This articles forms part of a series covering the Paleo diet and lifestyle to support reproduction from fertility to conception, pregnancy and nursing.
Part 2 - Male Fertility
When it comes to the ability to conceive, the fertility of the the male partner can account for up to 50% of the challenges experienced. Female fertility is such a sensitive topic, eliciting huge (and understandable) emotional responses and male fertility can often be even more so. It is, however, important to understand both mechanisms as a starting point for those trying to conceive.
Unlike with women, for men, the hormonal issues typically less complex but diet and lifestyle factors can still play an important role in male fertility. When speaking of male fertility, we are referencing a few specific factors:
Sperm count: The concentration of sperm in a man’s ejaculate. Higher is better!
Sperm motility: How well the sperm swim! Better sperm motility means that the sperm swim fast, and in a straight line, with their goal (the egg) in sight.
Sperm morphology: What the sperm look like. Ideally you want sperm no double-heads, double-tails or abnormal middle pieces!
There are numerous factors that may contribute to challenges or deficiencies in any or all of these 3 areas:
Testosterone is the dominant male sex hormone produced in the testes and adrenal glands. It is vital for sperm production. Low testosterone means a low sperm count which in turn means a lower chance of the sperm making it to the egg for conception. Low testosterone further leads to decreased libido and erectile dysfunction, which again will directly affect the chances of conceiving.
In men, diet and lifestyle can affect fertility by raising or lowering testosterone levels. This can happen due to a number of factors:
Men who are overweight or underweight typically have lower testosterone levels than men at a normal weight, which can reduce sperm count and fertility. Similar to women, men are most fertile when at their ideal body weight. However, unlike female fertility, male fertility seems to be affected more by testosterone production than by insulin resistance alone. A diet based on Paleo principles is a solid starting point to attaining and maintaining a healthy body weight.
Oxidative stress is involved in the majority of cases of male infertility in one way or another. Oxidative stress is the inflammatory damage done to cells through both diet and lifestyle factors. For sperm cells, this oxidative stress damages the DNA contained in the sperm, so the sperm become unable fertilize the egg. Due to their physiology, sperm cells are particularly vulnerable to oxidative stress.
There are a number of factors that can create excessive oxidative stress in the body:
Omega-6 fats are very vulnerable to oxidative damage and a higher Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio is associated with male infertility. Omega 3’s tend to be anti-inflammatory, while Omega 6’s tend to be pro-inflammatory, which we need sometimes, but an excess can be problematic. Furthermore, Omega 3 fatty acids (found in oily fish and grass-fed meat) can help to boost sperm concentration, motility and morphology, whereas Omega 6 fatty acids (found predominantly in grains and vegetable oils) have the opposite effect. Diet can directly affect the Omega-6 content of sperm cells, and this has a direct effect on sperm quality. A Paleo diet focuses on Omega 3 rich foods and limits the amount of Omega 6 fatty acids you eat by eliminating grains and vegetable oils.
The Paleo diet’s emphasis on fat quality and the consumption well sourced saturated fat (animal foods, coconut oil) and monounsaturated fat (animal foods, olive oil, avocados) plays an important role in reducing oxidative stress.
Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates
Sugar, and processed foods which turn to sugar really fast once eaten are another driver of oxidative stress and increase insulin resistance, both of which have been associated with lower sperm quality. Excessive alcohol consumption may further inhibit sperm concentration and motility.
Oxidative stress, caused by smoking, inflammation, infection, psychological stressors, industrial and chemical exposure, strenuous exercise and hot tub use (to name a few) can lead to decreased sperm membrane integrity, sperm DNA damage, and decreased sperm motility. Limiting your exposure and implementing effective stress management techniques can have a positive impact on fertility.
Oxidative stress is overcome by the consumption of anti-oxidants which are prolific in all the seasonal, fresh, organically grown vegetables and fruits encouraged on the Paleo diet. The body also produces its own anti-oxidants. This process can be further encouraged by choosing well sourced proteins, drinking bone broth and eating plants that support liver function.
Exercise that incorporates weight lifting further boosts testosterone. It must be noted that too much exercise can have the opposite effect.
Vitamin and Mineral Deficiency
Arginine is an amino acid which plays an important role is sperm maturation. A deficiency can result in a reduction in sperm count and motility. Foods rich in arginine include nuts, seeds, gelatin, shellfish, spinach, turkey and game meat. Supplementation with L-Arginine has been shown to improve sperm quality
Coenzyme Q10 is important for promoting energy production within the sperm and can be found in nuts, cabbage, carrots, onions oily fish and organ meats.
Folate and Vitamin B12
Both of these nutrients are important for DNA division and replication and may improve sperm morphology. Folate is found in liver and dark leafy green vegetables, while vitamin B12 is abundant in grass fed or pastured animal protein (especially organ meats) and spirulina.
This amino acid is essential for the production of energy, which is important for the production and motility of sperm. Foods high in carnitine include animal-based proteins.
This nutrient found predominantly in cooked tomatoes can improve sperm motility, morphology and number
Vitamin C can help encourage sperm moving individually and improve motility thus improving fertility. Foods rich in vitamin C include lemons, limes, oranges, kiwi fruit, dark leafy greens, berries, tomatoes and broccoli.
Vitamin E can decrease oxidative stress, increase sperm motility and improve pregnancy rates.
Zinc is a key component of seminal fluid and is important for improving sperm count and motility. A deficiency in this key nutrient has been associated with infertility in males possibly due to its oestrogenic effects. You can find zinc in shellfish, nuts and seeds.
Supplement strategically. Studies of male infertility have shown that zinc and vitamin C levels correlated with sperm count and quality. Additionally, L-carnitine and L-acetyl-carnitine have been useful supplements for enhancing sperm motility and quality.
Soy and soy based foods can have an oestrogenic effect on the body, potentially negatively affecting the male hormonal balance and spermatogenesis (the making of sperm). Although the Paleo diet does not promote the consumption of soy, if you are eating packaged foods, it might be wise to check the ingredients and reassess your soy intake.
A valid point and inevitable question is around the prevalence of soy based foods in Asian cultures which appear to have normal fertility rates. Although the research is not yet clear this may have to do with i9at least in part) to the consumption of unprocessed, often fermented soy in Asian cuisine versus the processed and genetically modified versions so prolific in Western diets.
A few extra suggestions of (Paleo compliant) foods that you may want to consider adding to your nutrition plan to support the creation of healthy sperm:
- Asparagus increases sperm count.
- Bananas contain bromelain which increases sex drive
- Brazil nuts are a source of selenium.
- Dark chocolate contains a powerful anti-oxidants and amino acids.
- Goji berries are high antioxidants.
- Green vegetables which, amongst their many benefits, support liver detoxification.
- Pumpkin seeds are an easy on-the-go source of zinc.
- Walnuts are the best nut-based source of Omega 3’s
If you find yourself short on time, feel your kitchen skills are not yet up to par or are unsure of how to incorporate some nutrient dense proteins, fats and vegetables into a tasty meal, check out Pete's Paleo Meals, available for all tastes and variations of the Paleo diet.
The nutritional factors discussed can be met by mostly consuming a nutrient-dense, whole foods diet. This is what the Paleo diet is all about! It is how we evolved to eat to both survive on this planet and ensure the proliferation of our species. Eating a diet full of processed and packaged food is only going to deplete the body of vitamins and minerals, potentially leading to low sperm count, poor sperm motility and morphology, and low testosterone.