You are what you eat. So are your sperm. It turns out that sperm are incredibly sensitive to what we eat. When we eat foods that are good for fertility turns out that sperm counts increase, motility and morphology are better and even the DNA inside the sperm is healthier. Healthy sperm DNA decreases the risk of miscarriage and birth defects while improving odds of creating a healthy baby that will carry to term, So what makes healthy sperm? Let’s find out…
What are sperm made of?
Like all cells, sperm are made out of fat, protein, sugar and DNA. But there are a few things that make sperm special. First, sperm are rapidly dividing cells. Second, they are swimmers. Because of this, sperm need special nutrition to optimize their health and chance of reaching the egg.
Fats & Proteins
Getting enough of the right types of fats, cholesterol and protein are important for men who are trying to conceive and generally for men’s health. As mentioned above, Testosterone is made out of cholesterol so it is important to have minimal amounts of cholesterol in your diet. Remember, too much is bad on the heart so don’t overdo it. Balance cholesterol intake with healthy fats that are essential for fertility and keep your heart healthy. Polyunsaturated fats are the healthiest of all. A subset of these is the Omega-3s which contain DHA fatty acids. Getting enough DHA is critical for both men and women while trying to conceive. For the man, it plays a critical role in sperm production and testicle health. For women, it may improve conditions for implantation and promote healthy growth of the embryo.
Simple ways to add more Omega-3s into your diet:
- Look for “balanced” or “natural” branded margarine, cooking oils and peanut butters. If you read the ingredients some of these are made with various types of omega-3s. The best ones contain fish oil or algea oils which are rich in DHA.
- Try to eat fish once a week
- If you have an aversion to fish, fish oil pills and gummies are a nice alternative
The message for carbs is very simple. Do what you can to avoid insulin spikes. Try to consume foods that have a lower glycemic index. Generally this means avoiding sweets, white bread, white rice and potatoes. I know all the good stuff. Better replacements would include whole wheat bread, oatmeal, brown rice and sweet potatoes. If you do splurge on white bread, fries or a soda, try to pair with other slower digesting foods – salad, steamed veggies or a lean protein.
Nutrients & Antioxidents
Getting enough of key vitamins and minerals is essential for two reasons. First, several nutrients are key parts of the cell division process. If there is a deficiency, sperm won’t divide or mature properly. A diet high in nutrients can improve sperm count, motility and morphology as well as reduce DNA fragmentation. Second, as mentioned above sperm produce a large amount of reactive oxygen species which can damage them. Antioxidants helps to protect sperm and can increase count, motility and DNA integrity. So which nutrients do you need and where do you find them?
The following vitamins and nutrients have been shown in studies to have a positive impact on semen parameters – count, motility, morphology and DNA integrity. We take an in-depth look at each one to understand what it is, how it works and its role in male fertility. We’ll also list out the foods rich in each of the nutrients. It is important to note that most of the literature supports the idea that vitamins and nutrients only really work to improve fertility when they are balanced. If a man has a diet rich in vitamin C but deficient in folate for example, he is still likely to have impaired semen parameters.
One important note, it is possible to get too much of a good thing. Overdosing on vitamins and nutrients will not add additional benefits for your health or your fertility. Vitamin E, Selenium and Zinc particularly can be toxic in high quantities. It is difficult to overdose on nutrients when they are coming directly from your diet but it is possible when eating fortified foods or taking dietary supplements. So don’t over do it.
What is it: A fatty molecule that provides energy to cells and acts as an antioxidant.
How it works: Co Q10 has a unique molecular structure that enables it to serve multiple roles to support cells. Its primary role is to help cells break down and convert food we eat into energy they can use. Its structure allows it to pass through the cell wall and transport nutrients to the inside of the cell. While floating free outside of cells, it serves as an antioxidant by binding with ROS and other radicals to keep them from damaging nearby cells.
How it helps fertility: Because they are swimmers, sperm need a lot of energy. They also produce a lot of ROS and therefore need antioxidants to protect them. Coenyzme Q10 may be a sperm’s best friend by playing both of these roles.
Sources of Coenzyme Q10
- Animal Organs: hearts and livers have the highest concentrations
- Oil: Soybean, Olive & Grapeseed
- Meat: Beef, Pork, Fish
- Nuts: peanuts, pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and sesame seeds)
- Vegetables: Parsley, broccoli, spinach, avocado
*Frying reduces CoenymeQ10 content by 14-32%
What is it: Also known as vitamin B9, folic acid is an essential vitamin that enables the body to replicate and repair DNA.
How it works: Folic acid is synthesized by the liver and broken down to molecules that are essential components of DNA. These molecules are not produced by the body so it is important that we get them in our diet.
How it helps fertility: Sperm are rapidly dividing cells and need to have a lot of materials for building DNA nearby. Having a high amount of folate in your diet ensures that every sperm is able to build top notch DNA.
Sources of folic acid:
- Leafy greens: Spinach, Kale, Turnip Greens
- Legumes – Lentils, Pinto Beans, Black Beans, Kidney B
- Vegetables: Asparagus, Beets, Broccoli
What it is: An amino acid that is usually generated by the body but sometimes supplemented by diet that is helpful for cellular division, helping wounds heal, removing ammonia from the body and helping the release of hormones.
How it works: Arginine is used by the body in two ways. First, some of it is converted into nitric oxide which is a chemical that relaxes blood vessel walls allowing blood to flow into tissues. Second, it triggers the body to produce proteins that are essential for cell production and repair.
How it helps fertility: First, it helps you get it up. Essential. Second, it helps germ cells and young sperm divide properly, therefore increasing count.
Sources of L-Arginine:
- Yourself: your body makes this amino acid, so you don’t need to rely to heavily on diet
- Meat: most meats are abundant sources of this key amino acid
- Dairy: Dairy also chalked full of arginine
- Plant sources: Nuts and grains. Think of vegetarian sources of protein. most also contain L-arginine.
What it is: An amino acid generated by the liver and kidney that helps break down fats and convert them into cellular energy. It also has antioxidant properties enabling it to serve many important functions at the same time.
How it works: All cells contain mitochondria which are responsible for generating energy for the cell. Inside the mitochondria there are a number of enzymes and proteins responsible for breaking down energy that we receive from food. L-Carnitine is an amino acid that helps transport various fats through the mitochondria to be broken down into small molecules that the mitochondria can use to power the cell. In addition, the molecular structure of L-Carnitine enables to it bind to ROS and radicals making it also an antioxidant.
How it helps fertility: Cellular division requires a lot of energy. Germ cells in the testicles are constantly dividing to form new sperm. With decreased energy, they are not able to divide as well or as rapidly. L-Carnitine also helps ensure baby sperm are safe by protecting them from ROS an radicals which could interrupt their development.
Sources of L-Carnitine:
- Yourself: you make it in your liver and kidney
- Meat: Beef, Pork, Chicken
- Dairy: Milk and Cheese
- Vegetables: Avocado, asparagus
What it is: Selenium is a mineral that is found in the ground that is primary used for making glass and electronics. In large doses, it is toxic, but in small doses it is an essential nutrient vital for normal endocrine processes as well as providing protection against certain environmental pollutants.
How it works: Like many key nutrients, Selenium does a couple of things. First, it is involved in a number of thyroid processes which help regulate hormones in the body. Second, it has strong antioxidant properties. Third, it plays a critical role in the structural development of sperm.
How it helps fertility: The thyroid plays a critical role in setting your metabolism and determining how sensitive your body is to various hormones. In men, poorly functioning thyroid glands can lead to an increase in prolactin which can interrupt the hormonal signals for proper sperm production. Selenium helps with a number of molecular processes within the thyroid to ensure that is functions properly.
Another role selenium plays in strengthening male fertility is it actually supports the structural integrity of the sperm by reinforcing the neck piece that connects the head and tail. Stronger necks enable more sperm to maintain motility, live longer and swim better.
Because of the important structural role that selenium plays in sperm, in cases where there is a selenium deficiency the body prioritizes its role in the thyroid and in sperm, lowering concentrations in seminal fluids. Reduced selenium concentration in semen has been shown to correlate with reduced motility. This again is due to its role as an antioxidant which protects sperm from reactive molecules in semen and helps them live longer.
Sources of Selenium
- Brazil nuts have the highest natural concentration of any food. The amount of selenium found in them varies as it is absorbed by the tree directly
- Seafood: halibut, tuna, cod, shrimp, sardines, salmon, scallops, oysters, squid, octopus, clams
- Meat: Pork, Beef, Lamb, Turkey, chicken
- Mushrooms: Crimini, Portabella, Shiitake
What it is: A fat-soluble vitamin that is naturally produced by many plants.
How it works: Fats are broken down into smaller pieces to create energy for cells. During that process, small pieces of reactive oxygen species (ROS) are expelled as a by-product. This is a similar process to how fuel is burned for energy. Small molecules of carbon monoxide are left over and expelled as part of the reaction. Because vitamin E is fat-soluable it easily mixes with fats and is nearby when they are converted into energy. Its molecular structure allows it to bind easily to several ROS molecules at once and safely carry them away, keeping them from damaging surrounding cells.
How it helps sperm: The process of creating and maturing sperm takes a lot of cellular energy. Additionally, as mentioned above, sperm are swimmers and therefore use more energy than typical cells. Because of this, there is a high need for antioxidants to keep sperm production high and keep sperm healthy.
Sources of Vitamin E
- Oils: Olive Oil, Wheat Germ, Sunflower, Grapeseed
- Nuts: Almonds, Hazelnuts, Sunflower seeds,
- Greens: Spinach, Swiss Chard, Turnip Greens,
- Vegetables: Avocados, broccoli, squash, pumpkin
- Fish: Shrimp, Oysters, Rainbow Trout, Swordfish, Salmon
What it is: Also known as ascorbic-acid is commonly used as a preservative to prevent fresh foods from oxidizing (think of apples turning brown). This molecule is essential for a number of cellular processes. For this reason, most animals have the ability to produce it. Humans and monkeys however have lost this ability and therefore need dietary sources to ensure proper functioning of the body. Vitamin C deficiency causes scurvy.
How it works: Vitamin C plays important roles all over the body. Among other things, it is used by the liver and kidneys to generate critical amino acids including carnitine which can play an important role in sperm production. Like more of the molecules listed, vitamin C is an antioxidant and deals with the waste products of cellular energy creation. It is also a pro-oxidant which helps remove excess metals and toxins and improve the absorption of certain minerals. It strengthens the immune system’s ability to respond to infection and surprisingly is a natural antihistamine.
How it helps fertility: Vitamin C does a lot to keep you healthy, which in itself goes a long way in promoting fertility. It also specifically promotes sperm health through enabling the creation of key amino acids required for sperm production (such as carnitine). It also protects sperm against a number of internal and external toxins which in turn improves motility, morphology and DNA integrity.
- Fruit: Papaya, Strawberries, Pineapple, Oranges, Kiwi, Cantalope
- Vegetables: Bell peppers, brussel sprouts, kale
What it is: The 24th most abundant mineral found in the earth’s crust which is commonly used in batteries and combined with copper to produce brass. Zinc is an essential mineral for human health and nearly 2 billion people suffer from zinc deficiencies which can cause retardation, delayed sexual maturation, susceptibility to infection and diarrhea.
How it works: Zinc forms the base of nearly 100 specific enzymes in the body which means that is one of the chemical bases that our bodies are built out of. Zinc is distributed all over the body but the highest concentrations are in the eye, the prostate and semen demonstrating its critical role in men’s health.
How it helps sperm: Zinc is critical for male fertility in many ways. It helps with the synthesis of folate which is critical for DNA production. It is also a building block of testosterone, semen, the prostate and even sperm themselves.
Sources of zinc:
- Meat: Lamb, beef, turkey
- Seafood: Shrimp, oysters, scallops
- Seeds: pumpkin, sesame
To learn more about how your diet impacts your fertility check out our other articles
- The biology behind how diet influences sperm health
- The Top 12 Fertility Superfoods
- Recipes for a healthy and delicious path to fertility
- Reactive oxygen species and sperm function–in sickness and in health. Aitken RJ, Jones KT, Robertson SA. J Androl. 2012 Nov-Dec;33(6):1096-106. doi: 10.2164/jandrol.112.016535. Epub 2012 Aug 9.
- Oxidative stress and male infertility–a clinical perspective. Tremellen K. Hum Reprod Update. 2008 May-Jun;14(3):243-58. doi: 10.1093/humupd/dmn004. Epub 2008 Feb 14.
- Tissue physiology and pathology of aromatase. Stocco C. Steroids. 2012 Jan;77(1-2):27-35. doi: 10.1016/j.steroids.2011.10.013. Epub 2011 Nov 13.
- Male factor subfertility: possible causes and the impact of nutritional factors. Wong WY, Thomas CM, Merkus JM, Zielhuis GA, Steegers-Theunissen RP. Fertil Steril. 2000 Mar;73(3):435-42.
- Male infertility: nutritional and environmental considerations. Sinclair S. Altern Med Rev. 2000 Feb;5(1):28-38.
- Impact of folate and homocysteine metabolism on human reproductive health. Forges T, Monnier-Barbarino P, Alberto JM, Guéant-Rodriguez RM, Daval JL, Guéant JL. Hum Reprod Update. 2007 May-Jun;13(3):225-38. Epub 2007 Feb 16.
- The importance of folate, zinc and antioxidants in the pathogenesis and prevention of subfertility. Ebisch IM, Thomas CM, Peters WH, Braat DD, Steegers-Theunissen RP. Hum Reprod Update. 2007 Mar-Apr;13(2):163-74. Epub 2006 Nov 11.
- Coenzyme Q(10) in male infertility: physiopathology and therapy. Mancini A, Balercia G. Biofactors. 2011 Sep-Oct;37(5):374-80. doi: 10.1002/biof.164. Epub 2011 Oct 11.
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids in male and female reproduction. Wathes DC, Abayasekara DR, Aitken RJ. Biol Reprod. 2007 Aug;77(2):190-201. Epub 2007 Apr 18.