Despite men accounting for nearly half of all fertility problems, it is commonly still regarded as a “woman’s issue.” However this is not the case. The rate of infertility is increasing and is nearly as common in men as it is in women in the United States. About 9% of American men and 10% of American women under the age of 44 report infertility problems (CDC, 2013 and Office on Women’s Health, 2019). Men who are sidelined during a couple’s fertility journey can have feelings of anxiety, helplessness, shame and guilt that can impact relationships, performance at work, and mental wellbeing.
Infertility Is Bigger Than Baby
Infertility not only causes stress, it can also put a financial strain on a relationship. Consider this:
- The average couple goes through two in vitro fertilization cycles, bringing the total cost of IVF (including procedures and medications) between $40,000 and $60,000 (SingleCare, 2020);
- An estimated 85% of IVF costs are often paid out of pocket (Fertility and Sterility, 2011);
- Infertility is one of the primary reasons for divorce among couples (International Journal of Reproductive Biomedicine, 2020); and
- Up to 60% of infertile individuals reported psychiatric symptoms with significantly higher levels of anxiety and depression than their fertile counterparts (Clinical Therapeutics, 2014).
Most couples will seek out medical interventions if they do not have luck conceiving in the first 3-6 months of trying to have a baby. Unfortunately by doing this, couples 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 minimizing environmental exposures, and using targeted nutritional support.
Nutrition Is The Overlooked Step
An extensive amount of research shows that if men take certain steps with their nutrition and lifestyle choices, there is a clear connection to improvement in male fertility, resulting in healthier babies. Some immediate actions men can take to help improve the overall health of their sperm and to mitigate oxidative stress, prevent inflammation and support healthy metabolism include:
- Eating a diet high in antioxidants (including selenium and vitamins E and C) and omega-3 fatty acids;
- Exercising regularly;
- Getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep daily;
- Supplementing daily (including choline, zinc, vitamin D, vitamin B12, magnesium, and folate).
While sperm health can be affected by factors that are out of a man’s control, nutrition plays a huge role. If men focus on flooding their body with the right levels of these nutrients, they can make a positive impact on conception, pregnancy health and the baby’s long-term health. Certainly what the research is telling us is that women are not the only ones who should be taking prenatals; men need fertility supplements too.
Environmental Factors Matter
The focus during conception is often on women who are told to avoid cigarette smoke, limit alcohol, and reduce exposure to chemicals. Men can make an impact here as well during preconception. 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; and
- 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.
Other more common environmental factors could be exposing men to unnecessary chemicals. Consider your exposure to 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 to ensure no harmful contaminants, including heavy metals are present.
Age Does Make A Difference
Traditionally we focus on the woman’s age as being a major factor in fertility, but a man’s age makes a difference too, even if he marries younger. 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.
Male Fertility: A Marker for Overall Health
Beyond fertility, male reproductive factors like low sperm count have been associated with increased risk of metabolic syndrome for the father. 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 dyslipidemia. This and other recent studies have yielded more insight into how fertility status can act as a biomarker for future health.
Ayla Barmmer, MS, RDN, LDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist, functional medicine practitioner and the founder, and 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.