Have you ever wondered if there are particular dietary patterns and foods to increase male fertility? This is the guide to food that can improve sperm health.
What is male infertility?
Infertility is common and affects 1 in 6 couples. Male factors contribute to up to 58 percent of fertility concerns. Male infertility is a condition where a man is unable to produce enough healthy sperm, or where healthy sperm in unable to travel through the male reproductive system to where it needs to be to fertilize an egg. This can make it difficult or impossible to conceive a child.
It takes 74 days for sperm to develop and they spend 1-2 weeks further maturing in the epididymis.
There are many potential causes of male infertility including;
- infections – such as mumps virus after puberty
- injury – such as torsion of the testicle
- hormonal problems – including thyroid disease and low testosterone
- environmental toxins and lifestyle factors – alcohol, smoking, endocrine disrupting chemicals
- genetic conditions such as cystic fibrosis
Male fertility has been declining since the 1970s. A meta-analysis in 2017 found this decline to be estimated in the order of 50-60% in men from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Such a rapid decline indicates that something in our environment or lifestyle is influencing male fertility. Food, food processing and food packaging are, at least in part contributing to this decline in male fertility.
Foods To increase Male Fertility
There are nutritional and dietary patterns that are associated with stronger and healthier sperm. Overall the data suggests an eating pattern that is predominantly plant-based, rich in an abundant diversity of antioxidants, nutrients and beneficial phytonutrients will boost sperm count and increase fertility.
Nuts are good for sperm health
Nuts are a good source of micronutrients important for sperm development and function.
Walnuts contain high quantities of plant derived healthy fat: omega-3 fatty acids (alpha linoleic acid). In a randomized clinical trial in 2012, eating 75g of walnuts per day was found to improve sperm motility and sperm morphology. Additionally further studies have found that men with higher omega-6: omega-3 fatty acids ratio are more likely to have fertility issues. Omega-3 fatty acids are found:
- nuts such as walnuts and hazelnuts
- seeds including chia seeds, pumpkin seeds and flax seeds
- oily fish such as salmon or
- by taking a fish oil supplement.
Eat nuts and seeds daily and oily fish 2 times per week to increase your omega-3 fatty acid intake to boost fertility. Consume less processed oils and processed foods made from or with processed oils including:
- sunflower oil (71% omega-6)
- corn oil (57% omega-6)
- soybean oil (54% omega-6)
- cottonseed oil (54% omega-6)
- peanut oil (33% omega-6)
- canola oil (21% omega-6)
Opt instead for more healthy fats such as olive oil (9% omega-6), or butter (3% omega-6) which contain a much healthier omega6:omega3 ratio.
Trans fats are unsaturated fatty acids found in margarines and processed plant oils. Trans fats in a was associated with both lower sperm count in men with fertility issues and lower sperm concentration in healthy men. Likewise, animal models also suggest that trans fatty acids accumulate in the testes, impair testosterone production, reduce low sperm counts, reduced motility and morphology and fertility.
These research findings suggest processed oils and margarines are detrimental to male fertility and should be avoided for to improve sperm counts, improve sperm morphology and for better sperm motility.
Spinach and other leafy greens boost sperm health
Leafy greens are rich in folic acid, which is a key micronutrient in DNA synthesis, DNA repair and methylation of DNA (adding a methyl group to DNA to inhibit gene expression). Folic acid is essential for production of healthy sperm cells and a meta-analysis in 2020 indicates that low folic acid in men is associated with increased congenital abnormalities.
In humans, genetic variations such as methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) are related to semen quality. MTHFR is an enzyme used in conversion of dietary folate into 5-methyltetrahydrofolate – the form used in the body. MTHFR genes can have variants called polymorphisms. If someone has the C677T variation from 1 parent, they have a 40% reduction in MTHFR function, but from 2 parents the reduction is 70%. A meta-analysis in 2007 of gene polymorphisms and male fertility found that males with either 1 or 2 C677T alleles had increased risk of infertility.
Other gene polymorphisms involved with methylation and folate metabolism have also been associated with male infertility including MTR A2756G and MTRR A66G.
A study found that supplementation with folate 15mg daily (recommended daily dose of folic acid is 400 micrograms) for 90 days led to higher sperm concentrations by 53 % and a doubling of sperm motility. Another study found 5mg of folate supplement + zinc for 182 days led to 74% higher sperm counts.
A further study in 2015 found that in men with unexplained infertility, 23% had the MTHFR TT allele (normally 10% of general population) and 33% were CT. This intervention did not improve sperm count or sperm quality. The study looked at methylation before and after 6 months of taking 5mg folate supplements.
It showed that DNA methylation was reduced in all men taking high dose supplementation and this was worse for men with TT polymorphism. The genes affected by abnormal methylation related to cancers -especially gastrointestinal tract, and reproductive cancers, neurobehavioral/developmental disorders- including autism and schizophrenia and obesity.
Overall, the research indicates that while adequate folic acid intake is essential for healthy sperm and healthy offspring, high-dose folate supplements (5mg) should be avoided in men with infertility, especially if they have MTHFR C677T TT.
Your daily folic acid requirement (400 micrograms) can easily be obtained from a diet containing ample plant foods for adequate sperm production, for example:
- 1 cup of cooked kidney beans (177g) contains 131 mcg of folate = 33% of the recommended daily intake (RDI).
- 1 cup of raw spinach (30g) provides 58.2 mcg, = 15% of the RDI
- 1 large orange contains 55 mcg of folate = 14% of the RDI
- 1/2 cup of cooked brussels sprouts (78g) contains 47 mcg of folate = 12 of the RDI
- 1/2 cup of cooked broccoli (78g) contains 84 mcg of folate = 21% of the RDI
- 1 medium banana contains 23.6 mcg of folate = 6% of the RDI
Lean meats and fish
If you love eating meat then eat meat that is the least processed. A study in 2014 looking at diet and sperm health found that males who ate the most processed red meats (such as sausages, salami, hot dogs & spam) had the lowest sperm counts. Ideally, choose lean meats that have the least amount of processing involved. This includes sourcing meat that is:
- Grass fed and avoid corn-fed meat.
- Hormone free
- Cage free
Additionally, the study found that sperm had better morphology in those men who consumed fish regularly. This suggests reducing processed red meats, and weekly fish intake is positive for healthy sperm production and function.
Drinking alcohol can lower the level of key hormones which are vital for sperm production, resulting in a decreased sperm count. In one cohort study that was conducted in Danish in 2014 populations showed that men who consumed the highest alcohol regularly (40 units per week) had a 33% reduced sperm count compared with men who consumed 1-5 units per week.
Likewise a study published 2004 in the UK showed that for women whose male partners consumed high alcohol intake (> than 20 units per week), had a 2x increased time to pregnancy compared with women whose male partners consumed les than 20 units per week.
These studies indicate a dose dependent effect of alcohol on sperm count and sperm motility. While lower alcohol intake does not appear to have negative effects on seme quality, higher quantities of alcohol should be avoided for increasing sperm count. The UK Chief Medical Officers’ recommendation is to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, which should be spread evenly over 3 days or more.
Caffeine and sperm production
There is some evidence that caffeine, especially higher intakes of caffeine can decrease sperm production. A systematic review of 28 studies published 2017 made the following findings:
- Sperm parameters such as sperm count, sperm volume and number of motile sperm did not seem affected by caffeine intake from tea, coffee and chocolate.
- Sperm parameters was adversely affected by caffeine intake in cola-drinks and energy drinks.
- Caffeine intake was associated with DNA damage such as aneuploidy – the absence of chromosomes or presence of additional chromosomes, and increased DNA fragments
Although further research will provide further information regarding caffeine and sperm vitality, the current research suggests consuming less that 308mg of caffeine daily (3 coffees) is ideal and avoiding caffeine in soft drinks and energy drinks is the best course to take to improve male fertility.
Soy and male fertility
It has been postulated that soy has a negative effect on male fertility. Soy and soy-derived products contain isoflavones called phytoestrogens that weakly mimic the actions of estrogens. Overall, there has been some indications that phytoestrogens alone or in combination with other endocrine disruptors, could affect reproductive hormones, sperm development, and fertility in males.
However, these results must be interpreted with care, as a recent review in 2018 shows that human data on soy and it’s relation to sperm parameters and pregnancy outcomes is still scarce and inconsistent, with the largest study only containing 300 men.
Soy has been found to be beneficial in other male hormonally related disorders such as prostate cancer prevention. In a meta-analysis in 2018 of large studies of over 280,000 males, soy nintake was associated with a 29% reduced risk of prostate cancer.
Zinc intake is important to improve male fertility
Zinc is a mineral that is important for healthy semen quality. Zinc deficiency has been linked with lower sperm counts and poor sperm quality. Zinc levels are high in semen.
Zinc being the second most abundant trace element in the human, and regular dietary intake is required. Zinc helps male fertility in the following ways:
- It acts an antioxidant by decreasing the reactive oxygen species (ROS) which can improve sperm health
- Zinc acts to reduce maternal immune response against sperm.
- Zinc is important for normal hormone functions such as testosterone,
- Zinc functions as an antibacterial agent in men’s urinary system
How to boost zinc levels
There a number of ways to source zinc form the food you eat. Below is a list of foods that you can get zinc from to boost sperm quality:
- lean meat
- legumes – such as beans, chickpeas, peas and lentils
- seeds – such as pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, flax seeds
- nuts – such as pine nuts, pecans, brazil nuts and almonds
- whole grains
- some vegetables – such as mushrooms, corn, asparagus, corn, broccoli
- dark chocolate
Due to the many different sources that someone can get zinc, consuming a well balanced healthy diet ensures adequate dietary zinc intake.
Anti-oxidants: Vitamin C and Vitamin E improve sperm health
Vitamin C is an important vitamin for overall health and has been shown to improve sperm quality.
A study in 2006 showed that men who took 1000mg of vitamin C supplements for 2 months had improved sperm motility and morphology compared with the intervention group.
An evidence based review looked at the role antioxidant made on male fertility noted that in addition to Vitamin C other antioxidant supplements, especially a combination of antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and CoQ10 intake can effectively improve semen health in infertile men.
Good food sources of these antioxidants is consuming a diet that is abundant in plants. The following foods are high in anti-oxidants so be sure to include a diverse variety in your diet:
- citrus fruit,
- bell peppers,
- berries. strawberries.
- dark leafy greens
- herbs – especially rosemary, sage and oregano
- spices – such as tumeric, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg
Indeed many of the common fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices are abundant with antioxidants.
Avoid Processed Foods
Eating processed foods can reduce sperm count and quality. Processed foods are often high in sugar, salt, and fat. They can also contain unhealthy additives and preservatives. Foods to avoid include fried foods, full-fat dairy, and processed meats. It can be hard to change eating habits so enlist your partner or friends to lend support.
Processed foods can also contain chemicals that may be harmful to your health such as Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDC) found in plastic packaging ie bisphenol A and phthalates. Some researchers such as Dr. Shanna Swan, a leading environmental and reproductive epidemiologist and professor of environmental medicine and public health, has argued that the male infertility decline since the mid-1970s is related to EDC in food packaging.
Some processed foods have been found to increase the risk of obesity and other diseases. Obesity is known to disrupt male fertility and the reproduction potential, particularly through alteration in the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis by
- disrupting testicular production
- causing metabolic dysregulation,
- including abnormal responses to insulin which controls blood sugar balance,
- production of cytokines and adipokines – that induce inflammation and have negative effect on hunger signals.
Obesity and these inflammatory mediators result in a negative impact on semen parameters, including sperm concentration, motility, viability and normal morphology. In men, obesity can be associated with :
- low testosterone levels
- reduced sperm production
Overall, the research shows that foods to increase male fertility are those which are high in nutrients and antioxidants. The best dietary pattern for increasing sperm production and male fertility is one that is rich in a diverse array of whole plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, and wholegrains. Fatty fish is beneficial.
Lean red meat coffee and alcohol should be used minimally. Processed red meats, processed foods and caffeinated soda drinks should be avoided.
Changing your eating habits to a healthy lifestyle can take time and effort, but the benefits can last a lifetime and become a new way of life.
We wish you well on your fertility journey!
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