What to know about sperm health

Sperm health is not always given much thought until a couple is trying to conceive, but the virility of a man’s ‘swimmers’ can have a big impact on fertility.

A laboratory semen analysis can shed light on your sperm quality, but what can you do if the results aren’t good?

About one in nine Australian couples experience fertility problems and it is estimated there is a male factor in about half of cases.

A 2017 study found sperm concentration in men from Australia, Europe and North America declined 50 per cent in the 40 years prior.

“It’s important for men to understand that they play a major role in fertility and pregnancy health outcomes,” says naturopath and nutritionist Rhiannon Hardingham, of Melbourne’s Fertile Ground Health Group.

Causes of poor sperm health

Rhiannon says in contrast to the figures found in the 2017 study, men in less affluent nations were not shown to have the same decline.

“It seems likely that a combination of Western diet, lifestyle, obesity trends and plausibly endocrine disruption (from exposure to things such as plastics and pesticides) are to blame,” she says.

“This differs for each individual, but we know now without doubt that smoking, excess alcohol and caffeine, obesity and a diet high in junk food and low in fruit and vegetables all significantly compromise not just fertility for a man, but the health of his offspring.”

Obstetrician and fertility specialist Dr Eleanor Egan says factors known to significantly cause poor sperm quality include – but are not limited to – chromosomal, hormonal or prolactin disorders, testicular failure, and testicular causes such as testicular cancer.

“Sperm health declines with age and IVF success rates reduce if the man is above 40,” says Dr Egan. “Certain medications cause poor sperm health, in particular anabolic steroids.

“Another medical concept, called epigenetics, suggests that many areas of our health are influenced by what our parents were exposed to and what their health was like.”

How to improve sperm health

The lifecycle of sperm is 72 days.

“Anything that a man has been exposed to over a two-and-a-half month period can affect the quality; it also means you can start to see improvements in sperm health in a relatively short period of time,” says Dr Egan.

She suggests starting with lifestyle factors to try to improve your sperm.

If applicable, quit smoking and other drug use, reduce alcohol intake, replace processed foods with healthier options, get plenty of exercise, and avoid prolonged exposure to heat.

Supplements may also assist.

“Healthy sperm are made up of 20 per cent omega-3 fats, which are found in deep sea fish and some seeds, but supplementation ensures these healthy building blocks,” says Rhiannon.

She recommends a high-quality fish oil, vitamin C and a good multivitamin containing zinc, folate and B12.

Written by Samantha Allemann.