The fertility journey is not always a joyful one for many couples. It can be stressful and ultimately cause problems in relationships, performance at work, and overall mental wellbeing. While the burden of becoming pregnant often falls on the shoulders of women, infertility is not just a “woman’s issue.” In fact, nearly half of all fertility problems are male fertility issues.
The Facts on Male Fertility
Statistics show that the rate of infertility is increasing with nearly 9% of men and 10% of women under the age of 44 reporting infertility problems in America (CDC, 2013 and Office on Women’s Health, 2019). Further, infertility does not discriminate. Currently 7.3 million Americans are dealing with infertility, regardless of their race, religion, sexuality or economic status, according to resolve, The National Infertility Association. So with about 30% of infertility cases involving male factor problems alone, and 30% of cases involving problems with both partners, it is clear that men play a huge role in pregnancy outcomes, and should not be sidelined in the fertility process.
Age makes a difference for both women and men. Often we focus on the woman’s age as being a barometer for fertility success. But men have a biological clock too. A retrospective cohort study found that increased paternal age had negative effects on offspring and their mothers. Indeed, offspring born to fathers aged 45 years or older had higher odds of premature birth and seizures compared to fathers aged 25 to 34, and mothers had an increased risk of premature birth and gestational diabetes.
Obstacles for Men
Some of the medical risks to male fertility include hernia repair, undescended testicles, a history of prostatitis or genital infection, and mumps after puberty. However, many researchers are also identifying that men, especially, are experiencing a decline in fertility due to common environmental factors that could be controlled or minimized. These include:
- Exposure to toxic substances or hazards on the job, such as lead, cadmium, mercury, ethylene oxide, vinyl chloride, radioactivity, and x-rays;
- Cigarette or marijuana smoke;
- Heavy alcohol consumption; and
- Exposure of the genitals to elevated temperatures — such as hot baths, whirlpools, and steam rooms.
However, these environmental factors are not the only culprits for conception. There are other less obvious environmental factors men may be exposing themselves to on a daily basis. Sunscreens, scented candles, air fresheners, colognes and even heavy metals that could be present in dietary supplements could put men at higher risk for oxidative stress due to toxic burden. Be sure to check the label of dietary supplements for seals that indicate the company uses third-party independent testing to ensure no harmful contaminants, including heavy metals, are present in its supplements.
Nutrition: The Factor You Can Control
Often overlooked, nutrition changes can make a huge impact on fertility for both men and women. While women are more likely to get some nutrition advice from their doctor, men are often left out of this discussion. However, an extensive amount of research shows that if men make positive improvements with their nutrition and engage in healthy lifestyle choices, such as exercising and getting 7-8 hours of sleep, there is a clear connection to improved male fertility, ultimately resulting in healthier babies.
This nutrition a-ha moment is the reason I ended up steering my entire functional medicine practice to help couples who were struggling to conceive. In my practice, working with thousands of couples, who had tried every other fertility medical intervention without success, nutrition, and specifically, flooding the body with the right nutrients, and correct amounts, was the game changer.
The Nutrients Men Need
Let’s start with the diet. A man’s diet has a major influence on the health of the baby. Recent findings from an animal model study found that when male mice ate low-protein diets, ATF7, which is a protein responsible for fat metabolism and cholesterol production, turned on, and led to metabolic reprogramming in offspring. Another key study showed that sperm and semen from male mice that were fed a poor-quality diet, resulted in their offspring becoming overweight with symptoms of Type 2 diabetes and reduced expression of genes that regulate fat metabolism.
Women are often the focus of prenatal supplements, but men need specific supplements designed for their fertility needs too. For men, supplements that support fertility, and should be taken daily, include: choline, zinc, vitamin D, vitamin B12, magnesium, selenium and folate. Getting the precise amounts of these nutrients in food consistently is complicated and knowing how much to take can be confusing to figure out. This is the primary reason why I started FullWell, a fertility wellness and education brand, to take the guesswork out of knowing which fertility supplements and what amounts were most effective. For men, we developed a Vitality + Virility supplement that contains recognizable antioxidants like vitamin E, C, and selenium plus a unique antioxidant blend to offer more support than the standard men’s multivitamin. Beyond antioxidants, the nutrients included in this formula help support the very nutrient-intensive liver detoxification process, which in turn can encourage the healthy formation of sperm and the DNA contained within it.
Finally, I recommend men follow a diet that includes foods that are high in antioxidants (such as selenium and vitamins E and C) and omega-3 fatty acids, which can be helpful in managing chronic inflammation and has been shown to be fertility-promoting for men. Diets that are rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seafood, nuts and legumes, and olive oil are ideal.
Male Fertility: A Biomarker for Future Health
Like many aspects of our health, male fertility can be supported by improving lifestyle choices, such as exercise, sleep, targeted nutritional support and minimizing environmental exposures. But even beyond fertility, male reproductive factors like low sperm count have been associated with increased risk of metabolic syndrome for men. In the largest study to date evaluating semen quality, reproductive function, and metabolic risk, researchers discovered that men with low sperm counts had a higher risk of greater body fat, higher blood pressure, insulin resistance, and abnormally elevated cholesterol. These types of studies have provided more insight into how a man’s fertility status can act as a biomarker for his future health too, whether or not a baby is in the plan.
Ayla Barmmer, MS, RDN, LDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist, functional medicine practitioner and the founder, and CEO, of FullWell, a fertility wellness and education brand. Her entire career focus has been to advance the health and empowerment of practitioners, patients and families through nutritional science, functional medicine and evidence-based holistic solutions. Barmmer launched FullWell to provide all families access to the same evidence-based, effective, high-quality prenatal and fertility supplements that she successfully uses with her own patients. Barmmer earned her undergraduate degree in dietetics and completed her dietetic internship at the University of Connecticut; a Master of Science in Health Communications from Boston University and has additional training in clinical nutrition, functional medicine, women’s health, herbal medicine and holistic and integrative therapies.
Twitter: @aylabarmmer_rd https://twitter.com/aylabarmmer_rd