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Sperm health may be the sole underlying factor in up to 20% of infertile couples, and a contributing factor in another 30-40% of couples (1). But most testing and treatments for conception focus on egg health (2). Sperm quality is part of the initial workup for couples who experience challenges conceiving, but many reproductive health experts agree that sperm health should be an essential part of preconception planning for everyone (2).
The likelihood of sperm to help create an embryo can be affected by many things. Nutrition, exercise, substance use, and other choices all play a significant role (3). Men and people who make sperm can make changes to what they do throughout the day that can benefit sperm quality.
Let’s take a look at some of these changes and how they can impact conception:
1. Eat more antioxidants
Antioxidants are compounds found in food that protect cells against free radicals (3,4). Free radicals cause oxidative stress, and can have an impact on sperm shape, motility, and function (4,5). Eating a diet consisting of antioxidant-rich foods including berries, whole grains, brightly colored vegetables and fruits, dark chocolate, and green tea may have a protective effect on sperm quality (4.6). In some cases, supplementing may be beneficial, especially vitamin C, vitamin E, coenzyme Q10, and zinc (7,8).
2. Consider an anti-inflammatory diet
Anti-inflammatory diets are high in foods that help keep inflammation in check. For example, the Mediterranean diet is a type of anti-inflammatory eating pattern that has been associated with improved sperm quality (8). This diet is high in olive oil, fresh produce, whole grains, nuts, and seeds (8).
Seafood is also a focus in the Mediterranean diet pattern and appears to be especially helpful for sperm quality, likely because of the omega-3 content (8). Omega-3 are fatty acids that reduce inflammation in the body and contribute to healthy sperm (9).
The Mediterranean diet pattern can also support a healthy body size for the parent (10). Some research links lower and higher than average body weights with reduced sperm quality (11).
3. Quit smoking
The chemicals in cigarettes negatively impact sperm, including motility, shape, function, and concentration (12). It’s strongly recommended that both partners quit smoking before trying to get pregnant, not only because of the impact on fertility and delayed conception, but smoking is also associated with miscarriage and other health risks to the fetus (13).
4. Move more
Studies show that all exercise helps with sperm health (so you can choose what works for you), but moderate exercise—where you break a sweat but can still have a conversation—is associated with even higher increases in sperm concentration and improved DNA integrity (14,15). Interestingly, watching more than 20 hours of TV a week is associated with lower concentrations of sperm (14).
5. Work on stress resilience
Stress can impact the hormones that make sperm and sperm quality (16). It’s not always possible to completely eliminate stress in your life, but working on how to respond and keep the body calm can never hurt. Meditation and breathing exercises are good options, but reading a favorite book, going for a walk outside, or calling a friend can work too.