Fertility Facts vs. Fiction | Men’s Health Month Edition
June is Men’s Health Month, but how much do you know about the reproductive aspects of your health, or your partners? If you're like most people, you might know the basics, but this is a perfect opportunity to take a deeper dive and understand what is fact, and what is fiction.
For example, do you know about 40% of all couples affected by infertility is attributed to “male factor,” a term that simply means there is a glitch or problem with one of the two cells needed for conception – the sperm?
But, there is good news!
Get this – sperm is produced every 3 months, so there is a lot you can do to be proactive IF you are looking to improve your chances of conceiving. Even if you're not TTC (trying to conceive) at this very moment, below, we'll provide information and data points for you to stash away that might help your chances down the line.
Men’s Reproductive Health Facts vs. Fiction
We’re about to dive into the questions we want answered, but don’t always know how to ask. Questions like; is it OK to drink, how much, and how often? Can my underwear seriously impact my fertility? What if I smoke a little weed, is that OK when trying to conceive?
If I’m healthy, so too are my sperm, right?
If you’re healthy – defined by a nutritious diet, including veggies, fruits, whole grains, and protein, drink very little alcohol, don’t smoke (anything), exercise regularly, are within a healthy BMI category, then yes, your sperm is more likely to be healthy. However, there are two basic types of reasons why you might be and feel physically healthy but still be challenged by male factor infertility. RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association describes the two challenges very well, “ Some of problems can be structural abnormalities, sperm production disorders, ejaculatory disturbances and immunologic disorders. Perhaps it is best to break them out into 2 categories: Productive Factors and Obstructive Factors. In some cases of male infertility, the production of sperm is impacted whereas in obstructive issues cause problems with transporting the sperm to the semen. “ The only accurate way to know about sperm health is through a semen analysis (SA) test, which would be one of the first tests scheduled if you’re trying to conceive. The test consists of obtaining a kit, making an appointment, and dropping off a semen specimen.
Does my weight affect my fertility?
“There is a growing body of literature which speaks to the overall health of the male partner in sub fertile couples and outcomes," says Mark Leondires, MD, Medical Director of RMA of Connecticut. “Specifically, there are two publications in Human Reproduction, August 2012, and Fertility and Sterility, August 2012, which speak to a negative effect on sperm quality and embryo quality. Pregnancy rates in obese men with the use of ICSI did not overcome this effect. The authors reported an 85% decrease in the odds of live birth in men with abnormal BMI as compared to normal BMI."
"Clearly, more work needs to be done in this area, but there is a strong suggestion of a negative correlation between obesity and pregnancy," he continues. “This is both a call to arms for men to take better care of themselves and for the fertility community to educate male partners better.”
Dr. Leondires shared the research that he found regarding weight and fertility. As it is June and Men’s Health Month, having healthy body weight decreases your chances for prevalent male conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and prostate cancer.
I’m not what I eat, or am I?
While you’re not only what you eat, what you choose to eat does affect your sperm. This is good news because it means that you can help change a fertility treatment outcome.
Need some expert advice on nutrition? Here you go!
“Pair your complex starchy grains with heart healthy fats and lean protein sources with vitamin-rich veggies. In addition to the colorful nature of your plate, make sure there is a high variety of types of food. This helps keep blood sugar in check and manages weight control, leaving you satisfied and less likely to feel the need to add more or snack later. Plus, it helps to ensure you are getting all of the nutrients you need to foster fertility.” Jill Hickey, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, also debunks a few more myths.
Here's one additional fact – higher poultry intake among men revealed a 13% higher fertilization rate in IVF studies, which further supports another fact, that increased saturated fat intake is associated with lower sperm counts.
Does Underwear Affect my Fertility?
As funny as it may seem, your underwear matters.
Boxers are better when it comes to keeping the testicles the correct temperature for optimal sperm production. Pants or tight underwear press the testes up towards the body, raising the temperature in a way that is deleterious to conception. The testicles were evolutionarily designed to be outside of the body for a purpose, mainly because the optimal temperature for sperm production is just below body temperature. Testes need to be between 2-4 degrees lower than that of the rest of the body, and according to one study, even heated car seats can raise the temperature of the testes (something to be mindful of!). Seattle Sperm Bank, a company whose specialty is sperm, cited a study published in the Journal “Human Reproduction” that confirmed that boxers are the best option if you’re trying to conceive, even if there’s no diagnosis of a male factor problem.
How Much Can Men Drink when Trying to Conceive?
Here’s a Q&A that we posed last year in Couples Night In with answers from our Andrology team:
Q: My buddies invited me to the bar this weekend. Is it OK to get a little tipsy, once in a while?
A: No. Alcohol is toxic. It messes with your hormones and can cause some serious consequences to your body. Alcohol decreases the production and release of hormones, which are critical for reproductive health. Yes, one beer, occasionally, when you’re off cycle, won’t be devastating to your fertility. However, drinking to the point of intoxication isn’t healthy or safe.
Q: Can I put my laptop on my lap when trying to conceive?
A: NO! There’s more to say, but really? The answer is no. Think 2% cooler than the rest of your body and remember that sperm are being produced and need three months to mature. If you absolutely MUST have your computer on your lap, then purchase a lap desk for your computer to sit on that cools the computer and your sperm-producing organs!
Q: How much sleep should men get when trying to conceive?
A: Sleep could be the secret to improving everything from eating habits to endocrine health. While you are sleeping, your body is busy recovering from the day’s physical and emotional wear and tear. Sleep is also instrumental in regulating hormones, including testosterone and other factors for sperm production. Sleep is vital to improving your health. Sleep deprivation, which is typically less than six or seven hours of sleep, can lead to:
- Increased Weight Gain
- Increased Stress
- Increased Hunger
- Increased Cortisol
- Increased Abdominal Fat
- Decreased Muscle Mass
- Decreased Testosterone
- Decreased Fertility
Q: Will smoking weed impact my fertility?
A: All smoking is a no. Smoking has many harmful additives which cannot only be carcinogenic, but detrimental to your fertility. Certain toxins within cigarettes such as cadmium and nicotine can lead to oxidative stress within sperm and therefore DNA fragmentation. These toxins have also been linked to decreased sperm concentration, motility, and shape. Studies have also shown that the mitochondria (the powerhouses of the cell) within sperm are affected negatively. If reaching an egg is the name of the game, lowering your sperm count and energy resources won't get you very far. (Also, vaping is not better, in fact, can be far worse.)
On the other side of the smoking spectrum, in one study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, a study found that Danish men between the ages of 18–28 who smoked marijuana regularly (more than once a week) had roughly 30% less normal sperm concentration and for those who participated in additional recreational drug use (cocaine and ecstasy) had roughly 50% less than normal sperm concentration.
Other Commonly Asked Questions About Sperm
The three questions listed below are from a fertility patient and have been answered by our Andrology team.
Q: I love high intensity interval training. Intense exercise will increase my fertility anyway, so I’m all good, right?
A: Unfortunately, no. Although exercise is generally a good thing; high intensity interval training can raise the temperature of your testicles and affect concentration and motility. Doing things like taking baths or going to the sauna will also have negative effects on your sperm. Stay cool and avoid cooking your balls.
Q: I have low testosterone – I am tired all the time – is it OK to use steroids and testosterone supplements? Won’t it help me in the long run anyway?
A: False!!! This deserves 3 “!!!” because of how dangerous this is to your fertility. Taking testosterone will inevitably bring sperm production to a halt. If you are trying to build your family; do NOT take testosterone. If your doctor recommends testosterone supplements, be sure to talk to him/her about your family building intentions. They will absolutely tell you to either hold off on the testosterone or freeze your sperm first.
Q: I just had a semen analysis and my sperm count was low… that’s just the way my body is, and I can’t do anything about it. True or False?
A: False. There are several changes you can make right now that would help! This can include things like reducing alcohol intake, eliminate smoking, diet changes etc. Speak to your physician about things you can do to increase your fertility fitness.
Four Simple Things to Improve Your Fertility Health, Which Also Improve Your Overall Health
Dr. Leondires talks about “subfertility,” rather than “fertility” and in the case of male factor challenges, remember that even one sperm can make the difference. Because just like it takes only one good egg, it can take only one good sperm.
• Change your underwear
• Reduce or eliminate alcohol even if you’re not currently in a fertility treatment cycle – think ahead, sperm takes 3 months to develop
• Don’t smoke anything – it is destructive to growing sperm
• Get your sperm checked. Even if you’re not trying to conceive right now, more information, earlier, can help guide future decisions. Information is power.
Overall, the Men’s Health Month initiative aligns perfectly with best practices for fertility health. Compare food, exercise, sleep and lifestyle choices, and then note the small differences (like High Intensity Interval Training).
Being a healthy person means making the best choices that you can, and while it won’t magically cure all of the medical challenges that you may face, it will certainly increase your odds of overcoming and avoiding a few! Happy Men’s Health Month!
Are you tying to conceive? A semen analysis test is inexpensive, non-invasive and will tell you if your sperm is healthy.
About Lisa Rosenthal
Lisa has over thirty years of experience in the fertility field. After her personal infertility journey, she felt dissatisfied with the lack of comprehensive services available to support her. She was determined to help others undergoing fertility treatment. Lisa has been with RMACT for eleven years and serves as Patient Advocate and the Strategic Content Lead.
Lisa is the teacher and founder of Fertile Yoga, a program designed to support men and women on their quest for their families through gentle movement and meditation.
Lisa’s true passion is supporting patients getting into treatment, being able to stay in treatment and staying whole and complete throughout the process. Lisa is also a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist, which is helpful in her work with fertility patients.
Her experience also includes working with RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association and The American Fertility Association (now Path2Parenthood), where she was Educational Coordinator, Conference Director and Assistant Executive Director.