In 1992, a controversial paper was published suggesting sperm counts have been dropping around the world over the last 50 years. However, this remains a matter of debate. It’s notoriously difficult to determine sperm counts in the general population for obvious reasons. If you just go ask men for samples, less than 1 in 3 tend to agree to participate.
Finally though, a study of tens of thousands of men studied over a 17-year period was published. It indeed found a significant decline in sperm concentration, about a 30 percent drop, as well as a drop in the percentage of normal looking sperms. Most sperms looked normal in the 90’s, but more recently that has dropped to less than half. This may constitute a serious public health warning.
Semen quality may actually be related to life expectancy. In a study of more than 40,000 men visiting a sperm lab during a 40-year period, they found a decrease in mortality was associated with an increase in semen quality, suggesting that semen quality may therefore be a fundamental biomarker of overall male health. Even when defective sperm are capable of fertilizing an egg, creating a child with abnormal sperm may have serious implications for that child’s future health.
What role may diet play? I profiled a first-of-its-kind Harvard study suggesting that a small increase in saturated fat intake was associated with a substantially lower sperm count, but not all fat was bad. Higher intakes of omega-3’s were associated with a more favorable sperm shape. This may help explain why researchers at UCLA were able to improve sperm vitality, movement, and shape by giving men about 18 walnuts a day for 12 weeks. Walnuts have more than just omega 3’s, though. They also contain other important micronutrients. In a study of men aged 22 through 80, older men who ate diets containing lots of antioxidants and nutrients, such as vitamin C, had the genetic integrity of sperm of much younger men.
The antioxidants we eat not only end up in our semen, but are concentrated there. The amount of vitamin C ends up nearly ten times more concentrated in men’s testicles than the rest of their bodies. Why? Because sperm are highly susceptible to damage induced by free radicals, and accumulating evidence suggests that this oxidative stress plays an important role in male infertility. So, more fruits and vegetables and perhaps less meat and dairy, but the Harvard data were considered preliminary. They studied fewer than 100 men, but it was the best we had… until now.
A much larger follow-up study, highlighted in my video, The Role of Diet in Declining Sperm Counts, found that the higher the saturated fat intake the lower the sperm count, up to a 65 percent reduction. These findings are of potentially great public interest because changes in diet over the past decades may be part of the explanation for the recently reported high frequency of subnormal human sperm counts. In any case, the current findings suggest that adapting dietary intake toward eating less saturated fat may be beneficial for both general and reproductive health.
Why is high dietary intake of saturated fat associated with reduced semen quality? What’s the connection? Sex steroid hormones in meat, eggs, and dairy may help explain the link between saturated fat intake and declining sperm counts. That’s the subject of my video, Dairy Estrogen and Male Fertility.
More on male infertility in my videos Fukushima and Radioactivity in Seafood and Male Fertility and Diet.
Diet also has a role to play in sexual dysfunction:
- Survival of the Firmest: Erectile Dysfunction and Death
- Cholesterol and Female Sexual Dysfunction
- Pistachio Nuts for Erectile Dysfunction
- BPA Plastic and Male Sexual Dysfunction
- 50 Shades of Greens
Michael Greger, M.D.
PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.
Image Credit: Julia Mariani / Flickr
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