The simple, but important answer is 1. So, why do men make millions of sperm?
Sperm are constantly in danger. Inside the testicle it takes a sperm about 72 days to go from a germ cell to a fully mature sperm cell capable of fertilizing an egg. During that time, it needs proper nutrition and temperature to develop normally. Once mature, sperm are stored in a long tube called the epididymis where they wait to be ejaculated. Like tiny engines, mature sperm cells produce a form of exhaust known as reactive oxygen species that can damage the cell’s membranes. After about a week in the epididymis, sperm cells that haven’t been ejaculated begin to die.
For the lucky sperm that make it into the female’s body, it’s a whole new world of danger. Vaginal walls tend to be acidic to protect women from potential infections. During the fertile window, the female creates a sperm friendly fluid that enables sperm to swim up towards the egg. Sperm are not that smart. Many of them get lost in the cervix. Those who do make it into the uterus are greeted by white blood cells that see the sperm as invaders and attack them. These sperm swim like crazy to try to find the Fallopian tube while avoiding white cells. Finding the fallopian tube is like finding a needle in a haystack. Of the millions of sperm released upon ejaculation, only a handful make it to the fallopian tube where the egg is released. There, the sperm must survive long enough to meet and fertilize the egg.
So, for men, fertility is a number’s game. The more healthy swimmers you send in, the better your chances are that one of them will find the egg. However, it is very hard to precisely correlate sperm count to chances of pregnancy. A man that has a low sperm count with healthy sperm may have a better monthly chance of conceiving than a man who has a higher sperm count but the sperm are unhealthy. Several large scale studies have analyzed the relationship between semen quality and how long it took a couple to get pregnant. Here are the highlights:
More = Better: In general, men with more healthy sperm cells conceive more quickly. Improving count, motility and morphology all seem to improve conception rates.
You don’t need super sperm: Sperm counts have a wide range, anywhere from 0 to over 300 million cells per milileter. While more generally is better, you don’t have to be in the top 5% to become a dad. Chances of conception level out for sperm counts 50 million / mL and above. An average guy, with an average sperm count has just as good a shot of fatherhood as a dude with king kong super sperm.
How low can you go? Many men with a low sperm count can naturally conceive a child, it will just take longer. Studies find that sperm counts below 15-20 million sperm per mililiter correlate with significantly lower chances of conception. For men with sperm count below 10M/mL chances for natural conception get dicey and it’s often recommended to use some sort of assisted reproduction. For counts 1-3 million sperm per mL and higher, IUI or cervical cap conception is a possibility. For counts lower than 1 million / mL, doctors most often recommend in-vitro fertilizatin (or IVF) with ICSI (Intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection) which involves isolating a single healthy sperm cell from the sample and injecting it directly into an egg that has been retrieved from the female partner. The resulting embyro is then transferred to the uterus after a few days of monitoring where it can hopefully settle in and grow into a healthy baby.
Note from the Author:
I’ve been so honored by all the readers who have shared their stories and questions. One of the best parts of my day is responding to your comments. Sometimes, there is a bit of a backlog and it can take me up to a week to respond, but I promise, I will get to your question. We are launching a new community — so I will be answering questions left there first.
In the meantime, I’ve been working on a couple of projects that might be of interest.
I would also invite you to check out our gadget section to see latest innovative products that have been developed to support couples who are trying to conceive. I have met the founders of most of these companies and believe in the great work they are doing to help people start their families.
Finally, I would like to send a word of encouragement to everyone who is on the path to starting a family. The journey can be scary, frustrating and at times very sad. You are not alone. Millions of people around the world are going through the same thing. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Keep learning. Knowledge can empower you to find new doors to open.
Improving chances of conception
Many factors influence a couple’s monthly chance of conception – the woman’s age, the “friendliness” or “hostility” of her vaginal tract, the quality of the semen that transports the sperm and the health of the sperm cells and how many sperm cells are there. On average, a very fertile couple will conceive in a few months. Sometimes it can take up to a year. If a couple has impaired fertility, it can take up to 3 years to conceive. Longer than that, there is likely to be an underlying condition that is causing infertility that requires medical attention. Doctors often recommend that couples who have been trying for longer than a year get evaluated to identify potential causes of infertility or main factors that can impair fertility
There are lots of things a couple can do to improve chances of conception. Here are some of the simplest ones:
Have sex, often. Even though a woman’s fertile period is just a few days, it is important for sperm health that the man has regular ejaculations to “flush out the system” so that he doesn’t have an abundance of dead sperm when the big day comes. Ideally, you should aim for at least once a week throughout the cycle and every 1-2 days during the “fertile window”
Make it hot! Orgasm could possibly be one of the best tools you have for improving your chances of conception. On the female side, vaginal contractions during orgasm serve several purposes. They draw more semen out of the man and they draw sperm up towards the cervix. For men, studies have shown that the more exciting the sex, the better the sperm that come out.
pH check: Vaginal surfaces have varying pH levels which can be “friendly” or “hostile” towards sperm. It’s fairly easy to check vaginal pH level and if it’s not optimal there are a variety of products that can help neutralize hostile environments.
Boost your sperm count: Sperm count is not like your shoe size. There are a lot of things that you can do to improve both the sperm count and the health of the sperm. Here is a list of 20 simple things you can do.
Be healthy: Diet, exercise, stress & sleep deeply impact fertility for both men and women. Starting to prepare your life, your home and your heart for a new baby begins with re-arranging your priorities to make sure that you are as healthy as you can be.