Sperm Count: Tips for Optimizing Male Fertility

Jun 11

Sperm Count: When it comes to fertility, sperm count is only part of the picture, but it’s a great place to start.  Hearing your sperm count is low is definitely a wake-up call. If you’re having trouble conceiving it’s important to look at the overall health of the sperm.  It is, after all, a meeting of the sperm and the egg, both need to be checked out. We now know that approximately 30 to 40% of fertility problems fall on the male side of the equation. (1.)  

How do you do this?  Most home testing kits are limited, they can only tell you if the number of sperm is low.  For that reason a “normal” test result may be misleading, since other important information like the percentage of normal shaped sperm, how well they move, the presence of white blood cells, the pH and amount of seminal fluid will be left out.  If you get a low sperm count using a home kit you should definitely follow up with a doctor to have a more thorough evaluation. Using a lab that does a lot of semen analysis is preferable like the urology department at OHSU or Oregon Reproductive Medicine.  More advanced testing can look into the DNA inside the sperm, which is necessary in some cases.

On to something that affects everyone…evidence is in that sperm are on the decline with recent findings revealing the concentration of sperm in the ejaculate of men in western countries (North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand) has fallen by an average of 1.4% a year between 1973 and 2011, resulting in an overall drop of just over 52%.  (2.)  “The results are quite shocking,” said Hagai Levine, an epidemiologist and lead author of the study from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  More research is needed to determine why this is happening.

Given this unexplained drop in sperm counts it’s a good idea for men to be proactive about preserving their fertility and learn how to avoid things that are harmful to sperm production.  Sperm are delicate creatures in one respect…they do not like heat. They also have needs – antioxidants and vitamins – Zinc, Selenium and Vitamin C, among others; plus the fatty acids found in Omega-3 oils. They don’t do well with too much exercise, alcohol, sugar or caffeine. And they don’t like many commonly used drugs, including recreational ones. 

sperm count

Here are Some Things You Can Do to Improve Sperm Count:

Avoid Heat

If you’re trying to conceive you’ll want to avoid sources of heat including:

  • Laptop computers placed on your lap  
  • Electric blankets
  • Heated car seats
  • Hot tubs & saunas
  • Commercial kitchens
  • Bikram (hot) yoga
  • Sitting for prolonged periods of time
  • Exercising at length in tight athletic clothes (extended bike rides, long sports games, etc.)

Limit Medications

As far as medication goes, it’s best to take as little as possible.  Even over the counter drugs like Tagamet can have detrimental effects.  Anti-depressants, sleeping pills and painkillers can lower libido for both men and women.  Some drugs used to treat stomach ulcers and ulcerative colitis also lower sperm counts. Medications for managing high blood pressure can lower sperm count, and one type can cause problems with erections or ejaculation.   Some antibiotics can interfere with sperm production. So talk to your doctor about ways of reducing any of these types of drugs. And absolutely no steroids, testosterone (Androgel) or Propecia (for hair loss) should be used.  They will all impair your fertility.

You should talk with your doctor about the medications you’re taking and how they can affect fertility.

Reduce Recreational Drugs

The increase in marijuana use has led to more questions and concern about its impact on male fertility. The jury is still out but it seems best to limit usage for both partners if you’re actively trying to conceive. (3.)

One study found that “marijuana smokers appear to have impaired fertility potential.  Smoking men have reduced semen volume and total sperm number. Seminal sperm from MJ men express abnormally high hyperactivated motility which persists after a wash and swim-up. These sperm may burn out quickly and reduce fertility.  We note that women smoking marijuana will have elevated THC throughout their reproductive tract, thus affecting sperm in the cervix, uterus and oviduct.” (4.)

A Danish study of 1,215 men who smoked more than once a week showed a 28% lower sperm concentration.  And if they combined marijuana with other recreational drugs their sperm concentration was reduced even further, by 52%. (5.)  Also, it takes 72-90 days for sperm to mature so be aware that what you’re doing today will affect your sperm for the next 2-3 months.  Nicotine has been shown to affect sperm count, so reducing or even stopping smoking is really the best plan.  (1., 6.)

Manage Cell Phone Exposure

It seems that sperm may be damaged by exposure to cell phones, possibly due to the electromagnetic radiation they generate.  A recent study found that talking on a cell phone more than one hour a day or talking on it while the phone was charging was bad for sperm.  Also, carrying it closer than 20 inches from the groin had a negative impact. So don’t put your phone in your pants pocket. Try to keep it farther away from your body in a jacket or bag.  The researchers also are recommending turning your phone off when it’s charging. (1.)

Exercise Wisely

Let’s talk about exercise.  Extended cardio sessions heat up your body and also spike cortisol, a stress hormone that can interfere with testosterone production.  Running more than 20 miles a week or working out more than 2 hours at a time is not recommended. Interval or burst training is one approach that lowers cortisol and delivers more benefits – it’s better at increasing bone density, building muscle mass, and improving metabolic and aerobic capacity. (7., 8.)  With interval training you will see results with as little as 10 to 20 minutes of cardio 3 times a week.

Exercise is important, good circulation equals less erectile difficulty.  Erectile dysfunction is 10 times more common in sedentary men. Waking up with a morning erection is a sign of a healthy heart.

And drink plenty of water.  Dehydration causes a lower volume of seminal fluid (what your sperm swim in) which is easily fixed by drinking more water.  This will help your sperm get to where they need to go.

Avoid Toxins

Surprisingly, some toothpastes, sunscreens, lotions, face washes, hand soaps, shampoos, and conditioners contain parabens which can disrupt hormonal balance.  So be a detective and check the label on all your products. If you see parabens listed it’s time to switch. Butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben are among the most common you’d see listed. You should also avoid any phthalates, another common ingredient used in skincare products.

Pre-Seed has often been recommended as the lubricant of choice for sexual activity however it does contain some parabens.  A newer product called BabyDance does not. Be aware that many other things people have used, including saliva, water and olive oil, are all toxic to sperm.

Limit your exposure to obvious sources like pesticides, fertilizers that contain heavy metals and cigarette smoke, but also be on the lookout for the xenoestrogens that are in plastics. (9.)  Never microwave food in a plastic container or covered with plastic wrap and don’t put any hot foods into plastic, like takeout containers for soup. You’ll want to stay away from those.

Helpful and Harmful Foods

Alcohol and sugar can each increase aromatase activity which translates into too much estrogen for men – not a good thing!   Red wine is an exception so perhaps choosing that over beer more often and mostly keeping it to 1 glass a day is a good plan.   Watch your sugar intake, try to eat more whole fruits instead of pastries. Heads up – one Starbucks mocha frappuccino contains 61 grams of sugar!  That’s a little over 14 teaspoons, more than a quarter cup of sugar. It’s the equivalent of a 19 oz. Coke.

If you’re overweight the extra fat cells in your body are making estrogen which  throws off your balance of estrogen to testosterone which can reduce your fertility.  Scrotal temperatures can also be higher and this higher heat may interfere with sperm production.

When researchers looked into how foods impact male fertility the Harvard School of Public Health found higher fertilization rates among men going through IVF who ate more poultry and lower rates for men who ate more processed meats (around 4 servings a week). (10.)  Other research has shown that eating foods with higher levels of beta-carotene (carrots, lettuce and spinach) and lutein (lettuce and spinach) was associated with an increase in sperm motility. Eating lycopene found in tomatoes has been seen to slightly improve sperm quality.  In general, eating more fruits and vegetables and less processed foods seems to be the best approach. (11.)

Professor Jill Attaman at Harvard Medical School in Boston has linked a diet high in saturated fat (fatty meats, dairy products, pizza, etc.) to reduced sperm counts, by as much as 35%, and reduced sperm concentration up to 38%.  Also, in her study the men who consumed more omega-3 fatty acids, the healthy fats, had slightly more normal shaped sperm. (12.) A good reason to add in anchovies, sardines, salmon, flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts. Fish oil can also be taken daily as a supplement.

Foods to choose:

  • Lean Beef 
  • Avocados
  • Nuts        
  • Spinach
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Poultry
  • Lettuce
  • Carrots
  • Tomatoes
  • Low fat Dairy
  • Salmon
  • Oats
  • Eggs
  • Flax Seeds
  • Beans & Lentils

Supplements to Optimize Sperm Count and Quality

Starting with a good quality multi-vitamin covers a lot of antioxidants and other nutrients that are necessary for sperm health – Vitamin C, E, the varied B vitamins, Calcium and Selenium.   Zinc, another good antioxidant that helps sperm mature, should always be balanced with Copper. Fish oils are linked to more normal forms (better morphology), improved motility and along with N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) increase count and improve the sperms’ outer membrane to protect them from oxidation.  The amino acid l-Carnitine helps increase motility. CoQ10 is also recommended for sperm count and motility.

Overall, taking care of your health will take better care of your fertility.  Eating well, getting enough rest and exercising go a long way towards producing healthier sperm.  Avoid overworking whenever possible to ensure your body has what it needs for the most important parts of your life.  Acupuncture can help you handle stress and improve your sperm count and function. (13., 14.)

1.Habits of cell phone usage and sperm quality – does it warrant attention?;  Ariel Zilberlicht et al; Reproductive Biomedicine Online, Volume 31, Issue 3, September 2015, Pages 421-426 
2.Temporal trends in sperm count: a systematic review and meta-regression analysis; Hagai Levine et al; Human Reproduction Update, Volume 23, Issue 6, 1 November 2017, Pages 646–659,
3.Relationship between cannabis and male reproductive health: a systematic review; Rogers, M.J. et al. Fertility and Sterility, Volume 108 , Issue 3, Sept 2017, e131 – e132 DOI:
4.Marijuana (MJ) impacts sperm function both in vivo and in vitro: semen analyses from men smoking marijuana; Burkman, L.J. et al. Fertility and Sterility , Volume 80, Sept 2003, 231 DOI:
5.Association Between Use of Marijuana and Male Reproductive Hormones and Semen Quality: A Study Among 1,215 Healthy Young Men; Tina Djernis Gundersen et al; American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 182, Issue 6, 15 September 2015, Pages 473–481, 
6.From sperm to offspring: Assessing the heritable genetic consequences of paternal smoking and potential public health impacts; Marc A. Beal et al; Mutation Research/Reviews in Mutation Research, Volume 773, July 2017, Pages 26-50
7.Twelve Weeks of Sprint Interval Training Improves Indices of Cardiometabolic Health Similar to Traditional Endurance Training despite a Five-Fold Lower Exercise Volume and Time Commitment; Jenna B. Gillen et al; PLOS One; April 26, 2016 
8. Towards the minimal amount of exercise for improving metabolic health: beneficial effects of reduced-exertion high-intensity interval training;  Metcalfe, R.S et al. European Journal of Applied Physiology; July 2012, Volume 112, Issue 7, pp 2767–2775 
9.Fruit and vegetable intake and their pesticide residues in relation to semen quality among men from a fertility clinic; Y.H. Chiu et al; Human Reproduction, Volume 30, Issue 6, 1 June 2015, Pages 1342–1351 
10. Men’s meat intake and treatment outcomes among couples undergoing assisted reproduction; Xia, Wei et al.; Fertility and Sterility , Volume 104 , Issue 4 , 972 – 979 
11Association between adherence to the Mediterranean diet and semen quality parameters in male partners of couples attempting fertility; Dimitrios Karayiannis et al; Human Reproduction, Volume 32, Issue 1, 1 January 2017, Pages 215–222
12. Dietary fat and semen quality among men attending a fertility clinic; Jill A. Attaman et al; Human Reproduction; Volume 27, Issue 5, 1 May 2012, Pages 1466–1474
13. A single-arm pilot study on effects of acupuncture treatment on semen parameters of subfertile Singaporean men, Lee Mee Ho et al; Asian Pacific Journal of Reproduction, Volume 4, Issue 4, 2015, Pages 266-271
14. A prospective randomized placebo-controlled study of the effect of acupuncture in infertile patients with severe oligoasthenozoospermia, Dieterle, Stefan et al.; Fertility and Sterility , Volume 92 , Issue 4, Oct 2009, pages 1340 – 1343 DOI: 

Contributed by Janene Mitchell L.Ac.

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