We know lifestyle can have a significant impact on our overall health, so it makes sense that it might also affect the health of your sperm.
As Mr Suks Minhas explains, this isn’t just a question of having low sperm count, or problems with sperm mobility (whether they’re strong enough ‘swimmers’) – it’s also about potential damage within the sperm’s DNA, something which requires a specific test, called a DNA fragmentation test, to measure.
“Sometimes, men might have a normal sperm count but the couple is still struggling to get pregnant. It’s quite clear now that just looking at sperm count and activity, or looking for abnormal shapes and sizes, may not be enough to tell whether you’re fertile or not,” says Suks. “We can now do a more specialised test which looks at the integrity and structure of the sperm DNA because if it’s damaged, it may explain why somebody’s not getting pregnant, and we know that a number of lifestyle factors can affect DNA fragmentation.”
However, when it comes to male infertility causes, there are still lots of gaps and grey areas in terms of exactly how much of a role lifestyle will play, and it can vary from person to person. “But if you’re trying to get pregnant and looking for ways to increase fertility, then it’s not going to do you any harm to take steps to have a healthier lifestyle,” says Suks.
Here are 9 lifestyle that could affect male fertility and sperm health:
Does quitting smoking help fertility? Generally speaking, yes. “Smoking can affect your DNA fragmentation. There’s also evidence that smoking can affect your sperm count, so definitely cutting out smoking is a good idea,” says Suks.
Studies have found that men who drink alcohol may have a lower sperm count than those who don’t. As for whether there’s a ‘safe’ amount of you can drink, before you need to worry about whether it’s damaging your fertility, isn’t possible to say. “But I would probably say that if you’re trying for a child and it’s difficult, then remove alcohol completely,” says Suks.
Ongoing stress can cause hormonal imbalances within the body, which may affect us in a range of ways, possibly including men’s sperm. It’s also important to recognise that trying to get pregnant, or going through fertility tests or treatment, can be stressful in itself. “It’s actually quite common for men to get erection problems when trying to get pregnant, because they’re suddenly forced to perform and put under that extra pressure,” notes Suks. His advice? Try not to add to the pressure you’re already under, but make time for relaxation, get plenty of sleep, eat well and exercise – all things that will help keep stress in check.
Research has found that both a lack of, as well as too much sleep, may be a factor in male infertility. But, let’s face it, poor sleep does us no good in general, and you can usually tell when you haven’t had enough, so Suks says let common sense be your guide and the 7-8 hours-a-night rule is a pretty good aim. In fact, a study published earlier this year in the journal Fertility & Sterility, which followed almost 700 couples for a year, found that compared with men who slept 7-8 hours a night, those who slept less than 6 hours a night were 31% less likely, and those who slept 9 hours or more per night were 49% less likely to get their partner pregnant.
5. Drug and steroid misuse
Anabolic steroids, sometimes used by body-builders to bulk up, are recognised as one of the causes of male infertility, but Suks points out that it’s not just steroid abuse people need to be aware of. “When we talk to patients, we always have to ask whether they have a history of taking recreational drugs, such as marijuana or cocaine, as these can affect sperm as well. Even things like testosterone supplements – despite what people might think, that testosterone supplements will just boost your manliness, it can actually have the opposite effect and act as a male contraceptive,” he explains. “If you take testosterone supplements or anabolic steroids for a long time, they can cause long-term damage, although sometimes the effects can be reversed but this may take up to six months or even longer.”
6. Using laptops
You might have read some alarming headlines on this topic, but does using a laptop really harm your sperm? The relevant factor here is temperature – overheating of the testicles has been associated with impaired sperm production – and of course, if you’re sitting with your laptop on your lap for hours on end, things might get a little toasty. “Factors like this are difficult to quantify, however,” notes Suks. In other words, there’s no clear measurement of how hot is too hot, and how much laptop usage that equates to – but if you’re looking for ways to boost your fertility, then it won’t hurt to use a desk, or the arm of the sofa, when using your laptop. And if you are worried about temperature damage from your laptop, the good news is, usually, any affects will be temporary.
7. Your weight
We’re often being warned about the health risks associated with obesity – and it’s recognised as being one of the common causes of male infertility, too. Generally speaking, people with a higher BMI are more likely to have lower fertility, compared with people within the healthy BMI range. “Obesity causes something called metabolic syndrome, which can cause a reduction in men’s testosterone levels, potentially impacting their fertility levels,” says Suks. It might not be possible for a doctor to say for certain whether losing weight will improve your fertility, but Suks’ says it won’t do any harm to take sensible steps to lose weight if you’re overweight or obese and trying for a baby.
8. Your diet
Good nutrition supports all of the body’s functions, including producing healthy sperm. “Men who have less dietary vitamins or antioxidants can have more sperm DNA damage, because antioxidants protect the body and the sperm against harmful environmental factors. We know that taking multivitamins, for example, has been shown to reduce sperm DNA damage,” says Suks. Certain nutrients, such as vitamins E and C plus zinc, can be especially important for healthy sperm, but the most important thing is to have a good, balanced diet with a wide range of nutrient-rich foods, and taking a daily high-quality multivitamin might also help.
9. Excessive exercise
First it was cycling – and now too much intensive exercise in general has hit the headlines for being a cause of reduced sperm health. Again, in scientific terms, this comes back to the issue of overheating (which is also behind those warnings that wearing very tight underwear might harm your sperm!). With anything, moderation is key, and obsessively exercising every day might not be a good idea for a range of reasons. But Suks reassures that for the vast majority of people, this shouldn’t be a concern – exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. So if you enjoy getting out for a run or hitting the gym, keep it up.