Preconception Health and Fertility for Men
Written by: Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN
When it comes to fertility, maternal health gets most of the attention. It’s well known the health of a mother before pregnancy influences pregnancy outcomes. However, more recent research sheds light on the significant role men’s health plays in pregnancy and birth outcomes.
Even if you aren’t planning a pregnancy or aren’t planning one anytime soon, consider fertility a marker of overall health. If your fertility isn’t great, it might mean other health issues are brewing under the surface.
Spermatogenesis is a continuous process where men produce millions of sperm daily, but the entire process of sperm maturation takes about 60 to 70 days. This is good news because it only takes a few months of lifestyle change to improve sperm health!
Keep reading to learn how to improve fertility for men’s health and pregnancy. This article will cover:
- How paternal health affects fertility and pregnancy
- Male fertility as a window into overall health
- Heath factors that affect male fertility, including oxidative stress and toxins
- How to support preconception health for men
Let’s jump in!
The Paternal Role in Subfertility
You may receive an infertility diagnosis when you try to conceive for 12 months without success. I prefer the term subfertility because it suggests you can improve your fertility, which you can in many cases.
Around 9% of couples globally struggle with subfertility. While it’s common for women to undergo testing and invasive procedures to evaluate fertility, men play an equal role, and testing is often much simpler.
We now know male factors contribute to 50% of subfertility cases. Around 20% of cases are attributed solely to male factors, while 30% are a combination of male and female factors.
Sperm deliver DNA to the mature egg, and problems with sperm can mean problems with DNA. However, the role is much more significant than previously thought. The health of sperm goes way beyond conception, influencing pregnancy, infancy, and beyond.
New research suggests that paternal genes and other aspects of semen help build the placenta and create a healthy environment inside the uterus. Sperm health also plays a role in miscarriage.
Male Fertility and Overall Health
U.S. data suggests as many as 12% of men in their prime reproductive years are subfertile based on semen analysis. Low sperm counts and poor quality (motility and morphology) correlate with an increased risk of disease, cancer, and death. Poor sperm doesn’t cause disease and death, but it correlates with it, suggesting that the underlying mechanisms that affect sperm also affect overall health.
Fertility is related to whole-body health. Good health means good fertility. Medical issues, lifestyle choices, and nutrition greatly influence sperm health.
Factors Affecting Male Fertility and Sperm Health
Many of the root causes of chronic diseases will affect sperm count and sperm quality. Aspects of health that influence fertility include:
- Oxidative stress
- Metabolic health and blood sugar balance
- Blood pressure
- Weight and body composition
- Hormone health – testosterone and thyroid levels
- Gut health
- Toxin exposure
Oxidative Stress and Fertility
Oxidative stress occurs when antioxidant levels aren’t high enough to counteract free radicals in the system from metabolism, toxins, infections, poor diet, and other sources. Both egg and sperm cells are very susceptible to oxidative stress, which damages their structures and DNA.
Oxidative stress plays a role in male subfertility and is a proposed answer to “idiopathic infertility,” infertility without a known cause. Oxidative stress correlates with sperm DNA damage, reduced sperm motility, increased risk of recurrent miscarriages, and increased risk of genetic diseases.
Toxins and Fertility
Environmental toxins that make their way into the body also make their way into semen. Semen levels tend to mirror blood levels. Toxins in semen not only affect sperm health but can travel into the woman’s body. Some toxins and medications, including cocaine, heavy metals (aluminum, lead, cadmium), and antibiotics, may bind to sperm and enter the uterus.
Other toxins, such as phthalates, have been studied regarding male subfertility. Phthalates are chemicals found in soft plastics and personal care products. They are endocrine disruptors because they alter hormonal balance.
Male exposure to phthalates correlates with decreased sperm concentration, decreased sperm motility, and increased DNA damage in sperm, leading to a longer time to conception in couples trying to conceive. In couples undergoing IVF (in vitro fertilization), male phthalate levels associate with poor embryo quality and decreased implantation and birth rates.
How to Support Preconception Health for Men
Subfertility isn’t just a women’s issue; improving men’s health before conception improves the chances of a healthy pregnancy. Here are some ways for men to get their health and fertility in tip-top shape:
- Address health concerns. Address health concerns and symptoms before trying to conceive to improve overall health and fertility. A health physical and routine blood work can go a long way in identifying risk factors to improve upon.
- Adopt a nutritious diet. Prenatal nutrition isn’t just for women. Men benefit from the same changes, such as prioritizing unprocessed food, eating enough protein, increasing colorful plant foods, and focusing on healthy fats. When you see your partner making changes, jump on the bandwagon.
- Increase antioxidants. Antioxidants help protect sperm from oxidative stress, and you find them abundantly in plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, tea, and coffee. Zinc, an antioxidant mineral, is essential for sperm production and is found in oysters, red meat, and pumpkin seeds. Whey protein increases glutathione (Add link to whey protein article), another powerful and essential antioxidant.
- Get moving. Men who engage in moderate or vigorous physical activity, outdoor activity, and weightlifting have higher sperm concentrations than men with low activity or who are sedentary. It only takes a minimum of 1.5 hours per week of movement to see benefits. The one exception to this is cycling, as cycling correlates with lower sperm counts.
- Reduce toxin exposures. A few simple habits go a long way in reducing environmental toxins. Some ideas include:
- Filter drinking water
- Open the windows when outdoor air quality is good
- Vacuum and dust frequently
- Choose glass or silicone food storage containers instead of plastic (avoid heating food in plastic)
- Choose clean cleaning and personal care products (ewg.org is a great resource)
- Choose supplements from transparent companies that test for contamination (like Twenty2 Nutrition)
- Increase omega-3s. Fatty acids from the diet are essential for sperm maturation and quality. They compose the sperm membranes and protect the DNA inside. Western diets tend to be too high in omega-6 fats, which can be inflammatory. Increasing omega-3s helps reduce inflammation and support sperm health. Consider eating low mercury, cold water fish (like wild salmon, sardines, and cod) several times weekly and taking a quality fish oil supplement like Twenty2 Nutrition Omega 3 Fish Oil.
- Take prenatal nutrients. Prenatal vitamins aren’t just for women. A quality men’s multivitamin doubles as a men’s prenatal supplying essential micronutrients and antioxidants to support overall health and fertility. Twenty2 Nutrition Men’s Multivitamin contains essential nutrients for fertility, including antioxidants vitamin C, astaxanthin, alpha lipoic acid, selenium, zinc, vitamin E, and more.
The best time to start a prenatal is now, or at least 3 to 6 months before trying to conceive.
Women often take fertility issues on their shoulders, but it’s time for men to share the load. The science is clear that men’s health before conception plays a primary role in fertility and pregnancy.
If you are facing subfertility or want to optimize your chances for a healthy baby when the time comes, you can support health and fertility through how you live today. Improving nutrition and lifestyle habits and adding specific supplements like a men’s multivitamin and fish oil are simple steps for your future family.
This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider before beginning a new supplement, especially if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, take medication, or have a medical condition.
Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN is a Registered Dietitian, functional nutritionist, writer, and recipe creator. Ryah helps clients use a natural, food-as-medicine approach to improve fertility, pregnancy, hormone balance, autoimmunity, and discover a healthy relationship with food and body. Learn more about Ryah and her private practice at econutrition.co.