Before we look at what aspiring fathers-to-be should ingest and avoid, it's important to understand the specific ways in which the effectiveness of sperm is evaluated. A typical semen analysis measures the following three factors, described in the book Fertility Foods: Optimize Ovulation and Conception Through Food Choices by fertility specialist Dr. Jeremy Groll:
- Count, or the number of sperm in the semen. The normal amount is 20 million per milliliter; a count of 5 million is regarded as a severe lack of sperm, and it is also possible for men to have no sperm in their semen.
- Motility, which is how well the sperm move. It is calculated as a percentage of the sperm that move in a straightforward fashion; at least 50 percent of sperm should display this type of movement.
- Morphology, or the shape of the sperm cells. At least 14 percent of sperm should be normally formed. Sperm with large heads, two heads, or deformed tails are typically unable to make the long journey to fertilize the egg.
Another significant factor of sperm effectiveness, explains Dr. Perloe, is the DNA integrity of the sperm cells. The head of the sperm carries the father's DNA in long twisted strands—the double helix. If the DNA strands are broken in several places, there is a greater likelihood of infertility and miscarriage. A test called the SCSA (sperm chromatin structural assay) can be used to examine sperm-cell DNA for structural integrity.
Substances to Avoid
There are many foods and health supplements which have demonstrated some benefit in improving sperm performance, but by far the most significant dietary change that guys can make is to restrict harmful substances. According to Dr. Groll, these include several familiar culprits:
- Cigarette smoking. Regular smoking significantly decreases sperm count, motility, and morphology.
- Marijuana. It inhibits a hormone in the brain, which leads to low testosterone levels and sperm production. Fortunately, the effects of marijuana are reversible usually after the three months it takes for sperm cells to develop and mature.
- Anabolic steroids. These can lead to a complete absence of sperm in the semen; however, as with marijuana use, the effects typically reverse themselves, although usually within 10 to 20 months.
- Saw palmetto. This herbal supplement, although touted for its benefits for prostate issues and even general fertility, acts as a testosterone blocker and can reduce sperm production.