Male factor infertility accounts for almost 50% of all infertility (30% solely male factor, 30% solely female factor, 30% a combination of both and 10% unexplained)... but yet there is kind of an unfair distribution in the amount of testing and treatment of infertility - most is aimed at female causes of infertility.
The guys kind of get away with having just one test - and a completely non-invasive one at that.... a semen analysis. If there is a problem, then the solution is to do IVF with ICSI - well.. ONE of the solutions anyway...
Now I often say to my clients that having any kind of investigation into your fertility is about trying to find the hurdles that are stopping you from conceiving - it might be ovulation, it might be sperm, it might be tubal... whatever it is, the purpose of investigations is to find the hurdle.
The next decision after that is to work out if you want to jump the hurdle (like do ovulation induction for example).. or if you want to work to reduce or even remove the hurdle and increase your chances of conceiving naturally.
When it comes to male factor infertility - that can mean that there are problems with numbers of sperm (concentration), how well and quickly the sperm move (motility) or possibly even what shapes the sperm are (morphology).. and the solution to all of these (or at least ONE solution) is to do IVF with ICSI (you can read more about that in another blog here)
But what do we really know about how important sperm quality is.. and how it can be influenced by diet? A recent study by researchers at Linköping University published at the end of 2019 shows us just how much sperm are influenced by diet and how quickly changes can be made... The study, which has been published in PLOS Biology, (and referenced below) gives new insight into the function of sperm, and may in the long term contribute to new diagnostic methods to measure sperm quality.
In this study healthy young men were fed a diet rich in sugar.
According to Anita Öst, senior lecturer in the Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine at Linköping University, and head of the study:
“We see that diet influences the motility of the sperm, and we can link the changes to specific molecules in them. Our study has revealed rapid effects that are noticeable after one to two weeks,”
Sperm quality can be harmed by all sorts of environmental and lifestyle factors. Obesity and related diseases like type 2 diabetes, are well-known risk factors for poor sperm quality.
Anita's research group is particularly interested in epigenetic phenomena, which involve physical properties or levels of gene expression changing, even when the genetic material, the DNA sequence, is not changed.
In certain cases, these epigenetic changes can lead to properties being transferred from a parent to offspring via the sperm or the egg. In a previous study, this group showed that male fruit flies which had consumed excess sugar shortly before mating more often produced offspring who became overweight.
Similar studies on mice have suggested that small fragments of other genetic material play a role in these epigenetic phenomena that appear in the next generation. These RNA fragments are present in unusually large amounts in the sperm of many species, including humans, fruit flies and mice. So far, their function has not been examined in detail. Scientists have speculated that the RNA fragments in sperm may be involved in epigenetic phenomena, but it is too early to say whether this is the case in humans. The new study was initiated by the researchers to investigate whether a high consumption of sugar affects the RNA fragments in human sperm.
In this study, the scientists examined 15 normal, non-smoking young men, who followed a diet in which they consumed only food given to them by the scientists for two weeks. The diet they were given was based on the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations for healthy eating with one exception: during the second week the researchers added sugar, corresponding to around 3.5 litres of fizzy drink, or 450 grams of confectionery, every day.
The sperm quality and other indicators of the participants’ health were investigated at the start of the study, after the first week (during which they ate a healthy diet), and after the second week (when the participants had additionally consumed large amounts of sugar).
At the beginning of the study, one third of the participants had low sperm motility. Motility is one of several factors that influence sperm quality, and the fraction of people with low sperm motility in the study corresponded to that in the general population. The researchers were surprised to discover that the sperm motility of all participants became normal during the study.
“The study shows that sperm motility can be changed in a short period, and seems to be closely coupled to diet. This has important clinical implications... we can’t say whether it was the sugar that caused the effect, since it may be a component of the basic healthy diet that has a positive effect on the sperm,” says Anita Öst.
Studies in animal models and human epidemiological data seem to also indicate a long term impact of parental (both parents!) nutrition - not just for the next generation, but perhaps even the one after that (2) - read more about that here
In another review article (3) (reviewing LOTS of different studies on nutrition and sperm health) they have found that increased intake of omega-3 fatty acids, either as supplements or from foods (from either nuts or fish) appears to have a positive effect on spermatogenesis (the process of making sperm).
Supplementation with antioxidants and other nutrients like folate, vitamin B12 and zinc) also appears to be beneficial.
They also found that there really isn't enough evidence yet to suggest that environmental toxicants that are introduced through food (including xenoestrogens from soy, dairy products, and beef) are harmful to men's reproductive potential.
On the other hand, they found plenty of evidence from all over the world that dietary patterns generally consistent with those already promoted for the prevention of heart disease and other chronic conditions may be beneficial for male fertility as well (3).
So - can your diet and your lifestyle impact your sperm quality? YES!
Spermatogenesis takes up to 70 days, so any changes you make in this window before conception can change the quality of the sperm and also have lasting impacts on the health of the children at the end (although some people say just 42 days is enough to see changes in sperm quality!)
Want some help working out what steps to take? get in touch with me and find out more about my 'Preparing for Conception' bundles where we can talk about all this stuff and loads MORE too!
(1) Daniel Nätt, Unn Kugelberg, Eduard Casas, Elizabeth Nedstrand, Stefan Zalavary, Pontus Henriksson, Carola Nijm, Julia Jäderquist, Johanna Sandborg, Eva Flinke, Rashmi Ramesh, Lovisa Örkenby, Filip Appelkvist, Thomas Lingg, Nicola Guzzi, Cristian Bellodi, Marie Löf, Tanya Vavouri, Anita Öst, “Human Sperm Displays Rapid Responses to Diet” 26 December 2019, PLOS Biology. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3000559
(2) Schagdarsurengin, U., Steger, K.
Epigenetics in male reproduction: effect of paternal diet on sperm quality and offspring health. Nat Rev Urol13, 584–595 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrurol.2016.157
(3) Feiby L. Nassan, Sc.D., M.B.B.C.H., M.Sc., Jorge E. Chavarro, M.D., Sc.D., Cigdem Tanrikut, M.D. Diet and Men's Fertility: Does diet affect sperm quality? Fertility and Sterility Volume 110, Issue 4, 570-577 (2018),https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fertnstert.2018.05.025