Many things can affect the health of your sperm, which not only impacts your ability to start a family but also influence the health of your baby at birth and later in life. It takes about three months to make new sperm, so start ticking off this checklist well before you start trying to conceive and book a pre-conception health check with your GP.
1. Maintain a healthy weight
Overweight men are 11% more likely than their normal-weight peers to produce low numbers of sperm and 39% more likely to produce no sperm at all1, while obese men are 42% more likely to have a low sperm count and 81% more likely to produce no sperm. However, a new clinical study showed that obese men could improve their semen quality if they lost weight with an eight-week low-calorie diet, and maintained the weight loss. If you want to lose weight before trying to conceive, chatting with your GP or an Accredited Practising Dietitian is a good place to start.
2. Exercise regularly and eat well
Eating a healthy diet rich in nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, some antioxidants (vitamin E, vitamin C, β-carotene, selenium, zinc, cryptoxanthin and lycopene) and other vitamins (vitamin D and folate) is associated with better semen quality2. You can help hit some of these nutrient requirements by including oysters, fish and other seafood, chicken, eggs, legumes, beans, cashews, leafy greens and brazil nuts in your meals. It’s also important to limit your consumption of saturated fats and trans fats (found in things like processed meats and sweets) because they’re associated with lower semen quality. If you’re looking to supplement your diet with pills and powders, keep in mind that there is still poor evidence for the benefits of male fertility supplements. You can learn more about fertility supplements and how to eat for better sperm health here.
3. If you smoke, quit
Cigarette smoking has various impacts on semen quality: reducing sperm count, semen volume, and sperm movement. The more you smoke, the worse your sperm quality, but even ‘light’ smokers (less than 10 cigarettes a day) have reduced sperm quality. If you’re doing assisted reproductive treatments like in vitro fertilisation (IVF), smoking can reduce your chance of success. Smoking at the time of conception can also affect the health of your child, increasing their risk of developing childhood leukaemia. If you want to quit smoking, visit your doctor for support.
4. Limit your alcohol consumption
Research looking at whether alcohol consumption impacts sperm quality has been mixed — some studies suggest a negative effect, but others haven’t confirmed this. But when it comes to conceiving, it’s not just your sperm quality that can influence your success. Heavy drinking can affect your ability to get and maintain an erection, your sex drive and performance. These issues can make it harder to fall pregnant. It’s also easier to cut back or stop drinking when the people around you are supportive, so you going alcohol-free could be a help to your partner.
5. Stop using recreational drugs and chat to your doctor about other medications
Some drugs — legal and illegal — can have a negative effect on male fertility. Using anabolic steroids lowers your fertility, with long-term effects on sperm count and quality. Some prescribed medications and recreational drugs can also lower fertility or sexual function. These include:
- Long-term use of painkillers that contain opiates
- Medications for treating depression and anxiety
- Chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatments for cancer
- Recreational drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin.
Stop using any recreational drugs and if you’re concerned that your medication might affect your fertility, the best thing to do is speak to your doctor.
5. Reduce exposure to harmful chemicals in the home and workplace
When you’re trying for a baby, it’s best to avoid exposure to harmful chemicals including pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, and household chemicals. Many everyday plastics contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which may decrease your chances of pregnancy. Some of these chemicals build up in your body over time, so it’s never too early to avoid unnecessary exposures to harmful substances.
6. Get checked for STIs
If sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as chlamydia or gonorrhoea are left untreated, they can damage the reproductive organs and cause infertility. You can have an STI without showing any symptoms so if you haven’t had an STI screening recently, book one. Most STIs can be quickly and easily treated.
Another factor to consider when you’re starting a family is your age. Men younger than 40 have a better chance of fathering a child than those older than 40, both naturally and with IVF. The risk of miscarriage is higher when the male partner is over 45. Although your age is something you can’t change, keep in mind that it’s better to start sooner than later.