The number of Irish couples that experience fertility issues on their road to conception is 1 in 5. The reasons are multi-factorial and can be male or female, or both. All couples going through this difficulty have in common the need to look at their lifestyle choices and behaviours. The male's role in conception is of equal importance to the female, and there is a steep increase in males presenting with fertility issues.
1 Go nuts
Zinc is an essential nutrient in fertility. Men need zinc for sperm health and the immune system. Women also need zinc at this time for many regulatory processes to happen. Zinc is involved in blood glucose control and keeping a healthy insulin response. It is also a powerful antioxidant which is involved in clearing debris from the cells. Alcohol interferes with zinc's absorption and assimilation.
Zinc is abundant in fish, in particular shellfish and oysters. It is also found in pumpkin seeds, nuts and meat. Selenium is a mineral which is involved in reproductive health and normal thyroid function. Males, in particular, depend on a good supply of selenium for optimal reproductive health. In certain areas and parts of the world, it lacks in the soil. The best sources of selenium are brazil nuts, fish and potatoes fortified with selenium.
2 Fructose for energy
Common issues with sperm are low sperm count, poor motility and poor mobility. Diet is the most effective way to influence sperm quality and quantity positively.
Diets high in excess animal products place a greater strain on the body. Seminal fluid is made up of nutrients - the major players are protein, fats and fructose, and it requires fructose for energy for the sperm to swim. There is now a wealth of information showing that a diet high in fruit and vegetables promotes sperm health when consumed daily. However, this is dose-dependent. Aim for at least two fruit portions per day and choose salads and vegetables at both lunch and dinner.
3 Eat red foods
New sperm is generated in the body in approximately 74 days, but sperm is prone to damage from oxidation in the body like all cells. Oxidation produces free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules linked with cellular destruction, and high levels endanger sperm function and viability - this can cause damage to the DNA of the sperm cell. Fortunately, we now understand that DNA is not static but in a constant state of change. There are no treatments available, pharmaceutical or otherwise, to treat this condition, but dietary intervention can achieve positive results.
By incorporating foods high in anti-oxidants which mop up the by-products of oxidation, the production environment can positively change and produce better quality sperm. Up-and-coming is the research on Lycopene, a plant chemical and abundant in tomatoes, strawberries, cherries and peppers.
Pulses and legumes are superfoods for both male and female reproductive health. Similar to nuts, they are an excellent source of protein and contain lots of fibre, which will keep you fuller for longer. They are rich in B vitamins, which support fertility, and they also contain the amino acid L-arginine.
L-arginine is crucial for the male - it works by enhancing the mobility and motility of sperm. It is known to be a vasodilator, which means it dilates the body's blood vessels, allowing blood to flow smoother.
Good sources are chickpeas, black-eye beans, aduki beans, butterbeans, black beans, nuts, peas and lentils. For optimal support, aim to eat at least three times per week.
5 Fats for transport
Prostaglandins are hormone-like substances which are present in seminal fluid. They play an important role in male reproduction as they facilitate the sperm on a journey to the female egg by carrying the sperm along in the seminal fluid.
There are two types of fats which make up essential prostaglandins, which are vital in conception: omega 6 and omega 3. These fatty acids can only be obtained through foods. Consuming seeds, nuts, and good quality vegetable oils will provide omega 6 fatty acids. The best omega 3 are oily fish such as tuna, salmon, sardines, trout and mackerel. If you do not eat fish, it is advisable to supplement with good fish oil.
6 Mid abdominal fat
Being overweight decreases your chances of conception in both the male and female. In fact, many fertility clinics will not treat couples who are overweight.
They are advised to lose weight before treatment can begin. Their body mass index (BMI) is calculated at the clinics, although this is not necessarily a good indicator of what is happening internally. A better measure is to measure mid abdominal fat. This excess fat is lapped around the ovaries, uterus and male reproductive areas. These fat cells disrupt the functioning of the sex glands and interfere with hormonal harmony. To reduce stomach fat, reduce processed carbohydrates and eliminate all sugars and foods containing processed fats. Replace with good quality protein and bulk up on vegetables.
Male and female hormones are made up of fats. Fats are hugely important raw materials that are components of both the sperm and all sex hormones. Cell membranes are made from the various fats and sugars consumed in the diet.
But a diet high in sugar and processed fats are known as trans-fats interfere with the delicate signalling that occurs on these membranes. There is no safe limit for trans-fats in the diet. These are artificial fats made from margarine or re-heating polyunsaturated fats. Aim to eliminate doughnuts, white bread, certain pizza, chips, deep-fried foods, pastries, biscuits and cakes, unless made from butter.
Possibly the biggest anti-nutrient consumed is alcohol. Excess alcohol is detrimental to sperm health. In excess, it can create havoc with the very delicate hormonal orchestra. Alcohol causes cellular damage to the body and increases oxidation and free radical production.
Male sperm is particularly affected by the amount of alcohol consumed. Alcohol is full of empty calories and disrupts blood glucose levels.
Excess circulating glucose damages sperm cells and causes weight gain. Furthermore, alcohol destroys a vital B vitamin called folate in the body - this vitamin is necessary for healthy DNA replication in sperm.
Rich sources of folate include lambs liver, green vegetables, avocado and green lentils.
9 Avoid adrenaline
Couples going through fertility difficulties tend to be vulnerable and may find the journey stressful. When stressed, the body produces greater amounts of adrenaline. Adrenaline is a stress hormone secreted by the adrenal glands. Prolonged exposure to adrenaline is not conducive to conception. Excess adrenaline switches off all non-essential life processes and can inhibit conception. Drinking caffeine and sugar-laden caffeinated drinks increase adrenaline production, so aim to avoid or reduce coffee while trying to conceive and eliminate caffeinated sugary drinks.
Adrenal glands can become burnt out from excess stress. Please support them by taking some vitamin C daily and foods high in magnesium such as dairy products, nuts and green vegetables.
Research shows that aspartame (a sweetener widely used in diet drinks) is linked with a lower sperm count and can contribute to sperm DNA damage.
But don't rush out and buy the full-fat version as the high sugar content is not good news and research shows men who consume soft drinks of any kind tend to have lower sperm counts.
Replace with green tea, which is packed full of anti-oxidants. To get real benefits from the antioxidants in green tea, aim to drink three to four cups per day.