As a man, you have an evolutionary advantage over women: You're constantly maturing new sperm every day until the end of your days, whereas women are born with a finite number of eggs. "So, sperm production, unlike the female egg, is more likely to be improved by changing lifestyle habits," says Armando Hernandez-Rey, MD, a reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist in Miami, Florida who specializes in fertility preservation.
Unless you have a genetic predisposition or a chronic disease (like diabetes, which damages blood vessels so they can't supply enough blood to your testicles, shutting off their ability to produce sperm), you can make sure you don't have fewer, slower, “misshapen” swimmers—so your sperm is full of life when you're ready to procreate a mini you.
How can you tell if you have a low sperm count?
"A semen analysis measures 5 basic but important parameters that are crucial for assessing whether a man is fertile, sub-fertile, or infertile," Hernandez-Rey says.
Top 3 misconceptions about what really causing low sperm levels
- Cell phones in pockets are often associated with lowering levels of sperm count, but it's not founded, Hernandez-Rey says.
- Frequent sex or frequent masturbation doesn’t lower your sperm count level either. It’s one of the biggest misconceptions of them all; though infrequent sex can take its toll.
- Drinking soda: Yes, the hoopla around Mountain Dew is a myth.
If you're curious to see what could be mucking with your sperm, read on and make the appropriate changes to get your sexual health back on track. Hernandez-Rey and Joseph Clark, M.D.—a urologist at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center—highlight the most common blunders you might be making.
Note: It'll take about three months for you to experience benefits and positive changes to your sexual health; that's the time it takes for sperm to mature and make it out during ejaculation, Hernandez-Rey explains.
1. You're going heavy on the alcohol
Alcohol's affect on sperm is more widespread and less specific than some of the other causes on this list. "First, alcohol itself is a toxin that causes oxygen-free radicals, which can destroy sperm," Hernandez-Rey says. Of course, it can also hurt your liver. "A damaged liver can't remove toxins from your body—toxins that can also destroy sperm cells," he adds. "It’s a chain effect."
And while there's some research suggesting moderate amounts of alcohol (a glass of red wine here and there) are good for your sperm quality, Clark adds, there's far more damning evidence for heavy alcohol use and its ability to decrease your sperm quality. How much is too much? If you're having more than three drinks a day, your swimmers are at risk, Clark says. What's worse, chronic alcohol use ramps up the conversion of testosterone to estradiol—the primary female sex hormone. And we don't need to school you in science for you to know that's not a good thing for your sperm...
2. You dabble in drugs
Recreational drugs and prescription medications aren't just messing with your head. Marijuana seems innocuous enough, but it can really take a toll on your manhood. "Most studies suggest smoking marijuana affects sperm quality, mainly by decreasing testosterone levels," Clark says. The more you smoke, the more you lower your testosterone levels inside the testicle itself, which is where your sperm is made.
Chronic opioids like oxycodone or hydrocodone, used for, say, people with chronic back pain, can decrease testosterone levels and degrade sperm production. Long-term use suppresses the pituitary gland and the release of the luteinizing hormone, which stimulates your testicles to produce testosterone and triggers the physical characteristics that make you manly. Ultimately, this can cause male hypogonadism—the underproduction of sperm or testosterone, or both.
However, "Cocaine is one of the worst offenders because it constricts blood vessels, including those that supply blood to the testicles," says Hernandez-Rey. "Without a normal influx of blood, you rob your supply of oxygen and nutrients, leaving you with atrophied testicles that can't produce sperm. Not quite the definition of manliness.
Bottom line: Save your testicles, quit the drugs.
3. You smoke like a chimney
If you needed yet another reason to quit smoking, here it is: "Similar to alcohol, smoking introduces toxins into the body, including carbon monoxide, that damages sperm," Hernandez-Rey says. Smoking also damages blood vessels, and if you haven't noticed by now, your testicles need lots of proper blood flow in order to work properly.
There's a bevy of research linking smoking with decreased semen count and quality, Clark says. It's likely because there’s a direct toxic effect. "There’s a lot of carcinogens, and the testicles are relatively sensitive to toxins." Some studies even suggest smoking can damage your DNA, meaning it’ll affect the DNA of your offspring.
4. You're in (literal) hot water
"Testicles are outside of your body for a reason," Hernandez-Rey says. It's to keep your sperm just at or below body temperature. You've probably noticed your scrotum is very efficient at tightening or loosening (hello, cold ocean water); it's to keep the temperature of your testicles within a few degrees. "Anything that increases that temperature interferes with the metabolic process required to produce sperm called spermatogenesis," Hernandez-Rey adds.
Keep your sperm in tip-top shape and avoid prolonged heat from laptops and extended soaks in hot tubs, Clark says.
5. You're taking steroids and/or workout supplements
"Steroids shut down the stimulus for your body to produce testosterone because they make your body believe it's already produced too much," Hernandez-Rey says. Without that trigger to make testosterone in your testicles, they could get smaller.
"A lot of the workout supplements sold don’t need to meet FDA approval, because most have androgens, or male hormones, so they work similarly to giving testosterone shots or gel," Clark says. The problem is these companies don't have to disclose what's in their formula, and anything that helps you build muscle by increasing your testosterone levels can damage your sperm.
6. You're undergoing testosterone replacement
A lot of people think if they take testosterone supplements, they'll supercharge the health of their sperm. "Even though testosterone is important for sperm production, taking exogenous testosterone or supplements can be harmful," Clark says. Like with steroids, testosterone gels, shots, and patches can harm your sperm quality because your body senses there’s enough testosterone and shuts down production in the testicles. "Testosterone levels in the testicles themselves is 50x what's in your blood stream," Clark adds. "But in order to achieve and maintain that amount, your testicles have to be stimulated by the pituitary hormones."
7. You're sitting too long
Because your testicles are between your legs there's a whole lot of heat generated by your clothing, epecially when you're sitting for long periods of time or crossing your legs. All of these factors hurt sperm production. So, "the spread" may not be polite on public transit, but it could make a difference in protecting your sperm.
Science backs it up, too—at least the sitting part: Higher moderate-to-vigorous activity and less TV watching are significantly associated with higher total sperm count and sperm concentration, according to a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Besides, good overall health is a marker of quality sperm.
8. You're eating too much soy and processed meat
Too much soy could have unfortunate side effects for your manhood, according to a study published in the Oxford Journal. In the study, men who consumed just half a serving of soy-based foods daily over the span of three months had 41 million sperm/ml less than men who didn’t consume soy foods at all (the average concentration of sperm ranges between 80 and 120 million/ml). It likely has to do with phytoestrogens, Clark says, a naturally-occurring plant nutrient that has an estrogen-like effect on the body. As we mentioned earlier (with alcohol), fat cells convert testosterone to estradiol—similar to estrogen—which hurts sperm production. Men who eat processed meat, like pepperoni, bacon, and lunch meat, daily have lower sperm counts than those who eat them sparingly, though the exact reason why is unknown, Clark says.
9. You're far too stressed
"Stress is bad for everything," Clark says. So it's no wonder it can be a doozy for your sperm. When the stress hormone cortisol floods your body, you experience a decreased sense of well-being and your blood pressure rises. "There are a lot of physiological changes that happen as a result of stress, but there's not one single mechanism causing it to hurt your sperm," Clark says. Some research suggests hormones called glucocorticoids—released in response to prolonged stress—might be to blame for mussing up your testosterone levels and semen quality, though.
10. You're not getting laid enough
A study published in the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology showed men who ejaculated daily for seven days had higher-quality sperm at the end of the week than men who didn't ejaculate. The sperm’s rate of DNA fragmentation dropped from 34 percent to 26 percent, meaning it stayed more intact and was more likely to fertilize an egg. Frequent sex means more ejaculation. The less time sperm spends in the testicles, the less likely it is to be damaged over time.
There's a sweet spot when it comes to sperm health and ejaculation, though. Long or short periods of abstinence can result in a lower sperm count or decreased sperm motility, according to Fertility Authority. But samples produced after two days of abstinence usually have the highest numbers of motile sperm, when compared to samples produced after shorter or longer abstinence. Clark agrees: When we ask patients for a semen sample, we ask them not to ejaculate for three days beforehand for an increased quality in the sample."
Older sperm starts to die if ejaculations are really sporadic or don't happen very often. The longer you go without sex, the less active your sperm gets.