For most couples, trying to conceive is an exciting and stress-free time, but for about 1 in 6 couples this isn’t the case. In this blog, we’ll be focusing on male factor (sperm problems) infertility, which affects a significant proportion of infertile couples. Greater than 1 in 3 couples with infertility will have a sperm problem.
Unlike eggs, which are all made before a woman is born, sperm is continually being produced in the testicles over a 2-3 month cycle (72 days). This means sperm ejaculated today can be affected by a man’s health over the previous 3 months and the number and quality of sperm will fluctuate over a man’s life.
Although sperm is in a constant cycle of production, a man’s age does play a part in the quality and quantity of his sperm. As a man reaches 50 years of age, his sperm number and quality decrease, meaning it will take longer to conceive naturally. The DNA quality also reduces with age and is thought to be associated with an increased risk of mental health disease and autism in his children.
Childhood illness, direct trauma, testicular lumps, undescended testes and hernias can all have an impact on sperm production. There are also rare genetic conditions, which can either impact male hormones or sperm production and transport. A fertility specialist would need to further investigate these but for most men with a sperm problem a cause is not found.
Men’s general health and wellbeing, particularly stress and obesity, play a role in sperm production. For this reason, we always suggest a balanced diet and regular exercise.
Smoking probably has the most detrimental effect on sperm and should ideally be stopped well before trying to conceive. Alcohol above 2-3 drinks per day or binge drinking is also linked to reduced sperm function.
Vitamins such as zinc, folic acid and vitamin C are important in sperm production and there are men’s fertility multivitamins available with these ingredients. Unfortunately, there is insufficient data to confirm any significant benefit from taking these supplements and in one randomised trial, a decrease in sperm quality was found in the treatment group (although not statistically significant).
Testicles are meant to sit outside the body to allow them to be a few degrees cooler. Prolonged testicular exposure to heat can also decrease men’s sperm production. This would include frequent use of saunas and spas and maybe even consistent use of a laptop on your lap. Tight fitting underwear and more than recreational cycling have also been suggested as things to avoid when trying to improve sperm quality.
When to seek help
If you have been trying to conceive without success, the main test for men’s fertility will be a Semen Analysis. I would recommend you have a consultation with one of our expert fertility specialists if you have been trying for 6 months or more without success. An early consultation with a fertility specialist will at least give you piece of mind about your fertility and if there is a problem this can be picked up early.