Men manufacture sperm constantly. The process takes place in the testicles and lasts 70 to 80 days. Because sperm enter and leave the assembly line continuously, a healthy man may have 2 to 3 billion in the works at any moment. You don’t need a calculator to see how even a small problem can create millions of factory rejects.
And nowadays, keeping your sperm up to par may actually require some effort. Studies show that the typical 1990s man produces about 66 million warriors per cubic centimeter–a little more than half the number his 1940s counterpart was capable of creating, possibly due to environmental factors.
What qualifies sperm as healthy? Doctors consider three factors. First, the sperm count. Fall below 20 million and you’re considered infertile. Second is motility. You want sperm who are Olympic-caliber swimmers. Last comes morphology, or structure. Properly shaped sperm have straight tails and oval heads. In a fertile man at least 40 to 50 percent have a normal structure.
Lifestyle can affect any or all of the above. Of course, most men don’t think about their sperm until they’re planning a family. But maybe we should. A new wave of research shows that minor alterations in lifestyle today may stave off fertility problems later. And even if children aren’t on your agenda, these changes can keep the rest of your body well-tuned, too. After all, our sperm are our advance men in the gene pool–we want them to represent us in the best light, even if they never actually strike a deal. Here are some simple lifestyle changes that will keep those little tadpoles ready for action at a moment’s notice.
Feed them zinc. Zinc increases sperm production and may also protect sperm from vaginal bacteria, explains Curtiss Hunt, M.D., of the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Center in North Dakota. Dr. Hunt’s study also found a link between the mineral and the volume of a man’s ejaculate. As zinc intake fell from above 10 milligrams per day to just above 1 milligram, the amount of ejaculate dropped by nearly one-third. That can’t be good for fertility, says Dr. Hunt. His prescription: “Be sure to get the RDA of 15 milligrams of zinc every day.” If you don’t take a mineral supplement that contains that much zinc, you can easily get it at dinner with some lean beef, crabmeat or oysters.
Protect them with vitamin C. Vitamin C also helps keep sperm strong by protecting them against the ravages of free radicals. A by-product of the body’s natural metabolism, free radicals can kill sperm, making them cling together in immobile dumps, or alter their DNA. Vitamin C, an antioxidant, can neutralize free radicals before sperm damage occurs. A 1991 report on vitamin C-deficient smokers showed that daily vitamin C supplements of 250 milligrams improved sperm motility and morphology.
Pump them up with exercise. Regular workouts will keep your sperm, and the rest of you, in good form. Don’t overdo it, though, if you and your partner are trying to conceive. Highly demanding and intense exercise can harm sperm structure and motility. (We’re talking about extreme training here, not 30 minutes a day on the stair climber.) Two studies at the University of Connecticut last year tracked different categories of athletes: runners (both 65 miles and up a week and 35 miles or less) and weight trainers. While weight lifters and moderate runners remained fertile, men who ran over 65 miles weekly had weakened sperm, says Mary Jane De Souza, Ph.D., professor of reproductive physiology and exercise at the university’s health center. De Souza suspects that not eating enough during intense training may decrease the number of healthy sperm. If you insist on training hard, be sure to up your intake of high-carbohydrate and vitamin-rich foods like fruits and vegetables.
De-stress before you undress. A 1992 study followed 84 couples through fertility treatment. When treatment began, only two men produced abnormal sperm samples. But as treatment progressed–and stress levels rose among those who’d not yet conceived–11 men turned in samples with abnormal sperm. Although doctors don’t know what links stress and sperm production, they say it’s clear there is a relationship.
Use them or lose them. Just like the rest of your body, your testes gear up to meet the demand placed on them and slack off when not exercised. Some men think that abstaining from sex will make them more potent, but since sperm have a short lifespan, sperm motility begins to plummet in men who abstain from sex for four or five days. Extend the celibate streak for a few weeks, and the ejaculate may be next to worthless.
Don’t pollute yourself. You know those warnings on beer bottles for pregnant women? New evidence suggests that it may be more critical that the soon-to-be-father watch what he drinks, eats, smokes. Data gathered on 15,000 newborns by the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill show that a father’s excessive drinking and smoking habits increase the risk of birth defects. In Britain, nuclear power plant workers exposed to low levels of radiation fathered higher-than-average numbers of children with leukemia.
Bottom line: It’s time for us to begin to take responsibility for our fertility. With a few key adjustments, some of the estimated 1 in 14 American men with fertility problems may be potent after only a few months. Moderation is the rule. The above study linking booze to birth defects showed no problems for the offspring of one-a-day drinkers, for example. Even Hofmann likes to kick back and pop open an occasional beer. “No harm done,” he says.