Sperm Health: 10 Things that Decrease Sperm Fertility

For couples who want to get pregnant, healthy sperm are just as important as healthy eggs. In fact, male infertility is just as common as female infertility. Like most things, when it comes to maintaining good health, there are some dos and don’ts for sperm health. Men produce millions of sperm in their testicles throughout life, but sperm health is not guaranteed.

For healthy and fertile sperm, a man needs lots and lots of sperm and they need to be able to swim like crazy, called sperm motility. If a man has less than 15 million sperm in one millimeter of a sperm sample, it may not be enough to get his partner pregnant. If over 60 percent of those sperm are not good swimmers, they will not make it through the cervix and up the fallopian tubes to reach the egg. So, what could go wrong?

There are lots of medical conditions that can affect sperm counts and motility. They include diseases of the pituitary gland in the brain that sends messages to the testicles for sperm production, diseases of the testicles, and diseases that block sperm from travelling out of the testicles. A male fertility specialist, usually a urologist, will look for these types of problems when a couple has been trying to get pregnant for a year without success.

What Can a Man Do to Have Healthy Sperm?

Some sperm reducing diseases may not be preventable, but there are lots of things a man can do for sperm health. The best way to have healthy sperm is to have a healthy rest of the body. That means healthy lifestyle choices. Eat a healthy diet, maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, and practice safe sex. Some sexually transmitted diseases can infect the testicles and cause infertility.

According to a recent study published in the American Medical Association journal JAMA Open, total sperm counts for men in North America, Australia, and Europe have dropped by up to 60 percent since 1973. This goes along with a drop in testosterone, the male hormone you need to produce sperm. This drop could have several causes, but the one that the researchers focused on was the Western diet.

The study included close to 3,000 men with an average age of 19. Men who ate a Mediterranean style diet featuring fish, chicken, vegetables, whole grains, and fruit had sperm samples with 68 million more sperm than men who ate a western diet. The typical western diet featured red meat, processed foods, pizza, snacks, sweets, and sugar sweetened drinks.

Ten Things to Avoid for Healthy Sperm

 In addition to healthy lifestyle choices, especially with the diet, there are certain sperm reducing exposures that men who want to conceive should avoid. Here are 10 with some research support: 

  1. The testicles hang down away from the body to reduce body heat. Too much heat is bad for sperm production. You may have heard that men should wear boxers instead of briefs. Research has not shown that type of underwear make a big difference, but it does suggest avoiding frequent use of a hot tub or sauna. Saunas and hot tubs can get the testicles warm enough to reduce sperm production. Laptops also give off heat, and some doctors are advising men to keep the laptop on the desk and off the lap.
  1. This one is not surprising since smoking is bad for everything. Toxins in tobacco smoke lower sperm count, fragment sperm DNA, and decrease sperm motility. A triple whammy. Don’t smoke!
  1. A review of past research shows a significant effect of marijuana on sperm count and motility. Most doctors advise men not to use marijuana when trying to conceive. More recently, researchers from Harvard School of Public Health were surprised to find that middle age men who use marijuana had a higher sperm count and testosterone level than men who never used. So, the jury may be back out on this one.
  1. Testosterone and anabolic steroids. You might think that these supplements would improve sperm health, but they do the opposite. Both may fool the brain into thinking the testicles are producing more testosterone, causing the pituitary gland to signal the testicles to slow down natural testosterone and sperm production.
  1. Moderate alcohol drinking is probably OK for sperm health, but drinking more than 10 drinks per week decreases testosterone and sperm production, which can make you impotent as well as infertile.
  1. According to a study from the Harvard School of Public Health, overweight men are 11 percent more likely to have low sperm counts compared to normal weight men. Obese men are 42 percent more likely to have low sperm counts.
  1. Cell phones. Whether or not the non-ionizing radiation from a cell phone can reduce sperm counts has been debatable, but a recent review of 21 studies suggests men should keep their cells phones out of their pants pockets. The researchers found that long exposure to cell phone radiation can reduce sperm count and sperm motility by 8 to 9 percent.
  1. Hair loss medication. Medications called 5-alpha-reductase inhibitors found in the hair loss product Propecia have been shown to decrease volume of sperm as well as number of sperm. The effect is mild and reversable, but it may be enough to affect the fertility of a man who already has a borderline sperm counts.
  1. Long-term use of narcotic medications can depress testosterone production and reduce sperm count. This would not happen if a man needed a short course of opioid after surgery or an injury, but men who have an opioid abuse disorder or are being treated for opioid abuse with an opioid substitute like methadone could have fertility problems.
  1. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), long-term exposure to the stress hormone cortisol reduces testosterone production. This causes a loss of interest in sex and eventually a reduced sperm count. APA says research shows that men who experience two or more stressful life events have lower sperm counts and reduced sperm motility for up to one year.

There are lots of other drugs that can reduce sperm production including antidepressants, antifungal medication, chemotherapy, and some antibiotics, heartburn, blood pressure, and anti-inflammatory meds.

Christopher Iliades
Dr. Chris Iliades is a medical doctor with 20 years of experience in clinical medicine and clinical research. Chris has been a full time medical writer and journalist since 2004. His byline appears in over 1,000 articles online including EverydayHealth, The Clinical Advisor, and Healthgrades. He has also written for print media including Cruising World Magazine, MD News, and The Johns Hopkins Children's Center Magazine. Chris lives with his wife and close to his three children and four grandchildren in the Boston area.

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