By: Ayla Barmmer
Although still commonly referred to as a “woman’s issue,” nearly half of all fertility problems are attributed to men. Statistics show that the rate of infertility is increasing and men and women are in this together. Nearly 9% of men and 10% of women under the age of 44 report infertility problems in America (CDC, 2013 and Office on Women’s Health, 2019). However, fixing the fertility problems tend to fall primarily on women while men are often sidelined. This is not a good situation for anyone, as not being part of the fertility journey can cause feelings of anxiety, helplessness, shame and guilt that can ultimately cause problems in relationships, performance at work and overall mental wellbeing.
Men Have A Biological Clock Too
Traditionally, we focus on the woman’s age as being a major factor in fertility success. Often referred to as a woman’s biological clock, which is a metaphor used to describe the sense of pressure many women feel to get pregnant while they are at the peak of their reproductive years, a man’s age makes a difference too. And just because a man marries a younger woman, it does not necessarily solve the fertility hurdles. A retrospective cohort study found that increased paternal age had negative effects on offspring and their mothers. Specifically, offspring born to fathers aged 45 years or older had higher odds of premature birth and seizures compared to fathers aged 25 to 34, and mothers had an increased risk of premature birth and gestational diabetes.
While it is true that fertility begins to decline for most people in their mid-30s, it is still possible to become pregnant later in life when you are ready to have a family, with targeted diet and lifestyle strategies being hugely supportive at this point. Being aware of the challenges going into the fertility journey and knowing all your options is the first step to having positive outcomes that do not put unnecessary stress on the relationship.
Skipped Steps = Stress
Most couples turn to medical interventions if they do not conceive within the first 3-6 months of trying to have a baby. While this may seem like a logical next step from a medical perspective, the process of using medical interventions can cause an enormous amount of stress and financial strain on the relationship. The average couple will often attempt two in vitro fertilization cycles, bringing the total cost of IVF, including procedures and medications, somewhere between $40,000 and $60,000 (SingleCare, 2020). Add to that an estimated 85% of IVF costs are often paid out of pocket (Fertility and Sterility, 2011). While IVF is costly and stressful, the alternative does not seem any better considering that infertility is one of the primary reasons for divorce among couples (International Journal of Reproductive Biomedicine, 2020).
Couples who choose this path are often unaware that they are skipping over a cost-effective and less-stressful option. Like many aspects of our health, male and female fertility can be supported by improving lifestyle choices, such as exercise, sleep, targeted nutritional support and minimizing environmental exposures.
Don’t Underestimate Nutrition
An extensive amount of research shows that if men make positive changes with their nutrition and engage in good lifestyle choices, there is a clear connection to improved male fertility, ultimately resulting in healthier babies. Some immediate lifestyle choices men can make to help improve sperm health include exercising regularly and getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep daily.
While sleep and exercise may be easier to implement, the nutrition component of fertility may be new to men since it is not often talked about. Flooding the body with the right nutrients could really up your fertility game.
To start, a Mediterranean diet is often recommended as it focuses on foods that are high in antioxidants (such as selenium and vitamins E and C) and omega-3 fatty acids, which can be helpful in managing chronic inflammation. Mediterranean diets often include lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seafood, nuts, legumes and olive oil; and lesser amounts of poultry, eggs, cheese and dairy. A man’s diet has a major influence on the health of the baby. Recent findings from an animal model study found that when male mice ate low-protein diets, ATF7 (a protein responsible for fat metabolism and cholesterol production) turned on, and led to metabolic reprogramming in offspring. Another key study showed that sperm and semen from male mice that were fed a poor-quality diet resulted in their offspring becoming overweight with symptoms of Type 2 diabetes and reduced expression of genes that regulate fat metabolism.
What you cannot consistently get enough of through the diet, you should get through dietary supplements. To support male fertility, supplements that are helpful to include daily are choline, zinc, vitamin D, vitamin B12, magnesium, selenium and folate. Knowing the precise amounts to take of each nutrient can be overwhelming. This is one of the reasons why I started FullWell, a fertility wellness and education brand, to take the guesswork out of knowing which fertility supplements and what amounts were most effective. For men, FullWell’s Vitality + Virility supplement contains familiar antioxidants like vitamin E, C and selenium plus a unique antioxidant blend to offer more support than the typical men’s multivitamin. Beyond antioxidants, the nutrients included in this formula help support the very nutrient-intensive liver detoxification process, which in turn can encourage the healthy formation of sperm and the DNA contained within it.
The role of fertile, healthy sperm goes far beyond conception. Sperm quality, motility (movement) and morphology (shape and size) all contribute to an overall healthy pregnancy and the health of the baby for the long term. Some factors with sperm health are certainly out of a man’s control, but nutrition is not. If men focus on flooding their body with the right levels of these nutrients, through diet and supplementation, they can play a major role in conception, pregnancy health and the baby’s long-term health.
Inventory Your Environment
While women are often told to avoid smoking, alcohol and reduce exposure to chemicals during pregnancy and preconception, men can also make an impact here as well. Consider the evidence:
- Findings from a longitudinal study revealed that paternal smoking and welding exposure prior to conception was independently associated with non-allergic asthma in offspring, even if smoking stopped five years prior to conception
- Another study looking at sex-specific changes found that parental smoking at an early age also increased the risk of obesity in male adolescent offspring
- A meta-analysis looking at paternal occupational exposure to herbicides, such as pentachlorophenol (PCP) used in wood-related industries, demonstrated that exposure increased the risk of lymphoma and leukemia in the father and their offspring
However, obvious environmental factors like smoking and pollution are not the only culprits for conception. Other more common environmental situations men could be exposing themselves to occur right in the home and car. Consider your exposure to unnecessary chemicals that can be found in scented candles, air fresheners, colognes and even heavy metals that could be present in the supplements you are taking. Be sure to check the label of dietary supplements for seals that indicate the company uses third-party independent testing. FullWell uses third-party independent testing to ensure no harmful contaminants, including heavy metals, are present in its fertility supplements for both men and women.
Beyond Baby: Do It For Your Health
Beyond fertility, male reproductive factors like low sperm count have been associated with increased risk of metabolic syndrome for men. In the largest study to date evaluating semen quality, reproductive function, and metabolic risk, researchers discovered that men with low sperm counts had a higher risk of greater body fat, higher blood pressure, insulin resistance and abnormally elevated cholesterol. This and other recent studies have provided more insight into how fertility status can act as a biomarker for future health whether you are planning to have a baby or not.
Ayla Barmmer, MS, RDN, LDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist, functional medicine practitioner and the founder/CEO, of FullWell, a fertility wellness and education brand. Her entire career focus has been to advance the health and empowerment of practitioners, patients and families through nutritional science, functional medicine and evidence-based holistic solutions. Barmmer launched FullWell to provide all families access to the same evidence-based, effective, high-quality prenatal and fertility supplements that she successfully uses with her own patients. Barmmer earned her undergraduate degree in dietetics and completed her dietetic internship at the University of Connecticut; a Master of Science in Health Communications from Boston University and has additional training in clinical nutrition, functional medicine, women’s health, herbal medicine and holistic and integrative therapies.