My wife and I have been trying to conceive for a little less than a year with no luck. When such a situation occurs, you inevitably start asking yourself the hard questions: Is it her? Is it me?
You also, inevitably, as I did, start thinking about your balls — and your sperm count — a lot. Did I take too many taps to the nuts in college? I wondered. Did I heat up my boys too many times by resting my computer on my lap? Do I need to change my underwear?
Our primary care physician suggested we hold off on any drastic measures for a full year before doing a deep dive on our own fertility. So I held off doing anything rash. But, I did want to learn all I could about what might be a contributing factor. And, let me tell you, based on correlating the facts at hand about what can affect your sperm count with my own lifestyle, I can tell that I’m at least part (if not all) of the problem.
Statistically, many men probably are, too. Men are responsible for 50 percent of all fertility issues — and not just because sperm are half the equation when it comes to making a baby. According to several long-term studies, average sperm counts are way down across the western hemisphere. That’s where I live, I thought to myself upon reading the statistic. This is already looking grim.
When such a situation occurs, you inevitably start asking yourself the hard questions: Is it her? Is it me? You also, inevitably start thinking about your balls a lot.
Concerned, I called up Dr. Mehran Movassaghi. A urologist and men’s health specialist at Providence St John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, has decades of experience as a men’s health expert and regularly walks men through best practices for sperm health. Consider him the Virgil to my Dante on this sperm quest.
“Generally, western society is more stressful to a man,” says Dr. Movassaghi. “There are a lot more physical stressors that can cause damage to the testicle itself or the body in general that can lead to lower sperm count and bad motility.”
Though certainly a calming presence on the phone, Dr. Movassaghi did little to put my mind at ease. As he began rattling off the many factors that play into a man’s sperm count, I wrote down each one I felt applied. The food you eat. The amount of alcohol you drink. Whether or not you enjoy a jacuzzi or keep your cell phone in your front pocket. By the time Dr. Movassaghi said “overall stress, cortisol levels being elevated, sleep not being ideal,” I’d added “This Phone Call” to the growing list of things that were bad for my soldiers.
But, as another type of soldiers once said: “Knowing is half the battle,” so I wanted to be informed of all the lifestyle choices that could help my situation — and potentially yours — and make a change. So, as sharing knowledge is also part of the battle, here’s what I’ve learned. The list is long, so you might want to read this on your phone while walking because prolonged sitting is — you guessed it — bad for your sperm.
None Like it Hot
Sperm are incredibly sensitive to heat, which you may recall from 6th grade sex ed class is the only reason your scrotum exists.
“The testicles live in a place that’s two degrees cooler than the rest of your body — that’s why your scrotum is the way it is,” says Dr. Movassaghi. The upshot here is that if you’re heating your bean bag, you’re defeating the purpose of having one in the first place. “Jacuzzis, hot tubs, saunas — these are all bad.” So is anything else that might raise the temperature of your testicles.
A good rule to follow is if it feels warm on your crotch, it’s probably bad for your balls. Research also suggests that keeping your cell phone out of your front pocket is better for your sperm count, and some theories hold it’s because carrying your iPhone in this fashion is akin to keeping a tiny space heater in your pants. Other theories suggest a mobile device’s constant barrage of radio frequency waves, a form of non-ionic radiation, could also be bad for sperm development.
Sperm counts tend to be higher overall in the winter than in the summertime, but since you can’t control the seasons you can choose to engage in a technique called “testicular cooling,” which is to say, “putting your nuts on ice.”
This explanation sounds plausible and terrifying enough on its own for me to skip out on carrying my phone by balls for the rest of time, with the possible sperm-warming aspect of the whole thing as the camel-breaking straw. I now carry my phone in my back pocket or my jacket/coat if I’m wearing one.
Just as warming your junk is bad, cooling it off can be good. Sperm counts tend to be higher overall in the winter than in the summertime, but since you can’t control the seasons you can choose to engage in a technique called “testicular cooling,” which is to say, “putting your nuts on ice.”
Research dating as far back as the 1960s shows that when you lower the temperature of your testicles by five or more degrees for a prolonged period, your sperm count may increase in as little as two weeks. In some cases, they tripled. Scrotal temperature can be lowered any number of ways, including taking a cold shower, sitting on a bag of frozen green beans for a half hour, or using products specifically designed to help your boys chill out, such as Snowballs (a pair of boxer briefs with built-in ice pack pockets). There’s also the uBreeze, which is, um, a portable fan for your pants.
Boxers or Briefs Don’t Matter. Just Don’t Wear Bike Shorts
Conversations around testicular temperature are largely responsible for the age-old “boxers vs. briefs” debate. But according to Dr. Movassaghi, this debate is largely settled, and neither side won: “There’s no difference between boxers or briefs. The muscles in the scrotal walls — the cremaster muscles — move the scrotum up and down, and they have room to make space in both boxers and briefs.”
So, your underwear choice is therefore not a positive or negative factor in your sperm count. However, per Dr. Movassaghi, one exception does apply: compression or bike shorts. These especially tight drawers are designed to keep your whole situation from moving and the ability to move is one of the major purposes of your scrotum. Bike shorts may also be a bad idea because wearing them implies you plan on riding a bike. Cycling is, undoubtedly, a wonderful workout, but studies (and, you know, experience) suggest bicycle seats put undue stress on your testicles and perineum, and that frequent and/or lengthy bike rides can lead to a decrease in sperm production.
The Standing Rule
Cycling aside, you obviously should find ways to get moving. According to a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, men who (like me and, I’m guessing, you) watch more than 20 hours of television per week had sperm counts that were 44 percent lower than those who watched little TV. So, aside from cycling, what sorts of exercise are positive for sperm production? Make like a bodybuilder. “If you do bodybuilding/large muscle exercises, like working out your legs, you can increase your testosterone and make your testicles work harder, which can improve your semen analysis,” says Dr. Movassaghi. Squats, deadlifts, and full-body exercises such as burpees or man makers are proven to increase strength as well as testosterone levels.
Men who watch more than 20 hours of television per week had sperm counts that were 44 percent lower than those who watched little TV.
Just Relax, Okay?
Speaking of testosterone, another factor researchers have uncovered is that increased levels of the stress-hormone cortisol can have a direct impact on a man’s T levels. Low testosterone means decreased sperm production, which means high stress is bad for your numbers. A study published in the Malawi Medical Journal, for example, showed when stressful exams rolled around sperm counts among med students dropped by nearly 30 percent from their start-of-the-semester levels.
Consider Job Factors
Work certainly adds more stress to your life. But that isn’t the only job-related consideration when it comes to your sperm quality. Certain careers put men at risk for lower numbers because they expose you to toxins and chemicals in the case of construction workers, miners, mechanics, or exterminators. Also those that force you to sit like a blob in front of a computer all day in the case of data-entry or IT types, or, in my case, writers.
“There’s no difference between boxers or briefs. The muscles in the scrotal walls — the cremaster muscles — move the scrotum up and down, and they have room to make space in both boxers and briefs.”
Get Your Vitamin ZZZs
It’s as simple as this: “If you’re getting less than six hours of sleep per night you’ll have less quality sperm,” says Dr. Movassaghi.
Kick the Bad Habits
It’s no surprise that bad habits yield bad sperm. But, per Dr. Mvassaghi, it bears repeating. “Smoking cigarettes is bad. Heavy alcohol use is bad. Marijuana use is linked to poor sperm health.”
Cigarettes are terrible for you in general, but especially if you’re trying to conceive. Smoking has a proven negative impact on nearly every element of your semen analysis and in one study it was revealed secondhand smoke can lower the amount of retrievable eggs in an IVF cycle by more than 40 percent.
In terms of alcohol? A study published in BMJ Open in 2014 revealed that as few as five drinks per week could impact sperm quality. And, while marijuana isn’t as severe, a 2016 study revealed that THC, the cannabinoid in pot that gets you high, has the inverse effect on your sperm count, lowering numbers by as much as 29 percent.
Even coffee should be viewed as an enemy in your quest to increase ranks in your army of swimmers. “Up to two cups or two espressos a day should be fine, but if you’re drinking a shot every two-to-three hours that’s a problem,” says Dr. Movassaghi, who notes staying properly hydrated is among the easiest way to improve your overall sperm quality.
Mind Your Diet
Pretty much anything you ingest is going to have an impact on your sperm. If you’re trying to create super sperm, look no further than superfoods as your dietary building blocks.
“Antioxidants are great; nuts, blueberries. Anything that’s part of the ‘Mediterranean diet,’” says Dr. Movassaghi. Foods that are high in vitamins A, B, C and E or that contain minerals such as selenium and zinc are great for sperm, so Dr. Movassaghi says to create full meals featuring lean beef, poultry, or seafood with sides that include avocados, asparagus, broccoli or other good green things.
In terms of what to avoid? Fried food and fast food. Men with a high saturated fat intake had 31 percent lower sperm concentration than guys who ate better. And, despite the commitment you made to each other long ago, bacon will also turn on you if you’re trying to increase your sperm count.
“Any processed meat in general is not good,” says Dr. Movassaghi. “There is a lot of oxidative stress it can cause to your body.” Food or drinks with excess sugar are also problematic, as they could lead to a spike in your insulin levels, which in turn increases levels of aromatase, an enzyme that converts testosterone into estrogen.
Have Sex, But Not All The Time
Dr. Movassaghi recommends that any man who’s hoping to increase his sperm count have sex (or lend themselves a hand) three to four times per week: “If you’re saying ‘I’m a guy, my wife and I are thinking of trying for a kid in the next six months and I want to be at my top, peak performance’ then I would say ejaculating three-to-four times a week, either through masturbation or through sex, is optimal.”
“There is the idea of ‘if you don’t use it you lose it,’ in the body, and this is one of those cases, because your sperm does have a shelf life.”
That said, when you do decide you’re ready to start trying, Dr. Movassaghi says don’t feel like you need to over do it.
“Your body can only produce a certain amount of sperm,” he says. “The average life cycle is 72 days. It’s stored in the seminal vesicles, and mixes with fluid in the prostate and then comes out. If you’re having sex multiple times per day you’ll notice the amount of ejaculate starts to decrease. That doesn’t increase your chances because you could at some point start shooting blanks.”
In terms of peak sperm count performance, there’s also such a thing as under-doing it. “There is the idea of ‘if you don’t use it you lose it,’ in the body, and this is one of those cases, because your sperm does have a shelf life,” says Dr. Movassaghi. “You’re not going to save it up over time, like, ‘If I save it for two weeks I’ll have this really amazing sperm count.’ No. The parameters of your seminalysis in this case might be worse,” as your older sperm starts to die off.
So, have lots of sex, but not all the time, and don’t worry about whether or not “this time” might be “the time” because again, stress is bad.
Dr. Movassaghi’s advice seemed pretty straightforward. All I have to do to increase my sperm count is sleep better, eat better, abstain from drinking and smoking, stop heating my bean bag, and quit my stress-inducing job so I can focus on working out and having semi-frequent sex. To put it another way, it’s not going to be easy.
It is likely to be difficult for you as well. Lifestyle changes aren’t easy, and if your goal is to improve your sperm count in order to increase your chances of having a baby, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll need to make a number of them. But at the end of the day, if you’re successful, then your wife will need to do the same thing. She’ll need to abstain from alcohol and any other vice. She’ll give up coffee or stop eating sushi. She’ll do these things selflessly, in an effort to improve her child’s chances for a healthy life. Surely, you can engage in similar behavior in order to make that life possible.
If you’re trying to increase your chances of conception, start with a semen analysis — it’s the fastest way to know exactly where you stand. This is best done through a professional, but there are at home test kits, including the app-based YO Sperm Test and the chemistry-set style Trak male fertility testing system. Both offer clear results on where you stand. If knowing is half the battle, the other half is, in this case, analyzing nearly every aspect of your life and changing what you can. I’ll be rooting for myself, and not just because studies show cheering for a team can increase your testosterone. It can though, so I’ll also be rooting for the Mets, right up until they start to stress me out.