Looking for ways to improve male fertility? Get our detailed guide that includes tips to boost male fertility with vitamins, supplements, diet plans, and treatment options.
There are so many possible reasons why achieving pregnancy might be difficult and not immediate, and it’s something that a lot of people experience. Infertility affects about one in eight couples, and male factor infertility is responsible for about 50% of those cases. Although pregnancy itself is of course inextricably linked to a woman’s body, for heterosexual couples it takes two to get there, which means that navigating infertility affects both partners. Here, we’ll focus on male fertility issues, which come in a lot of colors and have just as many solutions.
First things first: What is male-factor infertility?
Let’s start by unpacking the word “infertility.” It’s the best word we’ve got for this, but it’s kind of a misnomer. “Infertility” sounds like a complete inability to conceive—but most male fertility issues make conception more difficult, not impossible. Infertility is defined as the failure to conceive after one year of trying (or six months if the woman in the partnership is over 35). Sometimes it just takes more time, and other times it takes the help of science. If you’re someone who is experiencing roadblocks along the way to parenthood, hang in there.
What aspects of sperm affect fertility?
- Sperm count: The amount of sperm discharged in a single ejaculation should be at least 15 million sperm per milliliter.
- Sperm motility: In order to increase chances of conception, the sperm’s motility (or movement) should be fast and forward (aka progressive) and enough to move through a woman’s cervix, uterus, and fallopian tubes to meet the egg. It’s ideal if at least 40% of sperm are moving.
- Sperm morphology: Sperm should be “normal” shaped, which means they have oval heads and long tails, which help them swim to the egg.
Illustration adapted from Healthy Male Andrology Australia
With all that in mind, here are some common male fertility issues and evidence-based methods to address them:
1. Reduce oxidative stress
Free radicals kind of sounds like a fun hippie commune, but they’re actually particles that are harmful to your body—free radicals are highly reactive and can interfere with your body’s ability to function normally, which of course includes your ability to make babies. You can expose your body to free radicals through a bunch of activities you already know are bad for you, including eating an unhealthy diet and smoking, or being exposed to, cigarettes—so if you needed another nudge to back away from these vices, consider your desire to expand your family as another notch in the “why you should pull back” column.
If you have too many free radicals rocketing around in your body, you can experience what’s called oxidative stress, which—you guessed it—messes with your sperm in many ways: how efficiently they move toward an egg (motility), how many are released with each ejaculation (concentration), and the sperm's shape (morphology).
There’s a lot of conflicting advice online about diets that increase sperm count and volume. A look at nearly 8,500 men across various studies concluded that diets including fruits, vegetables, fish, and low‐fat dairy products as the main source of protein are associated with better semen quality. So the basic guidance is this: try to maintain a healthy diet and avoid highly processed foods.
We know that food consumption is super personal and often linked to tradition, emotion, and self-care, and that it can feel really invasive and distressing to be asked to overhaul what you eat. But in the grand scheme of health, this should hopefully seem like pretty low-hanging fruit when it comes to increasing your fertility—no big treatments or procedures, just increasing your intake of healthy foods and supplements that are rich in free-radical fighting antioxidants, like the following:
- Coenzyme Q10: This sexily named compound can be found in organ meats (shout out to chopped liver lovers), muscle meats, fatty fish (trout, herring, sardine), some fruits, veggies, and legumes. This is commonly taken as a supplement because some people are put off by the idea of eating animal organs, while in other cultures that’s perfectly normal.
- Selenium: This one occurs most in, of all things, Brazil nuts, which isn’t exactly everyone’s go-to nut, but you might take this opportunity to try a new food! You can also get it from eating mushrooms, seafood, beans, sunflower seeds, and meat, in general.
- Folate: A B-vitamin naturally occurring in leafy greens, citrus fruit, & beans. It can also be found in dietary supplements as synthetic folic acid or MTHF folate. We dug into which one is better in an entire post, so for more in-depth information on this particular item on the list, you can dig in further here.
- Maintain a healthy body weight and BMI
There’s evidence that male body mass index (BMI) plays a role in fertility. BMI is a person’s weight divided by their height. While BMI it is not a foolproof metric for health by any means, research does indicate that the average BMI for men is between 18.5 and 24.9. If your BMI is 25 or above, it may affect your sperm motility (aka how effectively they can wiggle their way toward that egg).
- Get adequate sleep
Too much or too little sleep may impact semen quality. Additionally, sleep deprivation and sleep dysfunction are associated with mood disorders, weight gain, and a higher risk of chronic disease. While you may be preparing for late nights with a newborn, we highly recommend maintaining a healthy sleep regimen for your own general health, and fertility.
- Get tested for STIs
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)—such as herpes and gonorrhea—can be a cause of infertility. The infection itself, the inflammatory response it provoked, how quickly it was treated, or any physical impact from the STI, may all play a part in any resultant infertility. If you haven’t been tested in a while, now would be a good time to uncover any lingering STIs and get treated.
- Limit alcohol and don’t smoke
Alcohol can interfere with the male reproductive system and have an effect on fertility. Drinking excessively can lower testosterone levels, cause erectile dysfunction, and decrease sperm production. Since The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends women stop drinking altogether when trying to conceive, now would be a good time to switch to mocktails in solidarity.
The same goes for smoking. Beyond the general health problems it causes, smoking can also lead to significant issues with sperm production and quality.
- Talk to your doctor about treatment options
If you’ve tried all the above tactics and are still having no luck, there are additional medical and surgical interventions available that you can discuss with your doctor or a male infertility specialist.
As you prepare for parenthood, think about this as an opportunity to become the best, healthiest version of yourself. Not only will you feel better, but it will increase your chances of getting pregnant. If you and your partner are still unable to conceive after a year of trying (or six months if you are over 35), you should speak to a urologist or fertility specialist who can help diagnose and treat male infertility.