Approximately 15% of couples struggle to conceive, and in up to half of these cases there is an issue with the male. Although many cases of infertility are idiopathic, meaning that their cause is unknown, the biggest contributor to male infertility is abnormal sperm production. Abnormal sperm production can present as low concentration, low sperm counts, poor motility, or irregularly shaped sperm.
The good news is that by adjusting the diet and including certain supplements semen quality can be improved.
Which vitamins and supplements are of most use to men with abnormal sperm?
A recent study systematically reviewed much of the available literature with a view to identifying which dietary supplements could potentially be most beneficial to men with abnormal sperm:
- Selenium – improved total sperm concentration, motility and sperm morphology. Found in brazil nuts, seafood and meat.
- Zinc – improved total sperm concentration and motility. Found in high levels in oysters, but also in red meat and poultry. Also found in legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and beans.
- Folate – improved sperm concentration. Found in legumes, leafy greens, asparagus and eggs.
- Omega-3 fatty acids – improved total sperm concentration, sperm counts, motility and sperm morphology. Found in seafood, nuts and seeds, and plant-based oils (flaxseed oil and canola oil).
- Coenzyme Q10 – improved total sperm concentration, sperm counts, motility and sperm morphology. Found in organ meats (heart, liver, kidney), fatty fish and vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower and spinach).
- Carnitines – improved total motility, progressive motility and sperm morphology. Found in red meat and dairy products.
This highlights the value of undergoing a semen analysis early on in the infertility assessment process, as then the diet can be tailored to suit the particular issue.
So, adapting their diet can help men with known (sperm-related) infertility issues, but what about those men who have never considered their fertility before? Should all men consider their diet before they attempt to conceive?
It is widely accepted that women should look at their diet before attempting to conceive; increasing their intake of foods such as whole grains, fruit and vegetables and maximising their folate intake. It is, however, less common for men to alter their diet in preparation for conception. But with semen quality falling over recent decades and the finding that a good diet can exert a positive effect on various sperm parameters, it makes sense for a man to also consider what he is taking into his body.
The Mediterranean Diet (MedDiet)
A good example of a healthy diet is the MedDiet, rich in fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grain; low in meat and saturated fatty acids. Men on this diet have demonstrably improved semen quality. For a start, this is a diet rich in antioxidants, including beta-carotene and vitamins E and C. Antioxidants protect against the damaging effects of free radical accumulation. When present at high concentrations, free radicals adversely affect sperm function and can result in oxidative stress,which in turn causes cellular and tissue damage. The best way of avoiding this is to balance out the free radical accumulation with increased antioxidants. This diet is also high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in saturated and trans fatty acids. Omega-3 is a structural component of the spermatozoa cell membrane. The integrity of the cellular membrane is critical for successful fertilisation to occur. Thus, men with proven fertility have higher levels of omega-3. They also have a lower omega-6:omega-3 ratio than men classified as subfertile. The ideal ratio is 1:1, but sometimes the discrepancy between the two is as great as 40:1 and this is associated with impaired semen quality.
The MedDiet is naturally high in foods that are thought to fight inflammation, including fruit, tomatoes and green leafy vegetables. Inflammation not only mediates the production of further free radicals, but also alters the microenvironment in which spermatozoa grow and mature. Consuming a diet that contains these food groups has been shown to improve sperm quality.
In conclusion, consuming the right food and supplementing the diet with suitable vitamins can improve a man’s sperm count.
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- Ahmadi, S, et al. “Antioxidant Supplements and Semen Parameters: An Evidence Based Review.” International Journal of Reproductive Biomedicine, vol. 14, no. 12, Dec. 2016, pp. 729–736.
- Irani, M, et al. “The Effect of Folate and Folate Plus Zinc Supplementation on Endocrine Parameters and Sperm Characteristics in Sub-Fertile Men: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Urology Journal, vol. 14, no. 5, 29 Aug. 2017, pp. 4069–4078.
- Karayiannis, D, et al. “Association between Adherence to the Mediterranean Diet and Semen Quality Parameters in Male Partners of Couples Attempting Fertility.” Human Reproduction, vol. 32, no. 1, Jan. 2017, pp. 215–222., doi:10.1093/humrep/dew288.
- La Vignera, S, et al. “Markers of Semen Inflammation: Supplementary Semen Analysis?” Journal of Reproductive Immunology, vol. 100, no. 1, Nov. 2013, pp. 2–10., doi:10.1016/j.jri.2013.05.001.
- Safarinejad, M R, and S Safarinejad. “The Roles of Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids in Idiopathic Male Infertility.” Asian Journal of Andrology, vol. 14, no. 4, July 2012, pp. 514–515., doi:10.1038/aja.2012.46.
- Salas-Huetos, A, et al. “The Effect of Nutrients and Dietary Supplements on Sperm Quality Parameters: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials.” Advances in Nutrition, vol. 9, no. 6, 1 Nov. 2018, pp. 833–848, doi:10.1093/advances/nmy057.
- “Foods That Fight Inflammation.” Harvard Health Publishing, 7 Nov. 2018, www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/foods-that-fight-inflammation.