When a couple gets ready to procreate, it’s women who tend to bear the brunt of the burden: To protect fertility and prevent birth defects, they’re told to take prenatal vitamins, avoid alcohol, stop taking certain meds, and lay off traveling to several regions. Meanwhile, guys get off E-A-S-Y — all they’re told to do is forgo condoms and stop pulling out.
However, there are other things guys can do to increase the odds of conceiving a super-healthy baby ASAP. After all, both male and female factors can figure into a couple’s ability to get pregnant. While infertility in women stems from issues with ovulation, reproductive organs, and hormones, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), for men, it’s all about the quantity and quality of their swimmers, according to Dr. Daniel Shapiro, MD, reproductive endocrinologist at Prelude Fertility, a company that helps people conceive.
“It takes 72 days for a sperm to be made,” Dr. Shapiro explains. “So what was going on 2 1/2 months before conception is more relevant than health issues on the day or week before an attempted pregnancy.”
Here’s how men can boost their fertility:
He won’t run out of sperm, promise. The rate at which the body produces sperm is based on demand, so there’s no reason to reduce frequency of masturbation to save the good stuff for sex, according to Dr. Shapiro. “Change nothing about the frequency of ejaculation,” he says.
“Your whole diet shouldn’t be sugar and white bread, since that kind of diet is pro-diabetic,” Dr. Shapiro says. And guys don’t want to develop Type 2 diabetes, since it’s marked by complications in glucose metabolism, a process that plays a major role in healthy sperm production.
Although some experts say that vitamins E, C, and zinc may promote sperm health, Dr. Shapiro says supporting data is sparse — so don’t worry about taking supplements. Simply eat a varied diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, minimize red meat, avoid fried food and refined starches like white rice and pasta, and limit junk foods like candy and chocolates.
As a general rule of thumb, men should drink no more than two servings of alcohol per day — so no more than two beers, shots, cocktails, or glasses of wine. That’s because when you drink, the liver enzymes typically tasked with breaking down sex steroids go to work breaking down the byproducts of alcohol, leaving higher circulating levels of estrogen.
“Even if you’re not getting drunk, it’s really bad for sperm counts,” Dr. Shapiro says.
Since smoking either tobacco or marijuana affects your systems just like alcohol, and can subsequently kill off a guy’s swimmers to reduce overall sperm count, it’s smart to clear the system of tobacco and pot well before you start going by “dad.” “One bachelor party or homecoming weekend isn’t a big deal, but the more you smoke, the more chronic and excessive exposure you’ll sustain, and the greater the negative impact,” Dr. Shapiro says.
Excessive exposure to pesticides — including non-organic bug repellants — can mimic hormones the body typically secretes on its own, Dr. Shapiro says. This can elevate estrogen levels or block hormone receptors, two scenarios that can ultimately kill sperm. “You’d have to get a pretty nasty dose of pesticides to impact your fertility — a little exposure here or there isn’t a big deal,” Dr. Shapiro says, although he stresses the importance of wearing gloves, a hat, and no shorts or flip-flops when, say, treating your lawn.
For competitive bikers who spend hours and hours in the saddle, a bike seat can put intense pressure on the root of penis. The problem: This cuts off blood supply in a way that can interfere with a man’s sperm production (bad) and ability to sustain an erection (worse, since this can stoke stress that makes it even more difficult to conceive), Dr. Shapiro says. Some seats are designed with cutaways to alleviate this issue, but padded biking shorts or seat padding can also help.
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Although antidepressant use among women during pregnancy has been linked to several adverse outcomes and are only recommended for patients when their benefits outweigh the risks, SSRIs don’t appear to have much impact on male fertility, according to Dr. Shapiro.
What can impact fertility, though, is chronic stress beyond the everyday, “I’m late for work, BAH!” sort of thing. This can elevate stress hormone levels, causing sperm production to shut down, Shapiro explains. So ~*ReLaX~*!
Muscle-bulking steroids are bad news for male fertility since they’re known to shrink the testicles and can drop sperm count to zero with chronic use. That’s because they suppress secretion of hormones that are necessary to make testosterone the natural way — a process that’s required to produce sperm, Dr. Shapiro says.
“[Steroid use] has a male contraceptive effect,” says Dr. Shapiro — although you shouldn’t rely on steroids to prevent pregnancy since they can lead to addiction and health problems like an increased risk of prostate cancer, according to National Institute on Drug Abuse. (FWIW, topical steroids used as prescribed to treat inflammation are unlikely to cause fertility problems, according to Dr. Shapiro.)
A study presented at Canalejo University Hospital in La Coruna in which researchers examined sperm from men infected with chlamydia found that levels of damaged sperm were more than three times higher than in healthy men.
When undetected and left untreated, sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia can lead to sperm damage that makes it more difficult for a couple to get pregnant.
The Centers for Disease Control recommend that men who’ve traveled to regions where Zika transmission has been detected avoid unprotected sex for at least six months, regardless of insect bites (one way Zika can be spread) or presence of flu-like symptoms that mark Zika infections in some cases.
In a thorough 2012 review of existing research, researchers at Harvard School of Public Health found that overweight and obese men are less likely than men at healthy weights to produce ample amounts of sperm. That’s because the heavier a man gets, the more estrogen he makes, which suppresses the hormones needed to make sperm, according to Dr. Shapiro.
Although it’s ideal to eat organic foods, which are grown without potentially toxic pesticides, men who have plans to conceive should, at the very least, scrub TF out of fruit and veggies before eating them. This protects sperm stores from becoming contaminated and killed off, keeping sperm counts high, Dr. Shapiro says.
Cans and plastic containers can increase exposure the endocrine disruptor BPA bisphenol, and existing research leadsresearchers to believe that even low levels of it could impact sperm quality.
When researchers at the National Institutes of Health measured urine concentrations of phthalate compounds, which are found in plastics, as well as certain cosmetics, adhesives, and sealants, in more than 500 couples trying to get pregnant, they found that men with high concentrations of phalates took 20 percent longer to get their partners pregnant than men with lower concentrations in their urine.
Heating or cooling food in plastic containers can release these chemicals into your food, so Dr. Shapiro recommends glass storage containers FTW. It’s a precaution for general health that also helps keep toxins from the sperm production system, he says.
The reason why testicle protrude from the body is because they only produce sperm at 3 to 4 degrees below body temperature, Dr. Shapiro explains. This situation keeps them cool. However, wearing tight jeans all day — particularly while working in warm conditions or living in a warm climate — can keep the testicles too warm to do their job. (It’s why you might have heard it’s bad to use hot tubs and saunas, and laptops when placed on the lap.) The truth, according to Dr. Shapiro, is that only prolonged heat exposure will impair sperm production — one reason why living in skinny jeans could pose an even greater risk than several minutes in a sauna every now and then.
Although there’s lots of talk about women and their biological clocks, fertility also declines for men as they age beginning in the early 40s, according to Dr. Shapiro. What’s more, the likelihood of something going wrong with pregnancy or the baby increases as you age: Complications like an increased risk of having a baby with autism or a genetic disorder become more common in children of older parents, Dr. Shapiro warns. (It’s why he recommends that men who want to wait for children consider freezing their sperm in their 20s — the earlier the better.)
“When you decide you want to become a parent, ditch contraception and have sex when the spirit moves you,” Dr. Shapiro suggests. “Try to time it around ovulation, and you’ll both end up frustrated since scheduling sex puts damper on intimacy, and people are most fertile when having sex just because.”
Remember: Sperm survive between three to five days after ejaculation, so unprotected sex within a week of ovulation can technically lead to a pregnancy, according to Dr. Shapiro.
If your partner does all these things and you haven’t gotten pregnant after six months of trying, Dr. Shapiro suggests you both get checked out — and do it well before you freak that something’s seriously wrong. (Chances are, you’re both just fine but these things can take time!