Let’s talk about sperm.
It takes just one of these little guys to create a baby, so why must men produce so many sperm and why must they be the right shape?
In the UK alone, one in six couples will experience difficulty in conceiving, and it is estimated around 20-25%* cases of infertility are a result of a male fertility issue. In men, the most common cause of infertility is abnormal semen. If a man ejaculates a low quantity of sperm or they are of a poor quality, then it will be difficult or sometimes impossible, for him to cause a pregnancy.
Want to know more? We have the low-down on all you need to know about these little swimmers.
How long can sperm live for?
An egg lives for around 12-24 hours after it is released and if you are trying to conceive, then a sperm must fertilise the egg within this time frame.
Sperm can live inside your body for up to seven days, so it is possible for an egg to be fertilised by sperm that has been in the body before the egg has been released.
Outside the body, sperm survival depends a lot on the environment. On dry surfaces such as bed linen or clothing, sperm will die before the semen is dry. Sperm thrive in wet conditions, so they can survive slightly longer in a warm bath or a hot tub, but the chances of becoming pregnant this way are very slim.
What is a semen analysis?
A semen analysis is the most common test used to determine a man’s fertility levels. The test provides information about the characteristics of the sperm itself and the semen, the fluid in which the sperm are contained.
Normally performed on semen ejaculated in to a cup, a semen analysis will determine whether a man might be infertile. A doctor will analyse the quantity of sperm, motility of the sperm and the morphology of the sperm. If one or more of these three parameters are abnormal, it indicates the sperm is functioning abnormally.
What happens if I have a low sperm count?
A doctor will determine sperm quantity by examining the semen under a microscope or in some cases a computer will be used to measure the amount of sperm present in a sample.
A low sperm count is defined as fewer than 15 million sperm per millilitre of semen. Medically referred to as oligozoospermia, a low sperm count affects up to one fifth of men**, and the chances of a couple conceiving naturally decreases if a man is diagnosed with a low sperm count.
Often, there are no causes for a low sperm count, but several genetic and non-genetic conditions have been associated with low quantities, including:
- Hormone imbalances in the testes
- Scarring from previous surgery or infections that have blocked the tubes for sperm to swim through
- Regular exposure to harmful chemicals such as pesticides
- Excessive use of drugs, such as marijuana
What happens if I have low sperm motility?
With sperm, movement also matters. To reach the egg, sperm need to swim through a woman’s cervix, uterus and fallopian tubes. A semen analysis will look at the way a man’s sperm moves and the percentage of live sperm present.
A doctor will grade sperm on their ability to swim and if they are moving in the correct direction, i.e. moving forward and not around in circles. When determining sperm motility, The World Health Organisation considers ‘normal’ sperm motility to be around 60% or higher.
It is important to bear in mind that a man might have a high sperm count, but if his motility is low, then this may still hinder a couple’s ability to conceive.
Ok, explain to me what sperm morphology means?
Morphology simply refers to the shape of the sperm. During semen analysis, a doctor will assess sperm morphology, and report the percentage of normal sperm along with the amount of sperm exhibiting head, mid-piece or tail defects.
Surprisingly, very often only a small amount of sperm are classified as normal. In fact, a semen sample is considered morphologically normal if more than 4% of the sperm meet the normal criteria (based on Kruger’s Strict benchmarks). However, the more sperm you have that also have high levels of motility, the more likely it is that you will successfully fertilise an egg.
What does a normal-shaped sperm look like?
A normal sperm will have a smooth, oval head with a cap-like structure at the end called the acrosome, this will cover 40% to 70% of the sperm head. There will also be a mid-piece section and a tail on the sperm, with no visible abnormalities such as fluid droplets in the sperm head bigger than the size of the sperm head.
Having abnormally shaped sperm, known as teratozoospermia, can make it harder for sperm to move and fertilise an egg. However, it is likely that some of the sperm that are classified as ‘abnormal’ may actually function normally.
Is there anything I can do to improve the health of my sperm?
There are a number of factors that can improve the health of a man’s sperm.
Maintain a healthy weight. Men who are overweight or underweight have been linked with low sperm counts.
Ensure your diet is rich in antioxidants. By eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, you are helping your body get all the right nutrients it needs to produce heathy sperm.
Both zinc and selenium play an important role in sperm motility. Include red meat, oysters and beans all contain high levels of zinc, while selenium can be found in Brazil nuts, fish and eggs.
Quit smoking. The harmful substances in tobacco or recreational drugs have been shown to damage sperm DNA which can affect the shape of a man’s sperm.
Are there any dietary supplements or vitamins that I can take to improve the health of my sperm?
Often it can be difficult to get the optimum amount of nutrients and vitamins necessary to aid our fertility directly through our diet.
There are a range of vitamin supplements available from fertility expert, Zita West which have been specially formulated to help support male fertility and improve sperm quality.
We would recommend the following:
Specially formulate to help support male fertility, Vitamen contains Selenium and Zinc which are vital minerals for healthy spermatogenesis and sperm motility.
Designed to work in combination with Vitamen, Vitamen Boost is a premium quality antioxidant booster that will help protect sperm DNA.
This supplement has been designed to help protect both partners’ DNA from oxidative damage. For males, Vital DHA contains Omega 3 essential fatty acids and zinc which helps support the production of healthy sperm.
If you or your partner have concerns about your sperm count, don’t feel alone. Try seeking medical advice from your doctor who will be able to carry out a semen analysis and determine whether you have a low sperm count, low sperm mobility or abnormally shaped sperm.