Understanding Male Infertility
There are many reasons why a man might struggle with fertility, but the most common is sperm damage resulting from the overproduction of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS). Think of this as oxidation or rusting, which causes damage to the sperm and sperm DNA. It can be caused by certain drugs, cigarette smoking, environmental toxins, hyperthermia, over or underexercising, inflammation, imbalanced hormone levels and inadequate intake of antioxidants from the diet.
There are also environmental factors that we are only just beginning to understand, such as the impact of cell phone radiation on sperm DNA. Research is showing a correlation between radiation exposure from cell phones and decreased motility of sperm as well as DNA damage. This, I believe, is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the detrimental impact that man-made environmental factors can have on fertility. Fortunately, as a man, there is a lot you can do to protect yourself and the health of your sperm.
Building Healthy Sperm
Since women often experience the heaviest burden when it comes to infertility treatments, such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) and pregnancy, it only makes sense that her partner would do everything in his power to provide the healthiest sperm. This gives the best chance at a successful pregnancy and passing on the healthiest genes to your child(ren).
In addition to avoiding unhealthy lifestyle behaviors such as smoking, drug use, being sedentary, etc. getting enough vitamins and minerals with antioxidant properties is one of the best ways to protect against sperm damage before trying to get pregnant. Taking therapeutic levels of specific antioxidants can help prevent further damage from occurring and neutralize some of the damage that has already occurred. When excess damage already exists (which may be impossible to know without testing), or when there’s a genetic predisposition to developing oxidative stress, sometimes getting these compounds from food alone isn’t enough. In our toxin-filled environment, it’s safe to say that most men would benefit from supplemental support. However, getting these nutrients from whole, unprocessed foods is still extremely important because you also get additional benefits such as fiber, phytonutrients and the synergistic qualities of the whole food working together to provide an array of known and unknown benefits.
Here are the top five nutrients you want to look for in a prenatal geared toward men, as well as their best dietary sources:
- 1) CoQ10 in the form of Ubiquinone.
CoQ10 is a molecule found in every cell of the body, including sperm. In men, CoQ10 supplementation has been shown to improve sperm concentration, motility and morphology. Studies suggest that combining CoQ10 with other antioxidants and vitamin B12 will not only improve semen parameters, but also lower the rate of DNA damage. Its antioxidant properties also neutralize the effects of excess ROS on the sperm.
The best food sources of CoQ10 are:
- Grass-fed organ meats such as liver
- Wild fatty fish such as sardines and herring
- Heritage pork
- Grass-fed meat
- 2) Selenium in the form of Se-methylseleno-L-cysteine or L-Selenomethionine
Selenium is a trace mineral essential for proper thyroid function and its function as an antioxidant. Selenium protects the body against the detrimental effects of heavy metals which is why it is so important for the support of sperm production and motility.
The best food sources of Selenium are:
- Brazil nuts
- Wild shrimp
- Wild sardines
- Wild oysters
- Wild salmon
- Pastured turkey
- 3) Vitamin E in the form of D-Alpha Tocopheryl Succinate or Alpha-Tocopherol
Vitamin E refers to a family of eight antioxidants known as tocopherols. These fat-soluble antioxidants protect sperm against oxidative stress. Research shows that vitamin E, along with other antioxidant nutrients such as selenium, may improve sperm count, motility and quality in infertile men. While supplementation is often helpful and necessary, especially in infertile men, food should be the first choice because you get a balance of the various forms of vitamin E.
The best dietary sources of vitamin E are:
- Sunflower seeds
- Beet/collard/turnip greens, and spinach
- 4) N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine (NAC)
Research shows that NAC supplementation reduces oxidative damage, improves antioxidant status and may improve sperm quality, volume, motility and viscosity in infertile men. NAC also helps the body produce glutathione, our major detoxification molecule. The body can make some NAC naturally by combining amino acids methionine and serine, so there is not a specific daily requirement. However, getting higher amounts can support pregnancy especially when used in combination with other antioxidants. NAC specifically can only be obtained in supplement form, but you can eat foods high in cysteine.
The best dietary sources of cysteine are:
- Heritage pork
- Grass-fed beef
- Pastured chicken
- Pastured eggs
- Sunflower seeds
- 5) B Complex Vitamins in their methylated form
This last one is technically a bonus category. Although they don’t function as antioxidants, the B complex vitamins are just as important to highlight. The B complex vitamins include B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B7 (biotin), B9 (folate) and B12 (cobalamin).
Research shows that proper levels of B vitamins improve sperm count, motility and DNA quality. However, your body must be able to utilize the B vitamins properly for this to work. At least 40% of the population have a variation to their methylation genes, which makes it difficult to process the synthetic form of B vitamins, especially folic acid, and has been linked to male infertility due to negative impacts on sperm count and quality. Getting B vitamins from your diet is one way to ensure you are getting the active form of these essential nutrients.
The best dietary sources of B-vitamins are:
- Pastured egg yolks (thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, biotin, pyridoxine, folate and B12)
- Green leafy veggies such as spinach (folate, riboflavin and pyridoxine)
- Lentils and pinto beans (folate)
- Wild sardines and salmon (B12, niacin and biotin)
- Pastured poultry (niacin and pyridoxine)
- Shiitake mushrooms and avocado (pantothenic acid)
Regardless of where you are starting out, it’s amazing what a whole food, nutrient-dense diet and targeted supplementation can do to support healthy sperm! While the full lifecycle of a sperm can differ slightly from person to person, the typical lifespan stretches between 2.5 – 3 months.
For this reason, we encourage men who are hoping to have a child to begin prenatal supplementation at least 3 months prior to trying, if possible. This short period of time can make all the difference in creating optimal sperm that will provide the best blueprint for the growing fetus, which will carry over into child and adulthood.