Did you know that the ideal diet for conception is different for men and women? Or that the average male sperm count has declined at least 50% in the past century? The male testes are the most DNA-rich part of the body and are more vulnerable to genetic damage than any other site. Fragile genetic material is produced at a rapid rate, but a single sperm cell takes about 70 days to mature. Any nutrient deficiency or genetic offender (caffeine, alcohol, toxins) will affect sperm quality and count. Eliminating the optional offenders like caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol is the first step in a fertility diet. The next step is to select foods that prevent genetic damage and support male hormone production.
Both men and women should get the bulk of their daily calories from lean proteins, smart fats and oils, and complex, minimally processed carbohydrates. Take a look at Dr. Andrew Weil’s Anti-Inflammatory Diet Pyramid for a graphic understanding of the basics. When it comes to micronutrients, though, there are noteworthy differences between the sexes. Antioxidants are crucial to the production of healthy, mobile sperm cells with staying power. Colorful fruits and vegetables are potent fertility foods, and so are certain nuts, grains, juices, and seafood. If a man gets most of his meals at a drive-thru window, he’s missing out on the nutrients he needs for making the hormones and enzymes that optimize reproductive function. If he sucks down a 20 ounce coffee for breakfast, followed by sodas or energy drinks throughout the day, he just might be a fertility catastrophe. He can reverse the problem by replacing unhealthy food-on-the-go with a few carefully chosen snacks and juices.
Antioxidants are the best defense against the increasing number of environmental toxins that assault our fertility, and male fertility in particular. Here are the most important micronutrients for male fertility:
- Vitamin C: Adequate vitamin C prevents agglutination of sperm cells. Sperm that are stuck together aren’t going anywhere or fertilizing anything. Vitamin C enhances sperm motility and lifespan, and may prevent deformities. For pro-sperm effects, 500 to 1000 milligrams daily might be ideal.
- Zinc: It’s hard to overstate the role of zinc. Zinc assists in the production of testosterone and elevates the sperm count. Zinc deficiency can lower testosterone and even shrink the testicles. Get at least 15 milligrams every day from shellfish, meat, beans, eggs, wheat germ, and fortified cereals.
- Vitamin E: Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin found in vegetable oils. Vitamin E deficiency inhibits the production of sex hormones and other factors necessary for sperm production and motility. Vitamin E also helps maintain the integrity of the sperm cell membrane. The Recommended Daily Allowance for adult men is 15 mg in the form of alpha-tocopherol. The ideal intake for male fertility is unknown. Good sources of Vitamin E include sunflower oil (5.59 mg per Tablespoon), grapeseed oil (3.92 mg per Tablespoon) and olive oil (1.94 mg per Tablespoon). Vitamin E is found in a variety of nuts and seeds, leafy greens, and whole grains.
- Selenium: Selenium maintains the integrity of the sperm cell membrane, preventing breakdown. Men should be consume about 70 micrograms of selenium per day. Brazil nuts have the highest selenium content of any food at 200 micrograms per nut. Eat only one or two at a time. Other good sources of selenium are tuna, nuts, beef, chicken, and eggs.
- Vitamin A: Vitamin A boosts sperm motility. Look for it in yellow and orange vegetables and leafy greens. A target of 900 micrograms or 5000 IU is reasonable.
- Folic acid: The same B vitamin that prevents early defects in embryological development can prevent chromosomal abnormalities in sperm. Find it in liver, beans, egg yolks, fortified breads and cereals, green leafy vegetables, and orange juice.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Found in salmon, sardines, anchovies, and other cold water fish. Other good sources are almonds, pumpkin seeds, and flaxseed. Flaxseed is my favorite fertility food for men because it’s also packed with zinc. Buy a bag of organic flaxseed, grind it in a coffee grinder, and mix it into smoothies, yogurt, applesauce, baked goods, and salads.
A Note About Supplements
Real food is the ideal source of fertility micronutrients, but some adult men will not obtain adequate amounts of micronutrients from diet alone. The best available evidence suggests that antioxidant supplements in general do not prevent disease and may slightly increase death rates. According to a Cochrane review on oral antioxidant supplements in subfertile men, live birth rates increased with the use of these supplements, but the quality of the evidence was low. If you choose to take an antioxidant supplement or proprietary fertility blend, do so only until pregnancy occurs. Don’t duplicate micronutrients from multiple supplements as this can result in toxicity.
Superfoods and Juices
A superfood is a natural food source that contains an unusually high or concentrated amount of desirable micronutrients. Superfood is a popular term, not a scientific one. A variety of nuts, berries, and vegetables from around the world are referred to as superfoods. Juicing is a common way to get micronutrients into the diet without eating vast amounts of the fruit or vegetable being juiced. Because fiber is lost, juicing is not a wise replacement for eating raw fruits and vegetables. Juicing is a good way to obtain the other benefits of superfoods, though. Many superfoods contain anthocyanins, the antioxidants that cause the deep red, blue, and purple colors in the skin of red grapes, blueberries, and cranberries. Choose organic fruits and vegetables and keep the skins in your juice. A few off-the-shelf juices that deserve special mention for men are pomegranate and acai berry juice.
Sample Men’s Fertility Shopping List
- Breakfast foods: Eggs, whole grain toast with almond butter, high fiber mixed grain cereals, yogurt with flaxseed or wheat germ, orange juice
- Lunch and dinner foods: Dark salad greens, salmon or shellfish, tuna on whole grain bread or wrap, organic chicken, whole grain pasta, quinoa, brown rice, squash, sweet potatoes, yams or carrots, variety of beans, lentils, peas
- Snacks: Raw almonds, cashews, walnuts, Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, raw pumpkin seeds, blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, organic red grapes
- Miscellaneous: Sunflower oil for baking, olive oil for sautéing and marinades, grapeseed oil for salad dressing and marinades, flaxseed, pomegranate juice
April Ward, MSN, CNM is an integrative women’s health specialist in Skaneateles, NY. To learn more, call 315-200-2349.