If you’re trying for a baby, what defines healthy sperm is probably high on your list of concerns.
In fact, the quality and quantity of the sperm people produce can vary considerably as a result of all sorts of external factors.
Here, we outline everything you need to know about sperm health and its impact on fertility.
What constitutes healthy sperm?
There are 4 main factors that doctors look for when checking the quality of a person’s sperm:
On average, there are between 40 and 50 million sperm in a millilitre of semen, and anything below 15 million per millilitre is classed as a low sperm count, according to the NHS. Having a low sperm count reduces the chance of conception but, as long as some sperm are present, it doesn’t rule it out – only one is needed to fertilise the egg.
This is measured by looking at the semen sample under a microscope to see how many sperm are moving, how well they can swim, and how many are swimming in a straight line or going around in circles. It also takes into account whether sperm are clumped together or moving freely.
This refers to how healthy the sperm look and is assessed by looking at the shape of the sperm to see if there are any obvious defects to the head, body, or tail of each gamete.
Volume of semen
This relates to the amount of fluid that is ejaculated, which might be a factor in how many sperm are released, and also provides a guide to how well glands within the testicles are working.
Are sperm problems common?
Sperm problems are a factor for 1 in 3 couples who are struggling to conceive, and in another third of cases the cause may not be known. Dr McClymont advises, ‘If you’ve been trying for a baby for a year, and your partner has not become pregnant, then it’s best to see your doctor to discuss further tests such as semen analysis.’
This routine test involves providing a fresh sample of semen so a laboratory can check several measures of sperm health.
Does abstaining from sex make your sperm more effective?
It’s not clear whether long periods without sex may increase the risk of some damaged sperm.
‘Aiming for sex every day during a person’s most fertile days will give you the best chance of conceiving,’ Dr McClymont advises. ‘But if that seems a little too much, then every 2 or 3 days will still give you an excellent chance.’
Is there such a thing as healthy sperm colour?
Most semen is white-greyish. ‘Some men may notice a variation in colour from time to time,’ Dr McClymont says. But if you notice a persistent change – particularly if you also experience pain when passing urine or in your testicles, or there is blood in your semen – it should be investigated.’
Infections including chlamydia, gonorrhoea, and prostatitis can all impact male fertility. So can a structural problem like damage to the tubes that carry sperm, having undescended testicles as an infant, or previous surgery to the testicles or for a hernia.
6 lifestyle factors that affect sperm quality
Sperm health can be affected by a number of lifestyle factors. But if you’re trying to start a family, the good news is that it takes just 70-90 days for sperm to develop and mature. That means improvements to your diet and lifestyle should show benefits within 2-3 months.
1. Being overweight or obese
This is associated with lower sperm counts. If you’re trying for a baby, and are overweight or obese, talk to a doctor about the treatment and options available for healthy weight loss.
Drinking any alcohol impairs semen volume and sperm morphology to some degree, according to an analysis of studies involving more than 16,000 men. The research found that drinking daily was the most damaging.
‘If you’ve started trying for a baby, or are thinking of doing so, then drinking alcohol at below the recommended limit of 14 units per week is recommended’, says Dr McClymont. ‘Drinking excessively can reduce sperm production, as well as adversely affecting the shape, size and swimming ability of sperm. For couples who are already experiencing fertility issues, men may wish to consider abstaining from alcohol completely.’
Working in a hot environment reduces the quality and quantity of sperm. That’s why it can be helpful to avoid using a laptop on your lap or having saunas if you’re trying to start a family.
Wearing boxers, rather than close-fitting briefs can also help keep the testicles cooler and improve sperm concentrations and counts.
A healthy diet provides the fuel needed to produce healthy sperm. A recent Danish study found that men who ate plenty of fruit and vegetables, high-fibre foods, and fish, but minimised their intakes of red and processed meat, and sugar also had better sperm. Fat intakes did not seem to make any difference.
The harm smoking can do is well known, so it probably comes as no surprise that it’s bad news for sperm health too. Studies show smoking reduces sperm counts, motility, and morphology. This is probably due to increased oxidative stress, with one study describing the impact on sperm as ‘devastating’.
6. Anabolic steroids
Illegal use of these muscle-building drugs is a growing problem in the UK, Sweden, and other European nations. Research shows that anabolic steroids can not only render men infertile, but it can also cause organ damage and violent outbursts.