Getting to know your testicles
Did you know that your diet, stress levels and how much you drink could have an impact on your fertility? We explore what to do to improve the health of your sperm.
In recent years, a number of studies have pointed to a decline in human sperm quality in the western world. Many researchers have suggested that there could be lifestyle factors behind this concerning trend for male fertility.
Approximately one third of couples will struggle to conceive due to sperm problems. A healthy sperm count ranges from 15 million to over 200 million sperm per millilitre of ejaculate. Fewer than 15 million sperm is considered low. But the shape and motility of your swimmers are important factors too.
42% of British men are concerned about their fertility according to a recent survey by ExSeed - a company that markets sperm quality testing kits.
If you're hoping to start a family, whether that's in the near or distant future, anything you can do to boost your sperm concentration and quality will increase your chances of conceiving.
You already know that drinking too much isn't good for your health, but it can also have a detrimental effect on your semen, leading to fertility problems.
Dr Ferran Garcia, head of andrology at Spanish fertility clinic Institute de Marques explains:
"Excessive alcohol consumption has both a detrimental effect on sperm count and sperm morphology (shape), and causes a reduction in antioxidant enzymes in the testicles. This results in fewer healthy sperm being produced and can even affect your body's testosterone production."
It's worth looking at the amount you're drinking every week, using DrinkAware's calculator. Try reducing it to a healthier amount, perhaps by giving a few drink-free nights a week a go.
"Having a few drink-free days each week, will help reduce the risks to your health and improve your well-being," says Drinkaware chief executive Elaine Hindal.
Giving up smoking is the single biggest change you can make to improve your health. And, as Garcia explains, if you're hoping to conceive, it's well worth stubbing out the habit.
"Smoke contains over 7,000 substances, many of them carcinogenic. But smoking has also been associated with a decrease in the amount of sperm, their motility and their morphology."
The chemicals in smoke also expose sperm to high levels of oxidative stress. This can lead to DNA changes, which could lower the chances of fertilisation or even increase the risk of miscarriage if conception does occur.
Quitting is tough - and no one's denying it, but there have never been so many support options available. The Personal Quit Plan provided via Public Health England (PHE) can help you find a way to stop that works for you.
We're starting to learn that stress is linked to more medical conditions than we ever imagined. And it may be a causal factor in infertility too.
Studies show that psychological stress is associated with a reduced sperm count, with the surviving sperm more likely to be abnormal in shape and size, and less motile.
If you think you may be suffering from stress, give simple relaxation techniques a try, from deep breathing to mindfulness or even finding ten minutes every day to stretch your body.
Most men would like to lose a bit of weight, and of course, it's easier said than done. But being overweight or even obese is associated with a decrease in sperm quality and male hormone levels which both increase the risk of infertility.
"This is because an increase in fat tissue increases the conversion of testosterone to oestrogen, which can lead to a decrease in sperm production," reveals Garcia. "And proteins secreted by fat tissue, stimulate oxidative stress which can negatively affect the DNA makeup of sperm, how they move, and their ability to fertilise an egg.
"Regular exercise and a healthy diet have been proven to increase testosterone levels and boost sperm quality, so I always encourage my patients to maintain a healthy lifestyle and weight as best they can."
Of course, the healthiest way to lose weight is to increase the amount of physical activity you do and ensure you're eating a balanced diet. And, as it turns out, your food choices also play an important role in semen quality.
A recent review found that men who followed a Mediterranean diet - associated with vegetables, omega-3 fatty acids (oily fish are an excellent source), antioxidants and low in saturated fat - were more likely to have good-quality sperm. While another trial discovered a more 'western-style' diet of processed meat, high-sugar foods and lots of caffeine was associated with poor sperm quality.
Cannabis may be experiencing a bit of a moment right now in relation to some, very specific, medical conditions. But that doesn't mean smoking weed is good for you. And in fact, regular, recreational use of marijuana can have a big effect on your sperm count, according to the research. In a trial of more than 1,200 healthy young men, scientists found a link between regular marijuana use (more than once a week) and reduced semen quality.
The outcome is even worse if you're a regular cocaine user.
"Long-term cocaine consumers have a lower concentration of sperm with decreased mobility, as well as a larger fraction of sperm with abnormal morphology," says Garcia.
If you think you might need help for drug addiction, make an appointment with your GP who will be able to help. You can also approach your local drug treatment service in the UK, by visiting the Frank website.