Let’s talk about men and fertility

Fertility is an odd topic, and one that makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. It’s not something that got a lot of airplay traditionally in Ireland and even in modern Ireland it is something you either take for granted or actively suppress until you need it. But if you are ready to start a family and nothing happens, it can be stressful, upsetting and very expensive.

Most of what we hear and read is focused on women’s fertility issues, though increasingly there is a lot of interest in the falling fertility rates in men. This month in Organico we are focusing on fertility, so for this article I’m focusing on male fertility and how to improve it by making a few simple changes. 

 Because women take a great interest in their own reproductive health, so do the media and medical establishments. Most gynecologists are primarily trained to focus on women in the first instance. This can often result in a situation where male fertility is a secondary afterthought for many couples. However, in the UK, NHS figures identify that in 20 per cent of cases of infertility this is due to low sperm count, so it would make sense to make sure that you have ticked all the lifestyle and dietary factors for both partners if you are trying to conceive. Also, taking a combined approach to fertility more accurately reflects the ‘dual’ nature of conception and, later, life-long shared parenting. 

Conceiving a baby can seem like magic if it happens without any drama, but it’s actually pretty mechanical. On a basic physiological level, for conception to occur there needs to be good concentrations and count of sperm. Men also need good levels of semen. Semen is a separate fluid to the sperm itself and provides food, energy and acts as a transport mechanism for the sperm itself. Sperm must have a good structure and form (morphology), be able to move/swim correctly (motility) rapidly and be swimming in the right direction. Sperm must also not be clumped together (agglutination). 

Henrietta Norton is the founder of Wild Nutrition, which is one of our favourite food supplement companies and one of the leading companies offering effective formulations for fertility and hormonal issues. Henrietta began Wild Nutrition because addressing her nutritional deficiencies had helped her to conceive and she wanted to share her formulations. Henrietta says there are some immediate lifestyle tips you could follow if you are trying to conceive – quitting smoking, and limiting alcohol are essential first steps, as it is widely agreed that men who smoke are more likely to have fertility problems, and the Mayo Clinic says that drinking alcohol can lower testosterone levels, cause erectile dysfunction and decrease sperm production. 

The best diet for healthy fertility is a diet rich in a wide variety of colourful antioxidant containing vegetables and fruit. Healthy fats (especially oily fish twice a week) and organic meat (which contains more omega 3s), or if you are vegetarian, organic pulses and grains should all be included. 

She also recommends avoiding heat around the testicles (no extra hot baths, regular rowing, regular cycling, or using saunas etc) since sperm production relies on specific temperatures (20) for at least three months since it takes around this time to go a new sperm to full maturity.

You also need to consider your environment and where you might be absorbing unwanted environmental oestrogens. The hormone oestrogen can be very disruptive or male hormone balance. 

Henrietta recommends minimising hormone disruption by switching from drinking tap water to filtered water (and investing in hormone-filtering devices, which remove all unwanted chemicals in your water – talk to your plumber). She advises to never heat or cook in plastic or use plastic cooking utensils (use stainless steel, wood or crockery instead). Avoid leaving plastic bottles in direct sunlight and then drinking the water. In terms of diet, she says that men should avoid regularly eating soya products, and she would suggest that men may wish to investigate a gentle internal cleansing programme to help eliminate unwanted oestrogens from their body. 

From a nutritional perspective, there are several essential nutrients that can play a role in promoting health male fertility. 

Zinc contributes to normal fertility and reproduction and contributes to the maintenance of normal testosterone levels in the blood. Indeed zinc deficiency has been connected to seminal volume and sperm morphology (form and shape) and therefore a significant decrease in serum zinc levels has also been found in males classified as experiencing a low sperm count. 

Couples may find it helpful to have their zinc levels checked with a qualified health practitioner, as women are often found to be low in clinical tests. If couples eat similar daily meals, the partner of the women who is low in zinc may also be low himself! 

Foods that contain zinc: vegetables, nuts, seeds, meat and fish (especially seafood).  

Selenium contributes to normal sperm and can provide an improvement in sperm motility (movement) and morphology (how sperm is formed).  In short, there has been a direct correlation between seminal concentration and higher selenium levels. Growing sperm should be protected from oxidative damage during the three-month maturation stage.

Foods that contain selenium: Vegetables, high levels are found in Brazil nuts, other nuts and seeds, and meat and fish. However, research has shown there has been a decline in the amount of selenium available in soil over the decades and dietary intakes of selenium have fallen over the last 20 years so we all need to make a greater effort to maintain good levels, and supplementation is widely advised.

An amino acid, Arginine, has been widely researched for sperm health. Arginine is known to help form aspects of sperm structure essential for initiating spermatic motility processes. 

Foods that contain arginine: seafood, meat, dairy products and nuts like cashews. Interestingly, veal liver is often credited with being the richest source of arginine from meat.

A higher intake of Omega-3 fatty acid is associated with healthy sperm – particularly how sperm looks, count and density. Mice studies explore how DHA (a type of omega 3 fatty acid found in fish) deficiency may cause the shape of sperm to be a rounded rather than an elongated shape favoured for swimming. 

Eat two portions of oily fish per week (salmon, trout, sardines, anchovy, mackerel). 

Coenzyme Q10 is widely advised for couples undergoing fertility treatment, because it provides energy for sperm to move. At least three months of supplementation of CoEnzyme Q10 is recommended to improve sperm shape and motility in infertile men.

Foods that contain Coenzyme Q10: Meat, oily fish, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, raw peanuts. 

If you want to ensure both partners are maximising your chances of conceiving, we would recommend the Wild Nutrition Fertility supplement programme. Wild Nutrition make bespoke formulations for both men and women, and their formulations are well absorbed and very effective. 

If you would like some personal advice on fertility issues, we have Aisling McDonnell (a nutritional consultant with Wild Nutrition) in Organico at the end of March offering free private fertility consultations. Call (027) 51391 to book your appointment. 

Hannah Dare

Hannah Dare co-runs Organico, the café, bakery and health shop in Bantry, West Cork.

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