Surprising data about sperm and how you can improve your chances of conceiving
This always gets me riled up: “She was unable to get pregnant”. Really?
Over coffee one morning, a friend shared that her sister was “unable to get pregnant”. She and her husband had been trying to get pregnant without success. No formal workup, no diagnosis, no reason to believe that there was something “wrong” with her sister.
So why do we often say “she” was unable to get pregnant versus “my sister and her husband have not been able to get pregnant.” (yet!) What about her partner?
When couples are having trouble conceiving, the focus is often on egg quality, ovulation, and uterine health. But the data shows that issues related to sperm are found to be solely responsible for 20–30% of infertility cases and contribute to 50% of cases overall (Vander Borght & Wyns, 2018).
This is something I see every day when working with people in my practice – an assumption that there is something “wrong” with just one person when we really need to look at both partners for a complete picture.
There are 3 major points I want everyone to know about sperm health:
- sperm issues are a factor in up to 50% of couples having trouble conceiving
- sperm parameters that are considered “normal” by semen analysis may not be optimal and can affect how long it takes to become pregnant
- there are natural things you can do to improve sperm parameters and overall health
An important (but often overlooked) piece of a holistic fertility plan is knowing where your sperm (or your partner’s) parameters fall on a scale of low-normal-optimal. For example, a sperm concentration above 15 million/ml is considered normal. But based on data from the World Health Organization, only 5% of people with a sperm concentration of 15 million/ml were able to achieve a pregnancy with their partner after 12 months of trying to conceive. But 50% of people achieved pregnancy during the same timeframe if their sperm concentrations were 73 million/mL.
Obviously, we would all rather be in a percentile with a higher chance of pregnancy. Studies have found that optimal sperm parameters are values in the 50th percentile or higher, in this case, the “optimal” sperm concentration range is 73 million/ml or higher. Sperm concentration is just one piece of the semen analysis. We also want to look at sperm motility, morphology, semen volume, and possibly DNA fragmentation.
The good news is that there are things we can do to help tip the scale in your favor and help move your numbers in the optimal direction. First, it is important to work with your doctor to rule out any medical conditions that could be causing low sperm parameters.
Here are some of my top tips to help naturally improve sperm parameters.
1. Boost Your Nutrition
Good nutrition is critical for optimal fertility. Before we discuss herbs or supplements to help support a holistic fertility plan, it’s important to build a strong foundation in nutrition. Proper nutrition provides the ideal quantity of nutrients for the optimal development of sperm. For example, zinc deficiency is linked to low sperm counts, and supplementation has been shown to increase sperm count, motility, morphology, and overall quality. Carnitine, arginine, selenium, and vitamin B12 are also considered important for enhancing sperm motility and function, as are many antioxidants including vitamin C, vitamin E, glutathione, and Coenzyme Q10.
While our goal should always be to optimize nutrition through our diet, it can be difficult to ensure adequate nutritional levels on a consistent basis. Taking a high-quality multivitamin daily can help.
2. Increase Omega 3 Fatty Acids (Fish Oil)
Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in sperm quality. They have been shown to improve sperm membranes and protect them from oxidative stress (damage). Higher levels of omega-3s have been associated with healthier sperm parameters, and even short-term supplementation of DHA and EPA improved sperm concentration, motility, morphology, and DNA fragmentation.
Omega-3 rich foods include cold-water fatty fish, eggs, meat, and organ meat. While it is possible to meet your omega-3 requirements through food alone (aim for 2-3 servings of cold-water fish per week), many of us will need to supplement to ensure adequate amounts.
3. Consider Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is a hormone-balancing root herb that lowers chronically elevated cortisol (stress) levels and has been shown to improve fertility and libido. Its major antioxidant constituents also improve sperm quality.
One study found that men with poor semen parameters treated with ashwagandha showed improvement in antioxidant levels, decreased oxidative stress levels and normalization of hormones (testosterone, LH, FSH, and prolactin).
Ashwagandha can be taken as a capsule (Gaia Herbs is a great brand), or as a powder mixed into smoothies or other foods.
Pulling it all Together
The goal of a natural approach to fertility is to enhance the overall wellness of both partners while addressing specific problems. We know that sperm factors contribute to fertility struggles in up to 50% of cases and that sperm parameters are generally declining. The good news is that nutrition, herbs, supplements, and lifestyle changes have been shown to help, and success rates improve when addressed by both partners.
It takes about two months for sperm to go through the cycle of development, so the changes you start implementing today will affect the quality of the sperm that is released two months from now. That is why the preconception period is so important, and it is never too soon to start!
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Vander Borght, M., & Wyns, C. (2018). Fertility and infertility: Definition and epidemiology. Clinical biochemistry, 62, 2-10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clinbiochem.2018.03.012