Guest Post by Liane Moccia, RH (AHG)
A 2017 paper that reported a significant decline in sperm parameters brought increased attention to male fertility. However, in reality, this isn’t new. Sperm counts have been declining for decades.
To better understand the reality behind the headlines, let’s look at the numbers:
- In 1940, the average sperm concentration was 113 million per milliliter (million/mL)
- In 1990, the average had fallen to 66 million/mL
In 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO) lowered normal sperm parameter ranges to take into account the new average ranges. Currently, a sperm concentration above 15 million/ml is considered normal. Based on these numbers, a large percentage of men today would have been considered infertile just two generations ago!
You may be wondering if these numbers really matter when it comes to getting pregnant, especially if you are considering in vitro fertilization (IVF). After all, doesn’t it only take one strong sperm to make a baby?
There are many other factors that contribute to getting pregnant, including sperm motility (how well the sperm swim), morphology (sperm shape), plus your partner’s health parameters. The more we improve each of these factors the better your chances for conception will be each month. Even in cases where couples are undergoing IVF and possibly ICSI (where a selected sperm is directly injected into the egg), it is helpful to improve the overall health of all the sperm.
More important than the numbers that are considered “normal” is what you can do to increase your chances of getting pregnant. There is a big difference between being normal and being optimal.
For example, the WHO found that only 5% of men whose sperm concentrations were 15 million/mL (the lower end of normal) were able to achieve a pregnancy with their partner after 12 months of trying to conceive. But 50% of men achieved pregnancy during the same timeframe if their sperm concentrations were 73 million/mL. Obviously, we would all rather have a 50% chance of pregnancy versus a 30% chance.
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.
When couples are having trouble conceiving, the focus is often on the woman. But the data shows that roughly 20 to 30% of infertility is due to sperm issues. Sperm problems are a contributing factor in an additional 30-40% of couples.
As a registered clinical herbalist who specializes in fertility, I find that both male and female factors should be addressed, and in doing so, chances of conceiving can greatly increase. Many herbs, nutrients, supplements, and lifestyle factors have been studied and found to safely, gently support fertility and optimal health. Here are some of my top tips to help improve sperm parameters.
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 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.
Try to eat organic whenever possible. Pesticides on produce have been shown to decrease sperm count by 49%. The good news is that after only five days of switching to a mostly organic diet the pesticide levels in the bloodstream are decreased by 80%.
For times when it’s not possible to eat organic, check out the EWG’s Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 to help you prioritize which foods have the highest levels of pesticides and should be avoided, as well as which foods have lower pesticide levels when conventionally grown.
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 in several studies.
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.
Drink Green Tea
Antioxidants are one of the most important components to healthy fertility, and green tea is loaded with antioxidants!
Antioxidants are a family of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that help to protect the body from the damage caused by free radicals, called oxidation. Our eggs, sperm and reproductive organs are particularly vulnerable to free radical damage. Oxidation can be a primary cause of male and female infertility.
One study showed that half a cup of green tea contains the same amount of antioxidants as nearly 2.5 pounds of fresh fruit! The same study concluded that green tea can significantly improve sperm parameters (motility and viability), egg quality, fertilization and pregnancy rates.
Aim for two to four cups of green tea every day. It is naturally lower in caffeine than coffee (about 40 mg per eight-ounce cup versus 130 mg for coffee).
This root herb is well known for its calming effects and ability to help promote healthy sleep cycles, both of which can improve fertility. It is also a powerful antioxidant which, as previously discussed, can improve egg and sperm quality.
Ashwagandha lowers chronically elevated cortisol levels (stress levels), and lower cortisol levels are associated with improved fertility. One clinical study found that participants with poor semen parameters who were treated with ashwagandha for 3 months had improvement in antioxidant levels, decreased oxidative stress levels, normalization of hormones, and improved sperm count and motility.
An additional benefit of using ashwagandha is that it helps us feel calmer by increasing the availability of dopamine (a neurotransmitter known to elicit feelings of calm and contentment), and it appears to mimic the action of the neurotransmitter GABA, which relaxes the body.
Ashwagandha is available as a powder, tincture, or in supplement form. It can be easily added to smoothies or Golden Milk. Ashwagandha is part of the nightshade family, so if you react negatively to nightshade plants, use with caution (although most people with nightshade sensitivities can tolerate ashwagandha without issue).
Reduce Your Exposure to BPA
It is not an exaggeration to say that bisphenol A (BPA), a common chemical in plastics, is having a negative impact on fertility. According to researchers at Harvard University, exposure to BPA may disrupt the human reproductive process and play a role in about 20% of unexplained infertility.
BPA is a resin used to make water bottles, food package containers, receipts, and more. It is an endocrine disruptor, meaning it binds to hormonal receptors and interferes with the normal function of reproductive hormones like estrogen and testosterone. BPA has been shown to interfere with ovarian and sperm development.
A study found that men with detectable levels of BPA in their urine were three times as likely to have lower sperm concentration and sperm vitality, more than four times likely to have lower sperm counts, and twice as likely to have lower sperm motility.
Taking the time to replace plastic containers for glass, reduce your use of canned foods, swap coffee pods system for regular drip-coffee (the plastic coffee pods heat up in the coffee maker and contain BPA), and avoid paper receipts and other thermal paper, when possible, can all work together to decrease your overall exposure to BPA.
The goal of a natural approach to fertility is to enhance overall wellness in both partners while addressing specific problems. We know that male factors contribute to fertility struggles in up to 70% of cases, and that sperm parameters are declining in general. 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!
Liane Moccia is a Registered Clinical Herbalist who helps women and men take charge of their fertility, prepare for pregnancy, balance hormones and manage stress. Liane’s own infertility diagnosis led her to the healing power of plants and ultimately a career change to help others on similar journeys. Feel free to download Liane’s 5 Simple Changes To Improve Your Fertility.