By Julia SeidlUpdated Nov 29, 2021
We hate to hurt their egos, but modern men’s sperm are coming up short. According to a 2017 study by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, sperm counts among Western men have dropped more than 50 percent in the past 40 years. While scientists can’t pinpoint an exact explanation, studies have shown that certain lifestyle factors play a large role in a man’s sperm count. The good news is that, most of the time, those levels aren’t permanent.
“Normal sperm production takes 60 to 90 days,” says Ari Baratz, a fertility doctor at Create Fertility Centre in Toronto. That means the effects of poor lifestyle choices can be reversed in just two or three months. Here are some of the most common behaviours responsible for lowering his sperm count and what to do about them.
It’s a misconception that men have to save up sperm when it’s baby-making time. In fact, frequent sexual activity is important for sperm health. “If the body isn’t getting the message to produce sperm, it won’t produce as much,” says Baratz. “Essentially, use it or lose it.” Health experts recommend that males ejaculate once or twice a week to maintain production.
Research has shown that moderate caffeine consumption has no negative influence on sperm count or quality, but reasonable consumption is 300 milligrams, or only about two cups of coffee, says Caitlin Dunne, a fertility doctor at the Pacific Centre for Reproductive Medicine in Vancouver. For guys who really love their Starbucks, the excess caffeine could have an adverse effect. A 2017 study in Nutrition Journal revealed that men who drink more than four cups of coffee a day have a higher proportion of abnormally shaped sperm.
Exposure to heat is known to affect sperm production. Saunas, hot tubs and even heated car seats are all culprits, but one of the most common sources of heat is laptops. “Laptop computers can literally cook the sperm,” says Baratz. Occasional use isn’t a problem, but working with a laptop on his lap all day or every day can affect sperm, says Dunne. Give him a pillow or tabletop to place his computer on instead. It’s also worth noting that certain occupations that involve heat, such as working as a chef in a hot kitchen or as a firefighter in a non-breathable uniform, can have a negative effect on sperm count.
Smoking either tobacco or marijuana may reduce sperm count, efficacy and quality, says Baratz. “Toxins and contaminants make their way from the lungs through the circulatory system to the testicles,” says Baratz. A 2015 study in Postgraduate Medical Journal revealed that cigarette smoke can lower sperm count by as much as 17.5 percent. According to a 2015 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, smoking marijuana more than once a week has been linked to a 28 percent lower sperm concentration. But simply stopping smoking can have an effect on sperm count within a couple of months.
It’s difficult to quantify the effects of stress due to its subjective nature, but fertility experts in general recommend that men try to reduce it. Researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that men who feel stressed are more likely to have lower concentrations of sperm. Stress leads to increased levels of the hormone glucocorticoid, which can have a negative effect on the production of testosterone and sperm. Taking anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants can worsen the problem. “Certain medications can lead to erectile dysfunction and affect the amount of ejaculate,” says Dunne. Experts recommended natural stress-busting activities like massage, yoga and acupuncture.
Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark found that as a male’s body mass index (BMI) increases, his sperm count decreases. Even slightly overweight men with a BMI of 25 can have a 22 percent lower sperm count. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is one way to fight off those extra pounds and may help sperm in more ways than one, says Baratz. “There are many vitamins in fruits and veggies that have been found to improve the quality of sperm, including vitamins C and E, selenium and zinc."
Underwear or any clothing that hugs the scrotal sac close to the body is not recommended. “The ideal temperature for sperm production is a few degrees lower than body temperature, which is why the testicles sit where they do,” says Baratz. When they’re held too close to the body, the testicles can’t regulate temperature to allow for healthy sperm production.
When consumed in high doses, alcohol can affect the ability of the testes to produce sperm. That said, moderate consumption of red wine (14 drinks or less per week, and not more than two or three at a time) may actually have a protective effect on sperm. The antioxidants found in red wine can help reduce sperm’s exposure to free radicals, which can damage cells and DNA, says Dunne.
Long considered an important part of female prenatal health, folic acid is now being investigated for its ability to augment sperm quality. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that men who consumed a higher daily amount of folic acid than recommended had abnormal sperm less frequently. According to Baratz, new research suggests that folic acid may also affect the health of future generations. “We think that nutrients like folic acid on the male side may influence how complex conditions like cardiac disease, diabetes, autism, mood disorders and maybe even cancers are inherited,” says Baratz.