines), nuts and seeds (flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts), plant oils (flaxseed oil, soybean oil, canola oil) Selenium Brazil nuts, seafood (tuna, halibut, sardines, shrimp), meat (ham, beef, turkey, liver) Vitamin C cantaloupe, citrus fruits (orange and grapefruit), cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower), green and red peppers, leafy greens like spinach, tropical fruits (kiwi, mango, pineapple, papaya) Vitamin E plant oils (sunflower, safflower, wheat germ), nuts (almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts), seeds, green vegetables like spinach and broccoli Zinc oysters, beef, crab and lobster, pork and dark meat poultry, beans, pumpkin seeds

It’s best to get all the nutrients you need from your diet, but male fertility supplements and regular multivitamins can help fill in any gaps. Learn more about male fertility supplements.

We also know that the consumption of nuts, specifically walnuts, is associated with improved sperm parameters, including concentration, motility, morphology, and DNA fragmentation. Researchers believe this may be due to the nuts’ high levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are important for sperm health. Additionally, Brazil nuts are a great source of selenium, a trace mineral that plays a key role in reproductive health.

What about soy? Much has been made of the impact of this legume, a staple in many vegetarian and vegan diets. Soy products such as tofu, miso, and flavor compounds contain high levels of phytoestrogens, compounds that mimic the effect of estrogen in the body. One study found that a high intake—more than 2 servings per week—of soy foods was associated with lower sperm concentration, but not lower motility or morphology. However, another study of IVF patients demonstrated that the male partner’s soy intake had no impact on fertilization rate, embryo quality, pregnancy rate, or live birth rate. While the research is inconclusive, it’s probably best to moderate your consumption of soy foods while trying to conceive.

 

Changing your diet for sperm improvement

The best sperm improvement diet is high in:

  • Fruits and vegetables, specifically leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts
  • Nuts and seeds such as walnuts, Brazil nuts, and pumpkin seeds
  • Fatty fish such as salmon

And low in:

  • Soy products
  • Processed meats
  • Red meat
  • Added sugars
Exercise and sperm health

Approximately a quarter of Americans live a sedentary lifestyle, meaning they don’t regularly engage in physical activity and have jobs that involve lots of sitting. We know that a sedentary lifestyle is associated with a negative impact on fertility (in addition to many other elements of overall health), and that regular exercise is associated with improved sperm health.

In one study of sperm donors, those who spent more time engaging in physical activity had increased progressive motility. In another, physically active men were shown to have improved sperm motility and morphology as well as healthier hormone profiles for fertility (including higher levels of testosterone, the hormone which drives the male reproductive system) when compared to their more sedentary counterparts.

Some of the sperm improvements found with exercise may come from shedding excess weight. Being overweight or obese has been associated in research with lower sperm count and decreased motility. A 2016 study assessed male partners in subfertile couples, classifying them into four categories: underweight, normal, overweight, and obese. Researchers concluded that sperm quality, concentration, count, and motility were all slightly lower in overweight and obese participants than in those with normal weight. Additionally, rates of oligospermia (low sperm count) and azoospermia (sperm count of zero) were more prevalent among obese patients, compared with normal weight men.

 

 

Exercising for sperm improvement

Embarking on an exercise routine may have a remarkable improvement on your sperm health. One study demonstrated that a 16-week aerobic training program, consisting of hour-long workouts on a treadmill three times a week, lead to improvement in the sperm count, motility and normal morphology of obese patients. It’s been shown that exercise can improve sperm parameters significantly in as little as a few months.

What type of exercise is best for sperm improvement? In one study, men who practiced physical activities such as cycling, running, or swimming for more than 2 hours per occasion at least 3 times per week had better sperm motility and morphology, and lower levels of dead or dying sperm in their semen samples.

Another study measured the sperm improvement impact of several exercise regimens:

  • Moderate intensity continuous training (30–60 minutes of walking or jogging, 4–6 times per week)
  • High intensity continuous training (40–50 minutes of running, 3 times per week)
  • High intensity interval training (alternating sprinting and recovery for 20–40 minutes, 3 times per week)

The study found that, while all of the above exercise regimens had positive effects on sperm health, the best exercise method for sperm improvement was moderate intensity continuous training. This suggests that sperm improvement can be seen by adopting the simple habit of walking or jogging most days of the week.

Interestingly, there are a few types of exercise that may negatively affect sperm health—and it’s possible for exercise to be too intense. Cycling, specifically, is what researchers call a “troublesome” activity for male fertility, due to the potential impact on the testicles from the bike seat and the risk of the testicles being overheated. Cycling for five or more hours per week has been associated with reductions in sperm concentration and motility, and in one study, men who reported cycling for 1.5 hours or more per week had sperm concentrations that were 34% lower than those of men who did not ride bicycles.

Other intense activities correlated with detrimental effects on sperm health include long-distance running and high-altitude mountain trekking. Overall, a moderate approach to physical activity is recommended for sperm improvement.

Learn more about exercise and sperm health.

 

Smoking and sperm health

Cigarette smoking has long been considered one of the leading factors in male infertility. A 2016 review examined 20 different studies of tobacco use and its effects on sperm health, and found that smoking was associated with significantly reduced sperm count and motility—and that the more you smoke, the stronger these effects are. This was reinforced by a 2019 review that found a strong correlation between smoking and low sperm count/poor morphology.

According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), infertility rates among smokers (both male and female) are twice as high as among non-smokers. Additionally, because smoking damages the genetic health of sperm, those who smoke have a higher risk of parenting a pregnancy that ends in miscarriage or having a baby with birth defects.

If you quit smoking, there’s evidence that your sperm health can improve fairly quickly. In one follow-up study of men who quit smoking, sperm motility and morphology began to return to normal within six months. And research shows that former smokers who quit more than six months ago have similar semen parameters to non-smokers.

Learn more about smoking and sperm health.

 

Alcohol and sperm health

The relationship between alcohol consumption and sperm health is a bit complex. We do know that high alcohol consumption is associated with decreased sperm health, with negative impacts on all sperm parameters. Habitual binge drinking is especially detrimental to sperm health—in one study, men who drank more than 40 drinks per week had a 33% reduction in sperm concentration compared to men who drank fewer than 5 drinks per week.

However, it may not be necessary to completely remove alcohol from your life in order to improve your sperm health. It’s actually possible, according to some research, that some alcohol consumption may actually have fertility benefits (experts hypothesize that’s because some alcohol, like wine and whiskey, contains antioxidants). Additionally, it appears that occasional drinking has no significant impact on sperm health. If you’re looking to improve your sperm health, you should consider limiting alcohol consumption to fewer than 5 drinks per week.

Learn more about drinking and sperm health.

 

Drugs, medications, and sperm health

Certain drugs and medications—whether prescription or not—are associated with reduced sperm quality and sperm count.

Medications that may impact male fertility:

  • Chemotherapy drugs
  • SSRIs and similar antidepressants
  • Alpha blockers
  • Ketoconazole
  • Some antibiotics
  • 5-alpha-reductase inhibitors
  • Opiates
  • NSAIDs
  • Corticosteroids
  • Antipsychotics
Anabolic steroids and sperm health

Anabolic steroids, also known as “performance-enhancing” drugs, are typically natural or synthetic forms of testosterone, often used to rapidly increase muscle mass. It might seem that—since testosterone is the hormone that controls the male reproductive system—adding testosterone to the body would improve fertility. In fact, the opposite is true. Injecting additional testosterone actually causes the body to believe there’s enough testosterone, so it signals the testes to stop producing the hormone.

Long-term use of steroids is associated with drastically lower percentages of motile and morphologically normal sperm. For many steroid users, sperm health improvement can be seen within 4–12 months of stopping the drugs. But some users experience steroid-induced “hypogonadism,” or a shutdown of the function of the testes, which produce testosterone and are responsible for creating sperm. Men who hope to improve their fertility should avoid—or stop using—steroids.

Sperm improvement medication

If you have low sperm count or poor motility/morphology and you’ve attempted sperm improvement on your own without any change, it may be time to see a specialist. Fertility specialists (reproductive endocrinologists) and urologists both treat fertility issues, and can help diagnose male infertility problems and treat them medically.

While fertility medication is often thought of as something women are prescribed, there are actually a few medications that are effective for male fertility and sperm health. These aren’t solutions you can undertake on your own. These medications are prescribed by a doctor for specific diagnosed causes of reduced fertility.

Three of the most common medications for sperm improvement:

  • Clomiphene citrate (or “Clomid”) is an estrogen-blocking medication that, when used to treat male infertility, can increase levels of testosterone, luteinizing hormone, and follicle-stimulating hormone—all of which contribute to the production of sperm. Clomid has been shown to improve sperm count/concentration and motility in some men experiencing reduced fertility.
  • Anastrozole is a medication that has a similar effect, decreasing estrogen levels and increasing levels of testosterone, FSH, and LH to support sperm production. This medication may help improve sperm health for those who have low sperm count, and has been shown to improve sperm motility as well.
  • Finally, human chorionic-gonadotropin (hCG) and human menopausal gonadotropin (hMG) are two injectable hormone medications also used to treat hormone imbalances in testosterone and LH that lead to low sperm count and other fertility issues.

Learn more about treatments for male fertility.

 

References
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