Male fertility 101: How to optimize sperm count and your baby’s DNA

Men's Health

by Biren Patel, MD

Aug 11, 2022

Historically, the focus of infertility care and fertility discussions has been solely on the female, but over the last 10 years, we’ve seen more and more attention being paid to the male partner. And with good reason—the male contribution to a successful pregnancy is immense. 

Think about it. Half the baby’s DNA, which many consider the blueprint of life, comes from the dad. We are learning more and more with each day, but it is already obvious that a healthy man is more likely to make healthy sperm and by extension, have healthy offspring.

If you’re planning for pregnancy or trying to conceive, don’t overlook the importance of the father’s health and fertility in the equation. Here’s what you need to know to optimize sperm health and your baby’s DNA.

What makes healthy sperm?

Sperm goes through a long maturation process and reflects the fitness of the man for the past several months. Disease, stress and diet influence the quality of the sperm and the integrity of its DNA. An egg fertilized by damaged DNA can potentially cause unhealthy pregnancies and lead to poorer outcomes for the baby.

A man’s semen analysis should show a high sperm count, excellent shape and robust movement. 

How to improve sperm health

Fortunately, there is a lot a man can do to influence his sperm! The biggest factors are diet, weight, exercise and mental health. Here are a few simple tips to focus on during the time leading up to conception.

  • Make time for aerobic exercise for 20-30 minutes several times a week. Try running or jogging, jumping rope, swimming or kickboxing. The best activity is one you enjoy and are more likely to continue on a regular basis.
  • Eat a balanced, nutritious diet. Focus on getting at least five servings of fruits and veggies every day, in addition to healthy proteins and high-fiber foods. Avoid highly processed foods and those high in added sugar.
  • Keep a healthy weight. Talk to your doctor if you’re worried about your weight.
  • Remove unhealthy stressors and practice stress management. You might try yoga, journaling, meditation, deep breathing or any other daily practice that helps you unwind.

On the flip side, there are negative actions you should avoid while trying to conceive. These have all have been shown to damage not just our bodies, but also our sperm—and, of course, the DNA we pass on to our children. These habits include:

  • Smoking
  • Drinking
  • Drug use
  • Exposure to environmental toxins (pollutants, chemicals, pesticides, etc.)

In fact, a new field has been making a lot of noise in the news. It is called epigenetics, the study of how our lifestyles influence our DNA expression and how this can be transmitted down the generations. We are slowly learning that the lifestyle of the parents at the time of conception can have a lasting influence on the health and behavior of their children. There may be some truth to the adage, “A child conceived in love has a greater chance of happiness.”

It goes without saying that having sexual intercourse often is important when you’re trying to conceive, but make sure your partner is also tracking her ovulation patterns so you know when she is most fertile. In general, sex every other day is just as good as daily for pregnancy rates and without the forced stress of having to perform every day. 

Be careful when using lubricants. Certain water-based lubricants, olive oil, sesame oil and saliva can greatly diminish sperm motility. Canola oil, however, has been shown have no detrimental effect on sperm movement.

What about medications and supplements?

Vitamins and antioxidants are all the rage now on fertility message boards and social media. But you may not need them if you follow the positive and avoid the negative actions outlined above. Ask your doctor about any specific supplements you are taking or would like to start taking while trying to conceive.

Men should absolutely review their medications as they begin to plan for a child. Certain medications can seriously damage sperm or reduce counts.

When to seek help for fertility challenges

As we move into the future, we are learning more and more about how important the male contribution to their offspring is. Living a healthy life is the best way to conceive naturally and give your child the best chance at a healthy life.

However, fertility challenges do happen, sometimes for reasons that are impossible for you to know without specialized testing. If the female partner is less than 35 years old and has regular menstrual periods, the couple should seek fertility testing if they do not conceive within 12 months (and only six months if the female is 35 years old or over). 

Part of the evaluation will include a semen analysis, but don’t stress about it. If the semen analysis is normal, that is a great sign of a healthy body. If it comes back abnormal, please don’t worry—it’s an opportunity to improve something that may have a big impact on your health and the health of future generations of your family.

Next steps

About the Author

Biren Patel, MD, is an OBGYN and reproductive endocrinology specialist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center – Fort Worth.

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