It’s a common misconception that a couple’s inability to conceive is the sole responsibility of the woman. But the truth is that in 40 to 50 percent of all cases of infertility, the cause lies with the man.
Add to that the 20 percent of cases where infertility is due to factors from both the woman and the man and it’s clear that the male role in conceiving cannot be overlooked or underestimated.
A far greater understanding of the male role in conceiving allows us to recognize that a man’s diet, lifestyle, and general state of health can have a massive impact on his ability to successfully conceive with his partner.
A man’s lifestyle has been shown to have just as big an impact on successfully conceiving as that of the woman.
Perhaps even more importantly, a man’s lifestyle is now firmly believed to impact the future health of his child in a considerably greater way than previously believed.
Rates of miscarriage, birth defects, and even childhood diseases later in life have been linked to lifestyle habits of the father.
With this new understanding, it’s clear that a quick and healthy pregnancy, followed by the birth of a healthy baby, is a responsibility shared by both the mother and the father.
The good news?
A man has just as much control over the quality and efficiency of his reproductive system as a woman, and proactive steps can be taken in order for him to maximise his fertility.
Not only are there things he should do – there are things he absolutely must do if he wishes to optimize his reproductive health.
By learning what can influence the fate of his reproductive health, a man can learn to control his fertility in ways never before possible.
Male Fertility: The Basics
Every aspect of the male reproductive anatomy serves one purpose: to deposit a high concentration of high-quality sperm as close to the women’s cervix as possible.
Sperm is manufactured in the testicles. The testicles hang free on the outside of the body in a thin-walled sac called the scrotum.
The optimal temperature for sperm production is lower than the regular core body temperature, and to ensure this temperature is correctly maintained the testicles hang on a complex set of muscles.
These muscles contract and relax in relation to the temperature, pulling the testicles tight into the body if more heat is required, and lowering the testicles if less heat is required.
The prostate gland and the seminal vesicles produce and secrete the fluids required for semen, the liquid ejaculated during orgasm. Ducts, connecting the prostate gland to the urethra, allow for the transfer of semen.
The seminal vesicles lie behind the prostate and secrete fluids into the vas deferens, a tube that connects the testicles to the urethra.
The fluids secreted by the prostate and the seminal vesicles account for a large majority of the fluid ejaculated during orgasm. Therefore, the amount of fluid ejaculated is not a good indicator of a high or low sperm count.
The sole function of the penis during reproduction is to act as a channel through which semen is deposited. The average vaginal length is less than the average penile length, so penis size has little or no relevance when it comes to fertility.
When a man ejaculates, his semen moves into the urethra and intense muscular contractions propel the semen out the end of his penis.
These intense contractions, which are involuntary and rhythmical, create the sensations of orgasm.
Sperm and Male Fertility
Sperm, from the time of puberty and throughout a man’s life, are in constant production. The quantity and quality of a man’s sperm are the sole factors in determining his level of fertility.
The production process, beginning with the earliest stages in the testicles and finishing when the sperm is ready for ejaculation, lasts for approximately 74 days.
Many external factors can affect the sperm during this period, including, but not limited to: alcohol, tobacco, physical trauma, the common cold or flu, nutritional deficiencies, temperature, frequency of intercourse, recreational drugs, and certain medications.
The 74 day period required for a sperm to fully mature means that lifestyle changes will not impact sperm count or quality for almost three months.
Sperm can fertilize an egg for up to three days following ejaculation. The egg, on the other hand, can survive for no longer 12 to 24 hours.
When taking into consideration the number of menstrual cycles per year, the length of time an egg survives, and the length of time sperm are active and capable of fertilization, you’re left with the knowledge that there are only around 36 days a year when sexual intercourse has the highest chance at resulting in pregnancy.
Each and every sperm carries either a Y chromosome or an X chromosome. The sex of the baby is determined by which of these chromosomes is found in the sperm that fertilizes the egg. A sperm carrying a Y chromosome results in a boy, while a sperm carrying an X chromosome results in a girl.
Sperm carrying the X chromosome swim slower and live longer than their Y counterparts. This discovery forms the basis of The Shettles Method of gender selection, one of the few gender selection methods that has proven effective.
By manipulating the timing of sexual intercourse relative to ovulation, it’s possible to encourage conception with sex-specific sperm.
So couples wanting a baby boy should have sex as close to ovulation as possible, thus enabling the faster-swimming Y chromosome sperm to reach the egg first.
Couples aiming to conceive a girl, on the other hand, would have sex three to five days before ovulation, and then abstain from further intercourse. This results in more of the male sperm dying before the egg is available, leaving the path clear for the female sperm to fertilize the egg.
Nutrition and Male Fertility
Like most matters concerning infertility, the subject of nutrition is often focused solely on the female half of the couple.
However, optimizing nutrition in the male partner is a vital part of increasing a couple’s fertility, and should not be overlooked when trying to become pregnant as quickly as possible.
Bear in mind that sperm takes 74 days to fully mature and become ready for ejaculation, so any changes implemented will not impact male fertility for around three months.
Therefore, it’s extremely important for men whose fertility levels are low to make the necessary changes to their diet as quickly as possible.
Viramin C and Vitamin E
Many people are aware of the beneficial qualities of vitamin C and vitamin E to protect against both cancer and heart disease. What is not so common knowledge, though, is that these two antioxidant vitamins can have a dramatic significance on male fertility.
Antioxidants work against free radicals, which are chemicals containing oxygen in an unstable form. Free radicals can be caused by many things, including stress, exposure to the sun and to certain chemicals, and environmental pollution.
Free radicals cause damage to cells all over the body by coming into contact with normal molecules and converting them into more free radicals, causing a domino effect in the cells.
Free radicals cause particularly unpleasant damage to DNA. By interfering with the normal structure of DNA the free radicals can cause mutations that permanently alter the functions of cells.
In extreme cases, this can even lead to cancer.
Free radicals are often found in the semen of men with low fertility levels. On the other hand, they are almost entirely absent in the semen of fertile men.
Several studies have shown that men with unusually high levels of free radicals in their semen are seven times less likely to conceive compared to men with low levels of free radicals.
The body naturally defends against free radicals, but often there are more free radicals than the body can handle. This is where vitamins C and E can help.
They’re known as antioxidant vitamins because they neutralize free radicals before they have a chance to cause damage.
One recent study, undertaken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, investigated the effects of vitamin C on free radicals in the body.
Sperm samples were taken from two groups of men – one group were receiving an adequate vitamin supply, while the other group had a low vitamin supply.
The results were dramatic.
The group of men whose vitamin intake was lower than the recommended amount were two-and-a-half times more likely to have damaged sperm compared to the men who were receiving the appropriate vitamin supply.
That’s a 250 percent greater chance of having inferior quality sperm due to a deficiency of a single vitamin.
This dramatic effect is easier to understand when you consider the role of vitamin C in the man’s reproductive system.
Believe it or not, semen contains eight times more vitamin C than blood does. Semen is the fluid where sperm resides and the vehicle that carries it into the woman’s body.
A vitamin C deficiency can therefore have serious implications on male fertility.
Vitamin C is of even greater importance to male smokers, since smoking can cause a 50 percent decrease in the body’s supply of vitamin C.
Of course, smoking should be avoided completely to ensure maximum fertility. But for those men who are unwilling to give it up, extra care should be taken to ensure their levels of vitamin C are at least equal to the recommended daily allowance.
Vitamin C is not produced by the body, so it’s important to eat plenty of foods that naturally contain it. Some of the best sources of vitamin C are oranges, watermelon, grapefruit, strawberries, tomatoes, and citrus juices.
Vegetables that are rich in vitamin C are potatoes, red and green peppers, and spinach.
Vitamin E, on the other hand, can be found in vegetable oils, nuts, and green leafy vegetables. Fortified cereals are also a good and simple source of vitamin E.
Selenium is a trace mineral required by the body for general good health and for many cell functions.
Like vitamins C and E it has excellent antioxidant qualities, and further protects the body against damage caused by free radicals.
Insufficient levels of selenium have been linked in many studies to increased risk of male infertility. A study carried out at The Glasgow Royal Infirmary in Scotland found that supplementing males with the recommended amount of selenium dramatically improved their sperm quality.
The study also confirmed the belief that the recommended daily allowance of selenium is required in the male body for optimal sperm production.
Foods containing good quality sources of selenium are brazil nuts, whole-wheat bread, chicken breast, and many types of fish – most notably halibut, salmon, snapper, and also clams and oysters.
Zinc is a mineral that can be found in almost every cell in the body. It causes the stimulation of over 100 enzymes, which are substances that promote essential biochemical reactions in the body.
This mineral is important to good health in both women and men, but it’s of particular importance to men.
Zinc is secreted naturally by the prostate gland and is found in great abundance in semen. A deficiency in zinc in men can significantly decrease sperm production, and many studies have shown a dramatic increase in sperm production following correct supplementation.
Good examples of foods high in zinc are poultry, beans, nuts, whole grains, tofu, and figs.
A high-quality daily multivitamin should be taken to ensure all recommended daily allowances are being met. Ensure that the multivitamin contains 100 percent of the recommended daily allowances for vitamins C, E, Selenium, and zinc.
Selenium is often absent from daily multivitamin supplements, and if this is the case a dedicated selenium supplement should be taken.
Resist the temptation to “mega-dose” – taking unusually large doses of any single vitamin or mineral, or taking more than a single daily multivitamin. Too much of any one vitamin can actually produce a negative result and cause a reduction in male fertility.
A high-quality diet, rich in the vitamins covered in this post, should also be consumed.
Pay particular attention to consuming at least some foods high in vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and zinc. Do not rely solely on the daily multivitamin.
It’s not possible to overdose on vitamins and minerals obtained from food, as it is with multivitamins, so there’s no need to worry that too much of any one vitamin is being consumed.
Stress and Male Fertility
New research has proven a direct link between stress and negative effects on both the male and female reproductive systems.
For some time, the general belief was that impotence was the only negative reproductive issue that could originate from stress.
New discoveries have shown that a man’s adrenal hormones are affected by stress and participate in the stress response. This hormonal imbalance can severely impede sperm production.
Emotional stress, in particular, can have serious repercussions on the male reproductive system, causing a depression of testosterone levels and therefore interfering with sperm production.
Extreme tension or fatigue for extended periods of time can lead to psychological impotence, a condition where negative messages, rather than positive messages, are sent from the brain to the penis.
This often creates a vicious circle, where the psychological impotence leads to more stress about the condition itself.
If stress levels rise high enough the hypothalamus gland is unable to effectively manage levels of the male reproductive hormones, and this can lead to lower testosterone levels and lower sperm count.
The good news is that stress can only affect male fertility on a temporary basis. When the causes of the stress are dealt with, fertility levels return to normal.
So it’s often wise to deal with the causes of stress before you plan to try conceiving, rather than trying to struggle through it only to get trapped in that vicious circle and raise your stress levels even higher.
Male Fertility Threats To Avoid
There are some basic threats to male fertility that should be avoided whenever possible.
Mumps is a viral infection, and one of the most common of all childhood diseases.
Typical symptoms of the mumps include swelling of the two salivary glands in the mouth at the angle of the jaw line, dry mouth, fever, headaches, and difficulty swallowing.
Mumps contracted before puberty poses no threat to male fertility. Contracting the mumps after puberty, on the other hand, can lead to the virus attacking the testicles, causing swelling and discomfort.
This can cause production of sperm to halt for several weeks, and in extreme cases can cause permanent infertility.
In approximately 30 percent of men who contract the mumps, this invasion of the testicles will occur. The testicles will swell, become sore and tender, and their internal temperature will rise. This usually occurs about a week after the disease has broken out, and it’s this serious infection that poses a threat to fertility.
Adult men and boys who have reached puberty should avoid all contact with anyone suffering with the mumps.
Of course, men and boys who have already contracted the mumps earlier in life can feel safe, since contracting the disease once immunizes you for life.
Being in good physical shape is advantageous to a man seeking optimal fertility, and the best way to achieve this is through a sensible, well-regimented exercise plan.
But to confuse matters, certain exercise activities have been shown to decrease fertility, mainly due to alterations of the temperature of the testicles.
As covered earlier, the temperature in a man’s testicles must be maintained at the correct level for maximum efficiency of sperm production. The testicles self-regulate this temperature by rising up into the body to create heat, or hanging loose away from the body to dispel heat.
During exercise, however, this natural temperature maintenance can sometimes be overridden, causing the testicles to overheat.
When this happens sperm production can significantly decrease, and in extreme cases, stop altogether.
Since most forms of exercise increase overall body temperature, it’s understandable that it can interfere with fertility.
Thankfully, for most men, the decreased fertility caused by overheating during exercise is temporary, and returns to normal once the body cools. For men whose sperm levels are already on the low side, though, care needs to be taken.
Any activity that increases overall body temperature can affect sperm quality and quantity, but certain fitness activities are particularly bad for inhibiting a man’s fertility.
The fitness activities most likely to inhibit male fertility are:
- Cross-country Ski Machines
- Rowing Machines
- Repetitive Aerobics
These activities are believed to cause the most temperature-related problems in the shortest amount of time, and should be avoided.
Also of great importance are the clothes worn during exercise. Clothes that hold in body heat during exercise, or restrict movement of the testicles, should not be worn.
Examples of this type of clothing are:
- Synthetic fabrics that don’t breathe
- Tight spandex shorts
- Tight-fitting jeans worn post-workout
- Tight underwear, especially briefs
The good news is that most fitness-related fertility problems cause no long-term problems, and when the causes are addressed the testicles normally return to maximum efficiency.
Men trying to conceive do not have to give up exercise. But they should ensure their testicles remain free while they works out, allowing them to move up and down as they attempt to regulate their own temperature.
It’s now accepted by most in the know that taking very hot baths can seriously diminish a man’s sperm count.
There’s also a cumulative effect, meaning the more hot baths a man takes, the more likely he is to experience fertility problems.
Couples trying to conceive should ensure that the man refrains from taking hot baths.
This is especially important for men with low-level sperm counts, who should avoid taking baths altogether to rule out the possibility of diminished fertility caused by warm water.
Ideally, the hot baths should be stopped 10 weeks prior to trying to conceive, since sperm production takes 74 days. By avoiding hot baths for that period of time the sperm are guaranteed to have the healthiest possible start.
Men who have taken hot baths for many years should not be overly concerned. Research suggests that sperm-related problems caused by hot baths resolve themselves within a few weeks once the hot baths are stopped.
The male genitals are robust and built to withstand the thrusting and friction caused by even the most intense sexual activity, but it’s still possible to cause genital damage during rough sex, which can lead to fertility problems.
Testicles should never be squeezed too hard or be subjected to weighted pressure, for even a short period of time.
Oral sex should not be performed too aggressively, as this can cause trauma to the shaft of the penis. Bruising caused through aggressive oral sex can diminish a man’s ability to produce sperm for several weeks.
Intrauterine devices (IUDs) can have sharp edges, and if penetration is deep enough – or the thrusting during sex is particularly intense – the penis can make contact with these sharp edges.
This can cause trauma to the penis.
Uncircumcised men should take particular care as their penis is more susceptible to damage caused by IUDs compared to circumcised men.
Contact with the IUD can cause the foreskin to rip or tear if penetration is deep enough.
In almost all cases, no permanent damage can be done to the male genitals following any of the injuries described here. Nor are these injuries likely to damage fertility in the long run.
Having said that, if bleeding occurs and continues after pressure is applied, medical attention should be sought to ensure no infection develops.
Pain in the testicles, penis, or the genital area during sex is a sign of a problem, and seeking medical attention is always the first thing to do.
It’s now accepted knowledge that smoking in males causes lower sperm counts.
Smokers also have fewer normal sperm, and the sperm they do have can’t swim as well. All men’s fertility will benefit greatly by giving up smoking, but men with low sperm counts will benefit even more by quitting.
It’s not common for a man to know his sperm count, so it makes sense for all men to quit if they’re actively trying to conceive with their partner.
And, as mentioned earlier, sperm production and full maturation takes 74 days, so quitting three months before trying to conceive is ideal, and will offer the best chance of a fast and healthy conception.
Another concern, besides the one regarding the depletion of sperm quality and quantity, is the link between preconceptual paternal smoking and a whole host of problems most people would never suspect.
Rates of miscarriage, neural-tube defects, stillbirth, and even some childhood cancers are all higher in children whose fathers were smokers.
There are over 2,500 chemicals in tobacco smoke, each of them with the potential to cause defective sperm, or to damage the genetic makeup of DNA.
These chemicals, along with nicotine, are found in the semen of men who smoke. And they’re found in highly concentrated amounts – higher, in fact, than in the blood.
For the best chance of a fast conception and a healthy baby a man must stop smoking, ideally three months prior to trying.
Male Fertility: What He Can Do
- Plan ahead.
- Make lifestyle changes three months before you attempt to conceive.
- Take a high-quality daily multivitamin, ensuring that vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and Zinc are all present and meet 100% RDA.
- If selenium is not present in your multivitamin, take a dedicated selenium supplement.
- Eat a diet naturally rich in vitamins and minerals, especially those vital fertility-enhancing ones: vitamins C and E, and minerals Zinc and selenium.
- Exercise, but always give special consideration to the freedom of the testicles. Wear nothing tight before, during, or after working out.
- Do not take hot baths for three months before trying to conceive, and do not resume them until pregnancy has been achieved.
- Enjoy sex, but bear in mind the health of the genital region. Do not engage in overly-aggressive intercourse.
- Quit smoking. For those who refuse to quit, a dedicated daily vitamin C supplement should be taken, on top of the daily multivitamin.