Back to basics – how it all works
Before we dive in to how men can help to preserve their sperm quality and quantity, we should first brush up on our knowledge and understanding of these little tadpole like cells and other interesting fertilisation related things.
We all remember those awkward classes at school as a teenager learning about reproduction. Well what we maybe don’t remember, or were perhaps never told, is that it is much more complicated than ‘sperm meets egg’ or ‘having unprotected sex = baby’. Those of us experiencing trouble conceiving or going through fertility treatment are acutely aware of this, but do you know why?
Fascinating man facts
The seminal fluid is not all sperm
A fluid produced in the seminal vesicles mixes together with the sperm to create seminal fluid. This fluid provides an environment that’s very important for the proper functioning and survival of sperm.
The main components of this fluid: give sperm energy; help neutralise the acidic nature of the male urethra and female vagina; form a gel-like protective layer around sperm; helps sperm move and provide hormones that help to lower the female immune response to semen.
I certainly didn’t know that sperm triggers an immune response in the female when it enters the uterus. The introduction of sperm creates an increase in white blood cells that attack the dying sperm. These cells though may also attack healthy sperm too.
At this point I am visualising the sperm as armoured soldiers on a mission to find the princess locked in a tower, blindfolded, through a maze, past various sword and arrow wielding enemies, to then be met at their goal by a fire breathing dragon!
The biological marathon
It really is a race and the purest test of survival of the fittest among our little ‘soldiers’. A man may ejaculate 40 million to 150 million sperm, which start swimming upstream toward the fallopian tubes on their mission to fertilise an egg. Fast-swimming sperm can reach the egg in a half an hour, while others may take days. Sperm can live up to 48-72 hours compared to the egg which can only survive for up to 24 hours.
The female does try and help the little guys out. The fallopian tube pushes the egg towards the uterus while cilia push the sperm towards the egg. The egg and its surrounding cell layers also produce a chemical that is designed to attract the sperm.
An egg could be surrounded by approximately 100,000 sperm until one manages to get through. That sounds a lot but given we started with millions it really is a tiny percentage that actually make it to the final round.
To achieve fertilisation the sperm have to take on the fire breathing dragon and literally fight their way through the layers of protective armour surrounding the egg. They do this by first using enzymes contained in the tip of their head to dissolve and break through the first layer. They then need to break though the outer membrane of the egg by essentially fusing to and digesting this membrane using another enzyme. The sperm is always forcing its way forward by thrashing its tail.
Should one sperm cell get this far and make contact with the egg membrane, it is enveloped and can then go about fertilisation: all other sperm cells reaching the egg are then repelled as the egg passes a chemical message across its surface making it impenetrable to other sperm.
Not all sperm are the same
Again, at school we were told that sperm look like little tadpoles with a head and a tail. However, I was surprised to find that a large number of sperm are actually ‘abnormal’. Some have two heads or no heads, some have huge heads, some have small tails or no tails, others may be bent at right angles, or have spiral tails. Many of the unusual ones are probably not fertile.
Healthy sperm that actually take the right route to the (correct) fallopian tube are rare. Many take the wrong channel and never get near to their goal.
Of the 40 to 300 hundred million sperm produced by the male, only one gets to do its job. Even then this only happens around 25% of the time, which is why it can take months or years of trying to conceive even where there are no fertility issues.
How can I help my fertility?
I always get excited when I read things like this, hoping there is a pill or a magic drink I can take that will make it all better. However, this, like with all other things, is common sense and requires some effort on your part. Just like losing weight, or building muscle in the gym, there are no ‘easy’ quick fixes or pills you can take. You need to put in the work to ultimately be as healthy as possible.
There are some men who have issues with infertility even though they do everything ‘right’. This sucks, but this isn’t within your control. The key here is to make sure that you control what you can to ensure you are as healthy as possible to give yourself the best possible chance.
If you are experiencing issues with infertility there is hope, but you need to speak to your GP or local fertility clinic for advice. We know men don’t like talking to medical practitioners, and especially about something as sensitive as this, but please seek support if you’re in this situation.
Here are the best ways to support the production of healthy sperm:
- Maintain a healthy weight.Some research suggests that increasing body mass index (BMI) is linked with decreasing sperm count and sperm movement.
- Eat a healthy diet.Choose plenty of fruits and vegetables, which are rich in antioxidants — and might help improve sperm health.
- Prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs).Sexually transmitted infections — such as chlamydia and gonorrhea — can cause infertility in men. Protect yourself or speak to your GP for testing if you think this may be an issue to see if there is any treatment available.
- Manage stress.Stress can decrease sexual function and interfere with the hormones needed to produce sperm.
- Get moving.Moderate physical activity can increase levels of powerful antioxidant enzymes, which can help protect sperm. Moderate is the key here, you don’t need to do excessive exercise or physical activity.
Sperm can be especially vulnerable to environmental factors, such as exposure to excessive heat or toxic chemicals. To protect your fertility:
- Don’t smoke.Men who smoke cigarettes are more likely to have low sperm counts. If you smoke, ask your doctor to help you quit.
- Limit alcohol.Heavy drinking can lead to reduced testosterone production, impotence and decreased sperm production. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.
- Avoid lubricants during sex.While further research is needed on the effects of lubricants on fertility, consider avoiding lubricants during intercourse. If necessary, consider using baby oil, canola oil, egg white or a fertility-friendly lubricant, such as Pre-Seed.
- Talk to your doctor about medications.Calcium channel blockers, tricyclic antidepressants, anti-androgens and other medications can contribute to fertility issues. Anabolic steroids can have the same effect.
- Watch out for toxins.Exposure to pesticides, lead and other toxins can affect sperm quantity and quality. If you must work with toxins, do so safely. For example, wear protective clothing and equipment, and avoid skin contact with chemicals.
- Stay cool.Increased scrotal temperature can hamper sperm production. Although the benefits have not been fully proved, wearing loose-fitting underwear, reducing sitting, avoiding saunas and hot tubs, and limiting scrotum exposure to warm objects, such as a laptop, might enhance sperm quality.
Some signs of potential fertility issues in men:
If you are concerned about any of the symptoms below, speak to your GP for advice.
- Changes in sexual desire: a man’s fertility is also linked with his hormone health. Changes in virility, often governed by hormones, could indicate issues with fertility.
- Testicle pain or swelling: there are several different conditions that could lead to pain or swelling in the testicles, many of which could contribute to infertility.
- Small, firm testicles: the testes house a man’s sperm, so testicle health is paramount to male fertility. Small or firm testicles could indicate potential issues that should be explored by a medical practitioner.
- Issues with ejaculation: an inability to ejaculate is a sign that it might be time to visit a doctor.
- Problems maintaining erection: a man’s ability to maintain an erection is often linked to his hormone levels. Reduced hormones may result, which could potentially translate into trouble conceiving.
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