Fertility is a really big topic right now for a number of reasons—but one of the big ones is that we’re having what could be accurately called a “sperm crisis”. Recent research shows that sperm quality has been declining for years because of a slew of factors, including increasing air pollution, pesticides used in the produce we eat, obesity rates, smoking, and more. (FYI: Male factor infertility accounts for approximately 40 to 50 percent of all infertility cases, according to a study published in the Journal of Human Reproductive Sciences.)
Unlike eggs, which develop before a woman is even born, sperm is created on a continual basis, explains naturopath Kiera Lane, N.M.D., MSAc, L.Ac., Dipl. Ac., director of Arizona Natural Medicine. “It takes about 72 days to mature new sperm in a process known as spermatogenesis,” she explains. What this means: There are steps men can take to support healthy sperm. (FYI: “Healthy sperm” is described as being motile—meaning it moves in a forward direction, is present in adequate quantities (hence the phrase “sperm count”), and is normally shaped, according to Lane.)
Here, fertility experts break down their best tips for supporting healthy sperm, both now and in the long run. Whether you’re actively trying to conceive or not, they’re must-reads.
1. Eat organic fruits and veggies
The importance of eating fruits and vegetables probably comes as no surprise to most people, seeing as they’re jam-packed with nutrients that are vital to our health in a multitude of ways. What you may not know, however, is that organic makes a big difference when it comes to healthy sperm. “By eating organic, you reduce your toxic burden because you’re exposed to fewer pesticides,” explains Lane. “This, in turn, reduces the amount of oxidative damage that your body is exposed to, which protects the integrity of your sperm’s DNA.”
If you’re not sure which fruits and veggies to prioritize buying organic, take a peek at the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list, which rounds up the most chemical-laden produce we eat and is updated each year. Since going all-out on organic everything isn’t realistic for many people, try to buy the organic versions of those particularly “dirty” crops when you can.
2. Exercise regularly
It’s a no-brainer that exercise is good for overall health—but it has also been shown to increase levels of the male sex hormone testosterone and contribute to greater sperm quality, per research published in the Journal of Clinical Biochemistry and Nutrition. In fact, one study published in Nutricion Hospitalaria suggests exercise is especially helpful in improving sperm quality in obese populations.
The current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (think five 30-minute sessions) coupled with two days of muscle-strengthening activities (think weightlifting) each week.
3. Kick your smoking habit
Smoking cessation is probably the most impactful life change a man can make for his sperm, notes urologist Russell Hayden, M.D., of Shady Grove Fertility. “Much of the tar and other chemicals that are released while the plant burns are highly toxic to sperm, and certainly result in poorer reproductive outcomes,” he says. If quitting full-stop just doesn’t feel possible right now, know that even cutting back can help. “I tell most patients to do the best they can by decreasing smoke exposure as much as practically possible,” Hayden says.
4. Avoid marijuana use
Marijuana may now be legal in quite a few states, but more and more evidence suggests it has a negative impact on sperm quality, notes Natalie Stenz, M.D., double board-certified OB/GYN and fertility specialist. One study published in SAGE Journals suggests that a specific compound in the marijuana plant may negatively impact semen quality (though it may also protect against the motility of abnormal sperm).
Another study published in Epidemiology, meanwhile, found that couples trying to conceive in which the male partner used marijuana more than once per week had a greater risk of miscarriage than couples trying to conceive in which the male partner did not use marijuana.
5. Keep your Crotch cool
If you’ve ever heard that men should avoid placing laptops on their genital area, the reason is that heat can have a negative impact on sperm health, per research published in Human Reproduction. It’s not just laptops that can pose a heat risk, though. In fact, Natalie Stenz, M.D., double board certified OB/GYN and fertility specialist warns that obesity, sauna and hot tub use, and even long-haul bike rides can cause testicular temperatures to rise.
While you certainly don’t have to avoid saunas, hot tubs, and long, sweaty bike rides altogether, she recommends keeping them to once-in-a-while occasions, perhaps no more than two or three times per month to play it safe.
6. Get enough selenium
The mineral selenium doesn’t get as much spotlight as, say, vitamin C, but this micronutrient has a lot to offer for our health, and one of its many benefits is supporting sperm health. “Studies show that selenium may protect DNA integrity and reduce DNA fragmentation, which may especially come in handy for older men, as age comes with an increased amount of DNA fragmentation,” explains Lane. Because selenium works as an antioxidant in the body, it can help protect cells from damage.
Proteins like chicken, fish, and eggs contain high amounts of selenium, and it also comes in supplement form.
7. Consume probiotics
Many people wouldn’t think probiotics, the healthful bacteria that reside in our gut (and other places throughout our body), have anything to do with sperm—but, in fact, they just might. “Preliminary studies suggest that two strains of good gut bacteria known as Lactobacillus rhamnosus and bifidobacterium longum may work against DNA fragmentation,” says Lane. This means that having healthy populations of these good-for-you gut bugs could make a difference in helping to support healthy sperm.
You can get your share of probiotics from yogurt, kefir, or other fermented foods like sauerkraut, Lane suggests. You can also take a probiotic supplement that contains the two strains she highlighted, such as Garden of Life Dr. Formulated Once Daily Men’s Probiotic.
8. Get your share of vitamin D
Vitamin D is an important nutrient that too few of us get enough of. (An estimated 40 percent of American adults fall short.) You may already know that it supports calcium absorption, modulates our immune system, and even affects our mood and energy levels.
Another benefit of vitamin D? Adequate amounts may support fertility. In fact, plenty of research, including one study published in the journal Andrologia, suggests that low vitamin D may be a risk factor for poor sperm quality.
While our main source of vitamin D is the sun, most of us don’t spend enough time outdoors to glean appropriate amounts of the nutrient this way. You can get some vitamin D from cod liver oil, salmon, swordfish, tuna, mushrooms, and beef liver, but supplementing may be necessary if they don’t make regular appearances in your diet, Lane notes. She recommends starting with 1,000 to 2,000 IU of a high-quality vitamin D3 supplement every day.
9. See a doctor if you are Experiencing sexual dysfunction
Because trouble between the sheets could actually indicate trouble with sperm, Allison Rodgers, M.D., OB/GYN, a reproductive endocrinologist at Fertility Centers of Illinois, recommends seeking the assistance of a reproductive urologist if you’re having a tough time with erections or ejaculation. “It’s quite possible that your sexual dysfunction could be the result of sperm quality issues, so a semen analysis may be necessary,” she suggests. There’s no shame in this game; getting help as soon as you notice undesirable changes puts you one step closer to health.