A man’s number of swimmers is affected by many factors, including ones you’re in control of. Sperm count is considered low when there are fewer than 15 million sperm per milliliter of semen, and having lower-than-normal sperm motility levels can make it extra difficult — though not impossible — to fertilize a partner’s egg.
For those of you who aren’t interested in having kids, this issue is still relevant: Low sperm count is also linked to infertility, testicular cancer, prostate cancer and cardiovascular problems later in life, according to National Geographic.
Keep your swimmers at normal levels by taking precautions with the following 13 factors that have been shown to have a negative impact on sperm count. (And scroll below the slideshow for tips on how to improve sperm count.)
You’ve probably heard the warning about not keeping your laptop on your lap — it’s true. Increasing the temperature around your family jewels can mess with sperm production. This is the same reason why you should avoid hot tubs, saunas and steamy baths if you’re aiming for healthy sperm levels. It’s also why experts advise against wearing tight underwear like briefs or athletic shorts.
Cyclists should also be aware that riding a bike more than two hours a day, six days a week could negatively affect sperm count. If you’re a hardcore cyclist, make sure you take frequent breaks.
In case you didn’t have enough reasons to quit, smoking cigarettes or marijuana can hurt your reproductive health. Smoking cigarettes has been linked to reduced sperm motility (aka the little guys’ ability to swim), as well as abnormally shaped sperm, and heavy use of marijuana has been associated with lower testosterone levels and reduced sperm quantity and quality. Other studies have refuted this (see “Alcohol” slide).
The relationship between alcohol use and sperm count is somewhat unclear. Some studies say that heavy drinking can hurt both the quality and quantity of sperm, but a 2012 British study found that neither drinking nor smoking would do any harm. Here’s the easy solution: Drink in moderation and don't smoke; heavy drinking and smoking can do plenty of damage without even factoring in reproductive health.
Being obese — i.e., having a BMI higher than 30 — increases a man’s likelihood of being sub-fertile threefold, according to an MSN UK article. Not only does obesity increase the temperature down there due to fat deposits in the groin, but it can also raise the body’s oestrogen level — both of these effects can hamper the testicles’ ability to do their job.
Additionally, a March 2012 study published in Human Reproduction found that men on high-fat diets had a 43% lower total sperm count and a 38% lower sperm concentration than men on low-fat diets.
While many sexually active people use lubricant to help things, um, move more efficiently, that same product can actually hurt sperms' ability to move freely. If you’re really concerned about sperm count, the Mayo Clinic suggests using vegetable, safflower or peanut oil instead.
6. BPA products
There hasn’t been enough research to convict bisphenol A — a chemical found in some cans used for canned food, polycarbonate plastic cups, pitchers, adult dishware and, oddly, receipts — of hurting men’s reproductive health, but at least a few studies have linked high levels of BPA in urine to lower sperm quantity, quality and motility.
7. Chemical found in nonstick pans & raincoats
Some studies are pointing to our pans as risks for male reproductive health. One study in particular found that men with high levels of certain chemicals called perfluoralkyl acids — which add the nonstick quality to raincoats and pans — in their sperm had half the amount of normal sperm. Don’t go throwing out your expensive pans yet — this study was small, and the relationship between perluoroalkyl acids and sperm levels requires much more research.
Certain medications — such as calcium channel blockers, tricyclic antidepressants, anti-androgens, anabolic steroids, chemotherapy drugs and radiation treatment for cancer — can cause fertility issues, so be sure to discuss these potential complications with your doctor before starting the medication.
You’ve probably noticed an increase in manufacturers touting their products as “phthalate-free” in the past couple of years. It’s because these substances — which are often added to plastic and can be found in various cosmetics and personal care products — have caused a stir in the past decade after a number of studies linked them to a plethora of health concerns. A few of those concerns: lower sperm count, lower sperm motility and abnormally shaped sperm.
Is there anything that stress doesn’t affect? According to the Mayo Clinic, it can interfere with the hormones needed to produce sperm, and it’s not a bad idea for a man looking to increase his sperm count to find more effective ways to relax. One small British study actually found that men who talked about their problems with loved ones actually had higher sperm counts than those who bottled up their emotions.
If you carry your phone in your hip pocket or on your belt, you might want to rethink that — men who follow this practice were found to have 11% fewer mobile sperm than those who stored their phone in other places. Even when it’s not in the general vicinity of your groin, cellphones have been linked to reproductive issues. One study found that men who spent more than an hour a day on the phone had 17% fewer highly motile sperm than those who only chatted on the device 15 minutes a day.
Like alcohol — or anything, really — caffeine intake should be consumed in moderation for ideal reproductive health. Once you reach three cups of coffee a day, you increase your risk of genetic mutations in sperm, according to Livestrong. A 2002 study also found that a cup of coffee a day was associated with multiple births (e.g., twins, triplets, etc.) — sounds like too much caffeine can make even your sperm a little too jumpy. That said, make sure to check out our tips below the slideshow on how to improve your sperm count, because caffeine has also been linked with positive effects on men’s reproductive health.
Before you get all riled up about this controversial food, we’re only including soy in this list because eating soy foods has been associated with lower sperm concentrations — HOWEVER, those lower sperm concentrations were usually still in a normal range, and the study that produced these findings was small and didn’t prove a causal effect. So it's probably safe to go back to eating your tofu.
There are plenty of natural ways to get your swimmers in tip-top shape.
Eating a well-balanced diet rich in essential nutrients can benefit your reproductive health. Make sure you’re getting 400 micrograms of folic acid a day, which you can get from leafy greens, legumes and orange juice. Vitamin C has been shown to benefit sperm motility, so chow down on foods like bell peppers, dark leafy greens, Brussels sprouts, kiwi, oranges and strawberries. And don’t forget to get 11 milligrams of zinc a day — some studies have linked short-term zinc deficiencies to a reduction in sperm count and testosterone levels, according to BabyCenter.com.
Get your butt off the couch! A recent study found that couch potatoes who watch too much TV had fewer sperm than men who exercise moderately to heavily each week. And contrary to popular belief, being a fitness fanatic isn’t going to hurt your fertility if it’s all part of a healthy lifestyle. Just stay away from the steroids!
Yes, yes, we know. We listed caffeine in the slideshow as a potential risk. But the thing is, if you’re drinking it in moderation, it could have some advantages: Some research suggests caffeine actually improves sperm motility.
Now here’s a tip you’ll appreciate: Have sex (safely!) more often. A 2009 study found that daily sex keeps sperm healthy and improves the likelihood of conception. Just don’t take this advice too far if you’re trying to conceive: Doing it more often than once a day can result in too few sperm.