Fertility challenges can be tough. On top of the emotions and impact on your relationship, sperm health has historically been tied to the concept of male virility, or “manliness.” Even though that isn’t the case, it can make sperm health a difficult subject to bring up.
But being proactive about your sperm health is more important than ever. A 2017 analysis of nearly 43,000 men found that worldwide sperm counts declined significantly from 1973 to 2011.
Sex, fertility, and pregnancy is a tricky process, dependent on many factors. Taking measures for healthy sperm is just one small but positive step toward growing your family.
Here are some changes you can start implementing right away to keep your sperm strong and your sex drive on full speed.
Infertility isn’t just a woman’s problem: One-third of the time, a male factor is identified as the cause of infertility, notes the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Clearly, having healthy sperm is important. But sperm health goes beyond just conceiving. Sperm quality also plays a role in the health of the overall pregnancy and possibly the baby.
In studies on mice, stress and obesity in male mice modified the genes carried in their sperm. It made their mice babies more likely to be overweight and stressed. Still, more human studies are needed to examine this possible link.
Now, let’s define the elements of healthy sperm:
- Quantity (volume). A healthy sperm count is about 15 million or more for every milliliter (mL) of semen. The more you have, the more likely one of them will make it through the female reproductive system to an egg.
- Movement (motility). Not every sperm moves effectively or even at all, but this is normal. Only about 40 percent or more of them need to be movin’ and groovin’ for you to be fertile.
- Shape (morphology). Healthy sperm have rounded heads and long, strong tails. Shapely sperm are more likely to make it to an egg.
You have control over several things that shape how healthy your sperm is. Here’s what you can do to make those sperm work for you both now and later.
1. Eat well
People eating a “Western” diet — consisting of processed meats, grains, dairy, sweets, snacks, and pizza — are especially affected when it comes to sperm motility in comparison to those who eat a diet higher in chicken, fish, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
Go light on the processed stuff and eat more lean meats and whole foods. Try some of these foods and vitamins for a sperm boost:
- Vitamin B-12. This potent vitamin is found in meat, fish, and dairy. It has all sorts of positive effects throughout your body. Among other things, vitamin B-12 protects your sperm from inflammation and oxidative stress caused by harmful free radicals in your body.
- Vitamin C. Eating more oranges, berries, potatoes, tomatoes, and spinach can all contribute to a higher sperm count. In some cases, it can even double it after a couple months.
- Nuts. Nuts have long been associated with benefitting sexual health, and the evidence keeps piling on. A 2018 study of 119 men found that a diet high in almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts over a 14-week period increased sperm count by up to 16 percent.
- Lycopene. Lycopene gives foods like tomatoes and watermelons their rich red color. It can reduce reactive oxygen species (ROS) in your body, too. ROS can damage DNA and hurt sperm. Taking 4 to 8 milligrams (mg) of lycopene a day was found to improve sperm count and motility.
2. Exercise regularly, but don’t overdo it
Even light exercise can increase sperm quantity, movement, and shape.
A 2005 study found that the combination of low activity and high body mass index (BMI) contributed directly to poor semen quality. Being overweight or obese can affect testosterone levels, too, which can lower your sex drive.
Exercise and weight loss can boost your sperm count and quality in mere weeks. Try going on a 20-minute walk, doing some pushups, or finishing some yardwork. The extra hormones, endorphins, and blood flow can also boost your sex drive.
So get moving, but don’t get too crazy. Intense physical activity, especially cycling, jogging, and mountain climbing, are linked to decreased semen quality. This may be due from injury from bicycle seats or scrotum movement or hormone changes from stress. One 2003 study found male rats exposed to high altitudes had lower sperm count, too.
3. Boxers or briefs?
Let’s get right to the point: Your underwear is probably fine, no matter your preference.
But don’t go throwing out all your undies just yet. Researchers from the 2018 study warned that results aren’t entirely conclusive because they didn’t measure other factors that affect sperm count, such as type of pants or underwear material.
And they also suggest that your body may compensate for the extra heat on your testicles from briefs by releasing more sperm-producing follicle-stimulating hormone.
So really, it’s up to you. The evidence only points a little bit more toward boxers as conducive to higher sperm count.
4. Think before you drink alcohol or caffeine
A 2017 review of studies involving almost 20,000 men suggested that caffeine in soda and soft drinks may damage sperm DNA. This can decrease sperm count.
Consuming more than three cups a day of caffeinated drinks — whether coffee, energy drinks, or soda — raises the risk of miscarriage. It didn’t matter whether or not the man or woman was downing cold brews. Both parents were a factor.
That said, the review notes two cups of caffeine a day is completely safe.
Go easy on the alcohol as well. A 2014 study found that having five or more units of alcohol per week had lower sperm count and motility. The effects increase the more you drink, too. Five units is equal to about:
- 40 ounces of beer
- 25 ounces of wine
- 7.5 ounces of spirits
Another 2017 review of just over 16,000 men found that alcohol affects how many sperm come out in each ejaculation.
You don’t need to go cold turkey on the alcohol. Just keep it to four drinks or less per week.
5. Take a supplement
If you’re trying to boost your sperm quality, you can get several important vitamins and minerals through the foods you eat. You also could consider popping a daily supplement to make conceiving a little easier.
Keep in mind the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate the quality or purity of supplements like they do for drugs. Talk to your doctor about the right dosage for you. They can also make sure the supplement won’t interfere with any medications you’re currently taking.
6. Avoid certain chemicals and products
Hormone-disrupting chemicals could be lurking in your workplace, in the air, and maybe even in your personal care products.
They’re chemicals known as reproductive hazards. The Centers for Disease Control keeps a comprehensive list. They can affect every aspect of your sperm: count, volume, motility, and shape.
The main ones to avoid include:
- lead: found in pipes, paint, soil, and dust, especially in or near old homes
- styrene and acetone: plastic found in plastic dishes, packaging, insulation, and common construction materials
- mercury vapor: found in industrial aerosols and metal dust
- dibromochloropropane: found in some pesticides and research facilities
Most of these chemicals are found in high concentrations in factories or other heavy industrial workplaces. But some are right in your home or are ingredients in soaps, bodywashes, and plastic containers.
The state of California even passed a law, Proposition 65, requiring manufacturers to warn consumers if any ingredients used in their products have been linked to cancer. Check out the latest list here.
What can you do?
- Read the ingredients before you buy any product, consumable or otherwise.
- Replace any products that contain these chemicals with natural products.
- Try to replace your plastic items with alternatives, such as glass, stainless steel, silicone, or even biodegradable plastics.
If you and your partner are having trouble conceiving after trying lifestyle and medical options, you may choose to move forward with in vitro fertilization (IVF).
IVF consists of using a sperm sample to fertilize an egg from your partner’s or a donor’s ovaries, which is then implanted back in their uterus. If all goes well, you’ll soon be a dad.
For the highest chance of fertilization while undergoing IVF, try every tip we’ve already discussed here. Aim to make these changes long term, but the 30 days leading up to giving your sperm sample is crucial.
In the three to four days before you give your sperm sample, you and your partner can fool around, but don’t ejaculate. Also, try to avoid deep penetration so your partner’s cervix doesn’t become irritated.
IVF is a costly endeavor, so you want to give this chance at pregnancy the best chance possible.
Talk to your doctor before making any changes to your diet or lifestyle. It’s important to measure your sperm count before and after these changes so you’ll know if they’re working or not.
And remember, make these decisions for yourself and your partner — not because you don’t feel “manly” enough or think your sperm count says something about your sexual prowess.
With these changes, and possibly a little help from technology, you could be on your way to growing your family.
Tim Jewell is a writer, editor, and linguist based in Chino Hills, CA. His work has appeared in publications by many leading health and media companies, including Healthline and The Walt Disney Company.