Foods to fuel your fertility

Semen quality is on the decline but certain micronutrients can boost your chances of fertility

A recent study found that if one or both partners in a couple had high LDL, or bad cholesterol, it took them longer to get pregnant. Photograph: Thinkstock

A recent study found that if one or both partners in a couple had high LDL, or bad cholesterol, it took them longer to get pregnant. Photograph: Thinkstock

Tue, Jun 10, 2014, 01:00

This afternoon, students will be storming through the Leaving Cert biology paper. Despite the rather lengthy copy on human reproduction, the notes in our house contain only a handful of points about male infertility. Female infertility disorders get a much more rigorous examination.

No doubt this reflects the focus of the research to date, which has largely concentrated on “women’s problems”. However, with more and more couples experiencing infertility, there’s a growing interest in getting the male body into shape for conception too.

It is estimated that male issues are involved in almost one-third of infertility cases. Going through infertility testing and treatment programmes is not easy. Couples need helpful strategies to see them through the physical, emotional and monetary demands that can sometimes rock their relationship to its core.

Hopefully the future will involve a more proactive approach to planning for pregnancy, particularly for men. Then the Leaving Cert syllabus can expand.

Semen quality

Semen quality is on the decline, and has been for decades. Problems include structural abnormalities and diminished sperm production and motility. Physiology, genetics, hormone imbalances, environmental toxins, diet and lifestyle have been identified as factors that have an impact on sperm quality.

Nowadays men are more likely to be invited to attend a preconception consultation on nutrition, along with the mum-to-be.

A man’s weight is one of the most important factors affecting his fertility. Being either underweight or overweight is linked with poor semen quality.

Studies show that men with a body mass index (BMI) over 35 have lower sperm counts and more DNA damage than men of normal weight. Overweight men tend to have lower testosterone and higher oestrogen levels, which have a negative impact on sperm production. Sleep apnoea, which is common in overweight men, is also linked to a fall in testosterone levels. Excess fat accumulation increases the build-up of toxic substances in fatty tissue and raises scrotal temperature.

Achieving a healthy BMI should be high on the priority list, as well as giving up smoking and avoiding second-hand smoke. Smoking can damage sperm, lowering count and motility. Studies also verify that pesticides, heavy metals and exogenous oestrogens, possibly found in water, decrease sperm production.

Two recent studies found that exposure to endocrine disrupters such as phthalates in plastic packaging and bisphenol A in tinned food may reduce fertility in men. More research is necessary but the advice is to limit exposure to these compounds in the meantime.

Alcohol consumption and stress are two weight-related lifestyle factors that influence fertility. Men who drink alcohol excessively may jeopardise implantation and conception as alcohol can be found in the semen comparatively quickly after drinking. Alcohol leads to free radical damage and so the advice is that both men and women should avoid or strictly limit alcohol while trying to conceive.

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