Many men don’t know how common male infertility is until they’re in the midst of doctors’ appointments and rounds of tests while struggling to start a family. In fact, the man contributes to infertility in around half of all cases and they’re the sole cause in 20% of these cases. If you’re dealing with infertility, or just considering your options while trying to conceive, you might have come across male fertility supplements promising to improve your sperm health and increase your chances of falling pregnant. But do male fertility supplements work and are they worth your hard-earned money?
What causes male infertility?
If you’ve been trying to get pregnant without success for a period of 12 months, and you’ve been having sex at least twice a week, both you and your partner should visit a doctor to see if there are any issues on either end. There are a number of different causes of male infertility but in the majority of cases, your fertility generally depends on the quantity and quality of your sperm. If the number of sperm you ejaculate is low, or if the sperm are of a poor quality, it will be difficult, and in some cases impossible, to get pregnant.
There are many things that can damage your sperm, not only impacting your ability to start a family but influencing the health of your baby at birth, and later on in life. These include being overweight, smoking, older age and exposure to harmful chemicals. Nutrition can also play a role in sperm health, which is where fertility supplements come in.
What are male fertility supplements?
As with many health concerns, male infertility has become highly marketable with a range of dietary supplements on the market. Dietary supplements are taken in pill, capsule, tablet or liquid form, intended to supplement your diet with particular nutrients. Male fertility supplements differ in the types and amounts of active ingredients they contain, however, most include zinc, selenium, arginine, coenzyme Q and folic acid. In general, there is still poor evidence for the benefits of male fertility supplements in terms of large well-designed trials.
“The scientific consensus seems to be mixed on male pre-conception supplements, some more recent research showed that zinc and folic acid supplementation does not seem to significantly impact sperm parameters1,” says Accredited Practising Dietitian Stefanie Valakas, who specialises in fertility nutrition. “Other research suggests supplementation of nutrients such as omega-3s seems to be beneficial for sperm health parameters only after taking it daily for six months versus no improvements seen at three months.”
Valakas says it’s best to identify nutrient gaps in your diet and deficiencies with the help of a dietitian or doctor, who can help with targeted supplementation if needed.
“It is important to consider your medical history, medications and other factors before proceeding with supplementation, consult your health care provider.”
However, Valakas also says that supplements might also be a way for men to feel like they’re taking action in what can be a challenging time for couples.
“Many males feel like they're contributing in some way to the fertility and pre-conception journey by taking a preconception multi-vitamin as for those with female partners are generally taking a prenatal supplement too.”
How can your diet help your sperm health?
Before considering male fertility vitamins or supplements, it’s best to focus on getting some key nutrients through food. Eating a healthy diet rich in some nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, some antioxidants (vitamin E, vitamin C, β-carotene, selenium, zinc, cryptoxanthin and lycopene), other vitamins (vitamin D and folate), that’s low in saturated fatty acids and trans-fatty acids, is associated with better semen quality2.
So how do you incorporate this list of nutrients (which can be a bit of a mouthful, pun intended) into your day-to-day meals? It’s easier than you might think. Here are Valakas’ best tips on food to help improve sperm health.
1. Go nuts for your nuts
“Incorporate a handful of walnuts and one Brazil nut each day – research shows that adding a handful of walnuts into your diet each day for 12 weeks improved sperm health parameters including motility and morphology,” Valakas says. The Brazil nut contributes to your daily selenium requirements, a key mineral and antioxidant that has been shown to enhance sperm function.
2. Boost zinc-rich foods
“Zinc requirements for men are higher as they lose more zinc through seminal fluid,” Valakas says. “Insufficient zinc in a male diet has been associated with male infertility, however, new research is suggesting that supplementary zinc may not be effective in supporting sperm health. Load up on zinc rich foods such as meat, chicken, turkey, fish and shellfish (particularly oysters!), eggs and pumpkin seeds!”
3. Embrace oily fish
“Salmon, mackerel, trout, sardines and anchovies rich in omega-3 fatty acids, known to be a key component of the Mediterranean dietary pattern associated with optimising male fertility,” she says. “In addition, research supports that omega-3s seems to support optimising sperm health. They aren't sure yet as to why this is, it could be due to the anti-inflammatory properties and/or optimising blood flow.”
4. Add tomatoes to your diet
“The antioxidant lycopene found in tomatoes as well as carrots, capsicum, guava and red cabbage seems to be linked to better male fertility,” she says. “Cook your tomatoes in olive oil to help boost absorption!”
5. Get your two and five
“2 fist-sized portions of fruit and 5 serves of veggies (1 serve is about 1/2 cup cooked veggies or 1 cup raw salad veggies) each day will help you get a wide variety of antioxidants and also plenty of vitamin C to help support and protect the DNA that resides within the sperm that may end up being 50% of your future baby! Try by adding one extra serve each day.”
Keep reading: Your guide to male infertility
Keep reading: Can being a vegetarian affect sperm health?
1 Schisterman EF, Sjaarda LA, Clemons T, et al. Effect of Folic Acid and Zinc Supplementation in Men on Semen Quality and Live Birth Among Couples Undergoing Infertility Treatment: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2020;323(1):35–48. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.18714
2 Salas-Huetos A, Bulló M, Salas-Salvadó J. Dietary patterns, foods and nutrients in male fertility parameters and fecundability: a systematic review of observational studies. Hum Reprod Update. 2017 Jul 1;23(4):371-389. doi: 10.1093/humupd/dmx006. PMID: 28333357.