5 fast facts about sperm that you might not be aware of

I spend a lot of time talking about sperm. Because I am a fertility naturopath, a big part of my job is explaining semen analyses to couples and talking about how to improve things so that they can then go on to have healthy, happy babies. Recently, my studies had me come across some new and interesting information that I had been previously unaware of and I thought, if I didn’t know about this, then my patients probably hadn’t heard the news either. So, here are my top 5 recent findings:

1 – Mega dosing of folic acid– many of my patients are also seeing IVF doctors to help them along their journey towards having a baby. I often see them come back from their specialist with a long list of supplements including a high dose folic acid (commonly 5mg which is over 10 x the recommended daily intake). Folic acid is a synthetic form of the vitamin folate. Folate is certainly necessary for good health and for reproduction, however there is concern that this synthetic form is not well utilized in the body and may well have some negative effects. Although there is some research showing that this high dose of folic acid improves some aspects of sperm health – when the researchers took a closer look at the DNA of the sperm treated, they find that there is a change in what is called DNA methylation, affecting gene expression. In this study, they found that the parts of the DNA most affected were those parts coding for cancer and neurobehavioural disorders (aarabi). The methylation changes in these genes are called epigenetic changes –meaning that the change that occurs in the parent can also be passed on to the future generations. This change was especially pronounced for men with a specific genetic presentation (called a MTHFR polymorphism) that is associated with a difficulty in metabolising synthetic folic acid. This means that many men, who think that they are doing the right thing by taking this high dose of folic acid, may in fact be altering their genes in a negative way that will then go on to impact their children. Now, it is important to note that natural folate (not the same as folic acid) is very important for sperm health and for healthy babies, but for many men, they are receiving the wrong type and too much folic acid for their particular physiology. The best way to ensure you are getting enough natural folate and not too much of the synthetic form is to

  1. Eat loads of green leafy vegetables – where natural folate is found
  2. Check your supplements with your naturopath
  3. Avoid folic acid fortified foods like processed wheat flour in your bread, pasta and crackers

2 – Vegetarian diet – a small study in the USA examined vegetarian, vegan and omnivore men’s sperm analyses and found that vegetarians and vegans had 30% lower sperm count than omnivore men. Motility (movement) was also reduced in vegetarians but not vegans. Clearly more research needs to be done in this area to ascertain why this might be, but scientists propose that vegetarians may be eating a diet that is higher in pesticides due to their high vegetable intake (orzylowska). This result is interesting because processed meat intake (Niederburger) and the Standard Australian diet (high in processed foods and low in vegetables) is also linked to poorer fertility when compared with those eating a high intake of fish, chicken, fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains (gaskins). It seems that a balanced, whole food diet, including some animal protein especially from fish is the best option for healthy sperm.

3 – Environmental oestrogens are associated with sperm health – research is emerging to explain our rapid decline in fertility rates and revealing that environmental toxins such as xeno-oestrogens are likely a big part of the picture. In a study examining the presence of 2 environmental oestrogens in the sperm of infertile and healthy men, they found PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) were detected in the seminal plasma of infertile men but not in controls, and the concentration of PEs (phthalate esters) was significantly higher in infertile men compared with controls (rozati). Some exposure to these chemicals is unavoidable, however, they are often found in plastics, carbonless receipts, recycled newspaper and in waterproofing agents –so steering clear of known sources is a good idea, as is eating organic fruit, vegetables and meat products as these often contain xeno-oestrogens and other harmful chemicals in the form of pesticides.

4 – Walnuts – Consuming 75 g of walnuts per day for 12 weeks has been shown to improve sperm motility (movement) and shape and the improvement of the fatty acid profile of the men’s bloods was associated with reduced aneuploidy (abnormal number of chromosomes) (Robbins)

5 – Fats – Intake of trans fats – found in fried and processed foods – particularly partially hydrogenated vegetable oils used to make cakes, pies, biscuits and margarine has been shown to be inversely related to sperm count (chavarro). On the other hand, healthy fats, like omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid intake (found primarily in fish and seafood) is associated with better sperm morphology (shape).

The take home message here is that you do have some control over how well our bodies work and how healthy your ‘little swimmers’ are. Although there is some complex information out there, there is also some real common sense information too. Avoiding synthetic chemical exposure, eating a clean, whole foods diet, with lots of healthy fats and not too much processed food is part of this common-sense approach to healthy sperm and healthy babies. If you are doing all the right things and still having fertility issues, then there can be more in depth questions that need answering and you will need the assistance of your fertility naturopath and fertility specialist doctor – so please book in to get specialist advice if you need it.