Rocker Pat Benatar once famously sang, "Love is a Battlefield." She probably had no idea how right she was when it comes to getting pregnant. The odds of a male sperm surviving long enough to reach and fertilize an egg are almost astronomical.
True, it only takes a single determined sperm to do the trick. But, on average, a man ejaculates a teaspoonful of semen, containing roughly 100 to 300 million sperm. Fewer than 100,000 make their way through a woman's cervix, and only a couple hundred will survive the journey up into the fallopian tubes [source: Regan]. All of this proves the importance of having strong, mobile sperm.
Perhaps the biggest difference in the sperm/egg equation is that females are born with all the eggs they will ever have (roughly 3 million, only about 400,000 of which survive to puberty and about 400 of which are eventually released) [source: Regan].
Males, on the other hand, start producing sperm at puberty and, avoiding any complications, will continue throughout their lives (though sperm production and mobility decrease with age). That's important, since the average lifespan of a sperm cell is only 72 days to three months. When called to action, you want not only an adequate supply, but also a vigorous supply of healthy sperm.
Our first stop? Go see your doctor.
Genetics play a significant role in male infertility. Some men simply don't produce enough sperm -- or the sperm they do produce aren't robust enough to fertilize an egg or get blocked along the way. According to most studies, male infertility is responsible for roughly 30 to 40 percent of cases where a couple can't get pregnant, and often those reasons require medical attention [source: Wald et al]. For couples who have been unable to get pregnant after six months, the first option of the male partner should be a visit to the doctor's office.
"I would focus on the genetic causes of male infertility," says Dr. Ian Hardy, medical director for the Fertility Centers of New England [source: Hardy]. "In general, we have found that medical [prescriptions] -- pills, lifestyle, diet, etc. -- for the male usually does not improve low sperm parameters, leaving us to instead develop techniques for the low sperm."
Those genetic causes can include, but aren't limited to, hormonal imbalance, dilated veins in the scrotum (called varicoceles), blocked or missing sperm ducts (such as vas deferens), testes failing to descend into the scrotum (cryptorchidism) and abnormal seminal fluid which can inhibit motility. Sexually transmitted diseases can be another culprit. A semen analysis will give you a better handle on sperm count, motility and morphology (the shape of your sperm, revealing any deformities) [sources: Wald et al; Werner].
Don't discount testicular injuries as a cause of male infertility, particularly if you're actively involved in contact sports. There can be long-term or even permanent damage to sperm production well after the pain from the initial injury has subsided. However, even males with perfectly normal genetic blueprints can ensure healthy sperm by adhering to the following guidelines.
Up next, we'll look at diet choices that make a difference.
"You are what you eat." This time-honored adage, loosely translated, simply means that eating healthy foods helps maintain a healthy body. And that holds true for the quality and quantity of sperm you produce.
Studies show that a diet rich in antioxidants, featuring solid portions of fruits and vegetables (five or more servings a day), will not only fuel your muscles and your gray matter, but can also rev up your reproductive system. A simple rule of thumb: Brighter is better. Look for fruits and vegetables in vibrant greens (broccoli), orange (oranges), yellow (peppers), blue (blueberries) and red (tomatoes).
Supplements can also be beneficial, though the body of evidence isn't as overwhelming. Most researchers suggest making sure you get at least the recommended daily does of several essential vitamins and minerals -- including vitamins C and E, zinc, arginine (found in nuts) and pharmaceutical-quality L-carnitine -- but to avoid going overboard [sources: Mayo Clinic; Klein].
Not only will a healthy diet lead to healthier sperm, but it's likely to improve sexual performance as well.
Did you know body fat can be a fertility factor? Keep reading.
Men who carry excess body fat are at risk of infertility because they put an inordinate amount of strain on all their major organs, which can interfere with normal sexual activity. However, excess weight can have an even more direct impact on fertility by hampering hormone development, leading to a lower sperm count and increasing the odds of abnormal sperm.
Similarly, a healthy lifestyle featuring a moderate-to-spirited exercise regimen benefits every facet of your body, including the reproductive system and sexual performance. Not surprisingly, more active males have more active sperm -- and more of them.
However, moderation is still essential. Ultra-athletes -- runners, cyclists and swimmers -- who drive themselves to exhaustion on a regular basis can put an excessive strain on the body's major organs and musculature. That can result in diverting your energy (as well as nutrient-rich blood) to recovery and repair, instead of a more balanced state (which includes sperm production). Sustained periods of fatigue can also inhibit normal testosterone levels [source: Mayo Clinic].
Next, we'll examine the effect of stress on sperm.
Another benefit of physical activity is that it provides a natural and healthy counterbalance to stress. Most of us need to deal with the pressures of everyday life, but too much stress can have an enormous impact on our overall well-being. The same holds true for the quality and quantity of sperm a man creates.
Specifically, emotional and psychological stress may lead to problems with sexual performance or disrupt testosterone production required for sperm generation. And the stress of trying to get pregnant, without having any success, might be the worst of all as far as sperm production is concerned.
Infertility-related stress can have a wide-ranging impact on both partners as well as their relationship. Counseling offers a chance to explore all the possible reasons why pregnancy has proved elusive -- without any associated blame or guilt. Research indicates that these stresses can lead to other unhealthy lifestyle choices, which further reduce the likelihood of generating healthy sperm [source: Boyles].
Did you know lifestyle changes can help increase fertility?
A number of environmental factors that can also diminish sperm production and sperm activity. The most prevalent is smoking. Tobacco, in all forms, is a major health risk [source: Wald et al]. Studies show that smokers can suffer close to a 25 percent reduction in sperm concentration and more than 10 percent decline in sperm motility.
While moderate alcohol use has no deleterious effect on sperm, the same can't be said for alcohol abuse, which has been linked to hormonal problems. Many "recreational" drugs, such as cocaine and marijuana, can both contribute to erectile dysfunction and inhibit the production of hormones that create sperm. Anabolic steroids can suppress testosterone and severely limit fertility. Unchecked, steroid use can lead to irreparable damage to the male reproductive system [sources: Klein; Werner]
Even prescription medications taken with a physician's consent -- such as drugs to control chronic conditions like high blood pressure -- can inhibit sperm development. Be sure to check with your doctor. Men who are about to undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatment for cancer should consider having their sperm frozen.
Furthermore, you should exercise caution when using common household and workplace chemicals, such as pesticides and solvents, which can adversely effect sperm production.
Want to know more about boosting your fertility? We have lots more information on the next page.
HowStuffWorks looks at whether women dealing with fertility issues are more likely to conceive naturally after they adopt or get pregnant with IVF.
- Boyles, Salynn. "Marriage Stress Affects infertility Treatment." WebMD Health News. June 24, 2005. (April 22, 2011)http://www.webmd.com/infertility-and-reproduction/guide/20061101/marriage-stress-affects-infertility-treatment
- Fertility & Infertility. "5 common causes of male infertility." (April 19, 2011)http://www.theinfertility.info/5-common-male-infertility.html
- Gynecomastia, Male Breast Tissue. "Frustrating for Men: The Top 5 Common Causes of Male Infertility." (April 19, 2011)http://maleboob.com/article.cfm/id/247214
- Hardy, Ian. M.D., PhD. Medical director for Fertility Centers of New England. E-mail conversation. April 18, 2011.
- Klein, Kevin. "The Fertility Diet for Him." BabyZone. (April 21, 2011)http://www.babyzone.com/preconception/getting_pregnant/article/male-fertility-diet
- Male Infertility Specialists. "What are the most common causes of male infertility?" (April 19, 2010)http://www.maleinfertilityspecialists.com/faq2.htm
- Mayo Clinic. "Healthy sperm: Improving your fertility." Dec. 16, 2010. (April 18, 2011)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/fertility/MC00023
- MedlinePlus. "Saw palmetto." National Institutes of Health. Dec. 6, 2010. (April 19, 2011)http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/971.html
- Regan, Lesley. "The incredible journey." The Times. Oct. 5, 2005. (April 18, 2011)http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/article418322.ece
- Stenson, Jacqueline. "Guys, eat fruits and veggies to improve fertility." MSNBC. Oct. 24, 2006. (April 17, 2011)http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15389873/ns/health-diet_and_nutrition/
- Wald, Moshe et al. "Male Infertility." University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. March 2006. (April 19, 2010)http://www.uihealthcare.com/topics/medicaldepartments/urology/maleinfertility/index.html
- Werner, Michael A. "Male Infertility." Jan. 19, 2011. (April 20, 2010)http://www.wernermd.com/MaleInfertility.html