Sperm Quality: Why It’s Important And How To Improve It

Group of sperm cells displaying characteristics of good sperm quality

What is Sperm Quality?

Sperm Quality refers to sperm’s overall health and its ability to fertilize an egg. Many factors influence fertilization, such as sperm motility, sperm morphology, and the integrity of the sperm’s genetic material.

Sperm Motility

Sperm’s motility refers to its ability to move (or “swim”) through the female reproductive tract in order to fertilize an egg.

The ideal type of movement that is looked for in sperm quality tests is called “progressive motility”. Progressive motility refers to when the sperm move in either straight lines or large circles, rather than small, narrow circles or irregular pathways.

Sperm quality is significantly impacted by the sperm’s level of progressive motility.

Sperm Morphology

Another critical aspect of sperm quality is morphology, which refers to the sperm’s shape or structure. To assess a sperm’s morphology, the following anatomical features are examined:

  • The sperm’s tail, which enables it to swim towards the egg.
  • The sperm’s body, called the midpiece, which contains mitochondria that help propel the movement of the sperm.
  • The sperm’s head is where the all-important genetic material is found. Additionally, there is a small structure located at the tip of the head called the acrosomal vesicle. The acrosomal vesicle is packed with enzymes that aid the sperm in penetrating the egg by digesting proteins and sugars on the egg’s surface.

The condition of a sperm’s morphology is crucial since it affects a sperm’s ability to travel to, penetrate and fertilize the egg.

DNA Fragmentation

Most cells in the human body are classified as “diploid”, meaning they are comprised of 23 chromosome pairs (or a total of 46 chromosomes). Chromosomes are DNA molecules, and DNA is the genetic material which “programs” all growth and development in the human body.

However, a sperm cell is a “haploid” cell, which means it has only half the number of human chromosomes as a normal cell (23 in total). The woman’s egg has the other half. When combined, they create a fully functioning cell with 46 chromosomes.

Naturally, this means that the integrity of the sperm’s genetic material that is transported is crucial for fertilization to occur, as well as for normal embryonic development. In some circumstances, the sperm’s DNA can be damaged, altered or otherwise abnormal. This is referred to as DNA fragmentation.

Lower fertility in men is directly linked to DNA fragmentation. Additionally, it is also associated with recurrent pregnancy loss, which is when two or more miscarriages occur consecutively.

A number of factors can contribute to DNA fragmentation, including a man’s age, illness and/or prolonged fever, smoking, and exposure to toxic substances.

Sperm Quality vs. Sperm Count/Concentration

One crucial aspect when it comes to male fertility is the number of sperm in the semen, measured as sperm count and sperm concentration.

Sperm concentration, also known as sperm density, refers to the number of sperm located in one milliliter of a sample of semen.

The sperm count refers to the total number of sperm within an entire semen sample. In order to calculate the sperm count, the sperm concentration is multiplied by the total volume of the sample.

For example, 1 mL of semen that contains a concentration of 15,000,000 sperm would give a total sperm count of around 45 million for a sample of semen that is 3 mL .

However, sperm quality and sperm quantity are two completely different types of measurement. Even with a high sperm count, there could still be problems with fertility if those sperm are abnormally shaped, can’t swim well, or if they are carrying damaged genetic material.

Even so, low sperm counts and problems with sperm quality can both be affected by the same factors, such as age, hormonal imbalances, smoking, poor diet, or exposure to toxic substances.

What Factors Affect Sperm Quality?

Here are only a few of many factors that can impact sperm quality.

Age

A man’s age plays a significant role in sperm quality. Research indicates that sperm motility may be reduced by 0.8% for every year of a man’s age. Compared to the motility of sperm of men aged 30-35, those over 55 had a 54% reduction in sperm motility.

Research also suggests that sperm morphology decreases by 0.65% for every year of a man’s age.

Older men’s sperm is more likely have more DNA fragmentation and genetic mutations that could lead to autism, schizophrenia, and other mental disorders. Research indicates that sperm DNA fragmentation increases by 0.3% for every year of a man’s age.

Lifestyle Choices

There are a wide range of lifestyle factors that can influence sperm quality, such as:

  • Smoking, alcohol and drug use,
  • Poor Diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • Inadequate sleep
  • Being overweight
  • Psychological stress
  • Prolonged heat exposure (for example, wearing tight-fitting underwear or using a hot tub)

Fortunately, however, your body is making sperm all the time. By making positive changes to your lifestyle now, you can see improvements in sperm quality in just 2-3 months.

Medications

Some medications can have a negative effect on sperm quality and production. Some examples include:

  • TRT (testosterone replacement therapy)
  • Anabolic steroids
  • Antidepressants
  • Chemotherapy drugs
  • Opiates

The type of medication, dosage and length of use are all factors that can play a role into whether this effect is reversible.

Health Conditions

Recently having had an illness, infection, or fever may also affect sperm quality. The majority of the time the sperm quality is only affected temporarily.

Exposure to Toxins

It is known that certain chemicals can affect sperm quality. Some of these toxins include:

  • Lead
  • Pesticides
  • Hydrocarbons
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Cadmium
  • Diesel exhaust
  • Petrochemicals
  • Solvents

Men who have prolonged exposure to these toxins are twice as likely to have fertility problems as men who haven’t been exposed.

Although toxins found in household products can also cause damage, they are more likely to be harmful due to long-term exposure. This would primarily pertain to those who have an occupational exposure to toxins. In general, those who work with herbicides, in plastic manufacturing, and the military have lower sperm quality.

Testing For Sperm Quality

A semen analysis can test sperm quality by measuring motility and morphology, and it can also measure sperm count and concentration as well.

Testing is performed by providing a sample of semen to a laboratory. The sample will then be examined to determine your sperm concentration, morphology, and motility.

You can have the test done at a fertility clinic, a urologist’s office, or from your home using a home sperm test kit. Your semen analysis results will indicate which of your sperm quality parameters are within the normal range and those which are not (if any).

DNA Fragmentation Testing

Although DNA fragmentation is an aspect of sperm quality, the genetic health of your sperm isn’t usually tested by a typical semen analysis. To evaluate the amount of sperm DNA fragmentation, a more detailed test is necessary.

Talk to your doctor or fertility specialist about having this testing performed, especially if you are in a high-risk category.

How To Improve Sperm Quality

There are a number of relatively simple changes to your lifestyle that can result in better sperm and semen quality, and an increased sperm count.

Exercise

Basic low-intensity exercise such as walking, jogging or cycling can have a significant beneficial effect on sperm quality and quantity.

Eat A Healthy Diet

Your diet can have a definite impact on your sperm quality. Adopting a balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals is the best way to eat to improve sperm quality. Be sure to focus on eating the following foods:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables, particularly leafy greens
  • Fish/seafood
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Healthy monounsaturated fats (such as olive and avocado oil)

Consume these less frequently:

  • Foods containing soy
  • Fatty meats
  • Caffeine

And avoid these as much as possible:

  • Refined Sugar
  • Trans fats
  • Processed meats

Stop Smoking and Cut Back On Alcohol

Smoking can have a particularly negative impact on sperm morphology and cause genetic defects that reduce sperm quality.

Additionally, consuming more than 7 drinks per week can reduce testosterone production and adversely impact all aspects of sperm health, including sperm count and concentration, and sperm morphology.

Get An Adequate Amount Of Sleep

Prolonged sleep deprivation of less than 6-7 hours per night can decrease testosterone levels, reduce sperm count and motility, and increase the amount of anti-sperm antibodies. This could further damage your sperm and reduce sperm quality, lowering your chances of getting pregnant.

Avoid Using Certain Drugs

Certain drugs interfere with sperm health and should be avoided if you are concerned about your fertility. These include testosterone, anabolic steroids, SSRIs, chemotherapy drugs, opiates and NSAIDs, among others.

Take Male Fertility Supplements To Boost Sperm Quality

A number of supplements have been shown to improve sperm quality, increase sperm count and boost testosterone levels. Learn more about supplements for sperm count and male fertility.

After implementing changes to your lifestyle, you will need to test again with another semen analysis to see if you have made an improvement in sperm quality. Keep in mind that sperm production can take up to 90 days, so you’ll need to maintain your lifestyle changes for at least 2-3 months before you retest for sperm quality

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