When it comes to fertility, the focus tends to be on the female. This is largely due to the fact that the female reproductive system is more complex and has a larger role to play in fertility and pregnancy. However the magnitude of the role is no indication that the male partner is any less important. In fact, about a third to half of all fertility problems are linked to the male partner.
Today I discuss the role of the male reproductive system and ways in which you can enhance male fertility.
Similar to the female reproductive system, male hormones are controlled by the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. The hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland to release Lutenizing hormone (LH) and Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH). The LH stimulates testosterone production and the FSH stimulates sperm production and this is regulated by a feedback loop.
On the other hand, unlike the female reproductive system, there are no cyclical fluctuations. Although levels of these male sex hormones may fluctuate for a variety of reasons like stress, toxins or nutritional deficiency, which I will go into shortly, there is no ‘cycle’ as such. Hormone levels should remain relatively constant. The only natural fluctuation in testosterone is that it is generally at its highest in the morning and at its lowest late in the evening.
There can be a variety of issues which can affect male fertility, these include
- disease of the testes and STD’s
- enlargement of the veins within the testes which can be a functional issue
- problems with the sperm transport system
- issues with the hypothalamus or pituitary which can affect testosterone and sperm production
- There can be high auto-antibodies which can cause the immune system to attack egg or sperm cells
However, ultimately, when it comes to male fertility, one of the number one factors is sperm health. Sperm volume, morphology and motility.
Which basically means
- how many there are
- what shape and size are they
- how fast and efficient they are at swimming
We know that nutrition and lifestyle factors directly impact sperm health. So, what can you do?
Firstly, I will cover some key nutrients which are important for sperm health.
Deficiency of zinc is associated with lowered testosterone levels, low sperm count and low sperm motility. Rectifying this deficiency through diet and supplementation has been shown improve sperm health and improve pregnancy outcomes.
Zinc is also involved in the transformation of testosterone into its active form, which boosts available testosterone in the system.
One of the highest dietary sources of zinc is oysters. Which is one of the reasons why oysters are renowned for their aphrodisiac properties.
Other types of shellfish and some fish, most meats, eggs and hard cheese are also high in zinc and to a lesser extent in nuts, pulses and wholegrains. Unfortunately the phytic acid found in the fibrous of plant sources can impair absorption. So animal sources are richer and more easily metabolised.
However, it is important to choose organic sources of meat and sustainable sources of fish where possible.
Much of our meat supply today comes with its own cocktail of hormones and toxins, which can be harmful to fertility. So choose free range, organic, sustainable sources where possible.
When it comes to fish, the bigger the fish, the higher up the food chain, the more small fish they consume. This results in a higher heavy metal and toxic load. So I recommend to minimize consumption of larger fish like flake and sword fish and opt for smaller fish like salmon, trout and shellfish.
If you are a vegetarian, you can still get zinc from vegetarian sources, you just need to be mindful of the lowered absorption.
I recommend getting zinc levels tested if you are having fertility issues and supplementing with 20 – 40mg may be beneficial.
Co Enzyme Q10
Another important nutrient Coenzyme Q10. CoQ10 is important for both male and female fertility. It is involved in the production of energy and is an antioxidant. In fact Co Q10 is so vital to energy production and to life itself, our body natural produces small amounts to support vital body functions.
However our ability to produce coenzyme Q10 naturally decreases as we age and stress, illness and just the natural aging increases the demand for CoQ10. Therefore getting enough through diet and or supplementation becomes more important as we age and also during times of stress.
Co enzyme Q10 is found in significant amounts in seminal fluid. The amount of co enzyme Q10 present in seminal fluid has been found to be directly related to sperm count and motility.
The best dietary sources are meats and fish, again choose organic and sustainable sources wherever possible. It is also found in smaller amounts in nuts, seeds and some fruits and vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, grapes, avocados and strawberries to mention a few.
Vitamin C is another antioxidant nutrient that is also found in seminal fluid helping to reduce oxidative stress and protect sperm from environmental damage.
The great thing about vitamin C, unlike zinc and some of the other fat-soluble nutrients is that it is water soluble, which means it starts working straight away so you can start to see fairy immediate results with vitamin C. On the flip side, this means that you need to maintain regular daily intake as levels can also drop very quickly.
Good sources of vitamin C include oranges, kiwi fruit, grapefruit, blackcurrants, strawberries, cranberries, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potato and tomatoes and lots more. Tomatoes are also a wonderful source of lycopene, which is another antioxidant particularly important for male fertility.
Vitamin E and Selenium
Vitamin E and Selenium are two other antioxidant nutrients which can be beneficial to sperm health. These two nutrients work really well together and are often found together in supplements.
Brazil nuts are a great source of selenium and vitamin E. Brazil nuts are actually the highest known dietary source of vitamin E. Vitamin E is also found in some of the other nuts like almonds, cashews and peanuts (which of course aren’t actually a nut but a legume).
You may have noticed that I have talked a lot about antioxidant nutrients for male fertility. Antioxidants are particularly important group when it comes to sperm health, especially if you are exposed to environmental toxins perhaps your job, at home or if you are a smoker.
Smoking and recreational drugs
If you are a smoker and you are wanting to fall pregnant, you need to stop smoking! Smoking has a significant impact on all parameters of sperm health. The good news about quitting smoking as that the damage caused has been found to be relatively quickly reversible, so kick the habit as soon as you can.
This goes for marijuana smoking as well as this has a significant impact on sperm health. In fact, I hope it goes without saying that any recreational drugs should not be used when trying to conceive. Not only do they reduce sperm health but recreational drugs have also been shown to find their way inside sperm and into the fetus, greatly affecting your chances of falling pregnant and can also cause abnormalities in the fetus. So avoiding recreational drugs is extremely important for the sake of your future baby.
Is your workplace affecting your fertility?
In regards to workplaces, there are some industries that tend to have a higher chemical and toxin exposure than others.
Studies show that men in agricultural and pesticide-related jobs are significantly more likely to have fertility issues related to sperm health as well as an increased risk of high auto-antibodies.
Changing jobs may not be an option. But it’s important to do what can you do to reduce your exposure. Wear gloves, masks and other types of protective wear to help minimise your exposure.
The dental industry is another industry where individuals are exposed to higher levels of chemicals, both males and female. Again, look at ways in which you can reduce your exposure if you do work in this environment.
Radiography and surgical environments can affect sperm health. My husband wears a lead vest nearly every day to reduce the effects of the x-ray, radiography machines they use in surgery, he is a heart surgeon (So yes I have him taking CoQ10!).
Firefighters exposed to toxic fumes from burning plastics and paints are more likely to have abnormal sperm. Again, similar to the pesticides, protective wear is so important.
Do you work with dry cleaning chemicals are you a painter, working around paint and paint thinner and strippers? These are all associated with increased risk of miscarriage, which can be mistakenly attributed to the woman. Again, quitting may not be an option, but in all these instances, look at ways to reduce your exposure and improve your antioxidant intake.
Yes it is true that regular, strenuous bike rides can experience issues with fertility, largely due to the heat created and trapped in that area when riding. So avoid tight fitting clothing where possible to improve ventilation (ditch the lycra!).
Boxers vs Jocks
There is the old boxers v jocks debate. To be honest, there is little evidence as to whether one option is better than the other, however keep in mind that temperature and ventilation are important so consider your choice on that basis.
Sitting for long periods can have a similar effect in producing heat as bike riders. So truck drivers and taxi drivers face a similar issue, not only just sitting for long periods but the exhaust fumes and gases that they are exposed to as well.
Office workers too, especially those who use laptops on their laps, not only the heat that this creates but the potential effect of the electromagnetic radiation they release.
The age of technology, is it affecting your fertility?
We may not yet fully understand the effects, of all the electromagnetic radiation we are exposed to daily, but we do know sperm counts have dropped alarmingly rapidly in recent times, coinciding with the introduction of radio frequencies as well as other toxins. In fact research shows that sperm counts dropped by more than 50% between 1973 and 2011 and most concerning issue is scientists don’t know why.
However, we do know that, although some of the research is as yet inconclusive, basically we are the research. We are the guinea pigs who are exposed to these electro-magnetic fields that the World Health Organisation have classified as potentially carcinogenic.
Obviously it is unethical to intentionally expose people to these ‘potentially carcinogenic’ fields. That research is never going to be approved however anecdotal evidence takes a long time and it is notoriously hard to quantify, because there are so many variables. So we are the research and only time will tell how much damage we are doing.
Some European Nations are already taking steps to reduce exposure in fact in some European countries their legislated ‘safe’ limits of electromagnetic fields from phone towers are one million times lower than here in Australia.
Obviously these fields are unavoidable, we all rely on these technologies, myself included, but it’s important to be aware and mindful of the risk. Some people will also be more susceptible than others so if you are struggling with fertility, this is a factor worth considering.
Distance is key. Keep your laptop away from your lap, keep your mobile phone out of your pocket.
And boost your intake of whole foods which provide natural antioxidants, helping to mitigate the effect of these toxins. Supplementation can also be useful but I love working primarily with diet first and foremost.
Increase your intake of some of the key nutrient foods mentioned above, also include brightly coloured fruits and vegetables which are high in natural antioxidants and, as I mentioned with meats, choose organic sources to reduce your pesticide load.
I am often asked. Is organic really worth it? When it comes to fertility, my answer is yes!
Unfortunately, much of our fruits and vegetables are contaminated with pesticides and these are used throughout the growing process, not simple chemicals you can wash off before use.
So yes, organic is the best option for fertility. If you can’t choose organic all the time, make use to the clean 15 and dirty dozen.
If you haven’t heard of those, this is a list of the most contaminated vs the least contaminated foods.
So if you can’t afford to go all organic at least choose organic sources when you are choosing the most contaminated foods.
As a general guide, the softer, more porous fruits and vegetables like celery, blueberries and strawberries are more easily contaminated than those with thick skins like eggplant, avocado and pineapple.
BPA and Plastics
The other thing to avoid when it comes to chemicals in the home are plastics. Avoid storing heated foods in plastics or using plastic wraps. Use glass or stainless steel drink bottles. BPA in plastics has been linked to male impotence, low sex drive, low sperm volume and low motility.
And BPA isn’t the only concern when it comes to plastics and chemical exposure. To put things in perspective there are currently over 113 million chemicals registered for use and over 200,000 new chemicals are introduced each week, yet almost 90% have never been tested for their impact on human health. Again, similar to electromagnetic fields, be mindful of the chemicals you are being exposed to. You can find out more about toxins around the home in this webinar.
Stress is a big one, we talk a lot about stress in relation to female fertility but it also has an impact on male fertility. So reduce stress levels where possible. Working with someone like myself or your Natural Fertility Specialist with herbal and nutritional adaptogenic support can be of great benefit help your body physically manage stress better.
Sleep is also really important. Especially the natural sleep wake cycle. Wwaking with daylight and sleeping in the dark. Reduce shift work where possible and try to make a habit of an earlier bed time and wake up with the daylight.
Take home message
I hope this has given you some insight into some of the things you can do to improve male fertility. The key messages are
- Boost your intake of key nutrients via diet and supplements where indicated
- Boost your intake of antioxidants, especially brightly coloured fruits and vegetables
- Choose organic, free range, sustainable sources of meat
- Choose organic fruits and vegetables where possible or at least choose organic for softer, more porous fruits and vegetables which absorb more pesticides
- Avoid toxic exposure in your workplace by utilizing protective wear
- Wear looser, breathable clothing where possible when bike riding
- Avoid electromagnetic fields by keeping your laptop at a distance and not carrying your mobile phone in your pocket
Obviously, this a huge topic and there is still a lot more you can do by working with myself or your Natural Fertiltiy Specialist to further support your detoxification pathways, inflammatory markers and immune response which are all also involved in sperm health.
I offer my Fertility for You Program via Skype, you can find the details at TashaJennings.com.au, or find a good practitioner in your local area who can provide you with that additional support.
It is never too early or too to start improving your fertility, even just making some of the changes I’ve mentioned here can have a significant impact on your fertility and your ability to conceive and carry your healthy baby!