When couples decide to start a family, the topic of fertility takes center stage. In some cases however, one or both partners might be affected by fertility issues. In these cases, there might be a problem with the woman or man’s reproductive system. One of the most common fertility issues In men is sperm health and quality.
Infertility affects a male or female’s ability to get pregnant even after at least 12 months of having unprotected sex. This presents itself differently in the male and female reproductive systems (1).
In males, infertility could be caused by issues of semen ejaculation, the absence of sperm or small amounts of sperm, or else the abnormal shape and movement of sperm. Meanwhile in females, it could be brought about by abnormalities in the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus and the endocrine system (which deals with one’s hormones) (1).
Note that there is also secondary infertility, which pertains to infertility after at least one prior achieved pregnancy (1).
The main sign of infertility in males is an inability to conceive; other than that, there are no other apparent signs (3).
Men suffering from this might also experience difficulties in sexual function. They may have a hard time ejaculating or else produce only a small volume of semen; experience lowered sex drive; or erectile dysfunction (difficulty maintaining an erection). There may be swelling or pain in the testicular area; repeated occurrence of respiratory infections; inability to smell; abnormal growth in the breast; reduced facial or body hair; and a sperm count lower than normal (less than 15 million per milliliter or less than 39 million per ejaculation) (3).
Causes of male infertility
Infertility may be caused by obstructions in the male reproductive tracts (such as the ejaculatory ducts or the seminal vesicles), thereby impacting ejaculation. Hormonal disorders may also cause anomalies in hormones produced by the pituitary gland, hypothalamus and the testicles. The hormone testosterone, for instance, controls sperm production. Other causes may be a failure of the testes to produce sperm or an abnormality in sperm function and quality (1).
The pituitary gland, or master gland, regulates the function of other glands, including the thyroid, adrenals, as well as the ovaries and testes (2).
Underlying issues that trigger male infertility include inherited disorders, hormonal imbalances or dilated veins surrounding the testicles (3), and other considerations.
A varicocele, or abnormally dilated veins in the scrotum (sac protecting the testicles and blood vessels), is often associated with male infertility, reduced production of testosterone and scrotal discomfort. It affects sperm health in that it sometimes causes azoospermia, wherein no sperm is present in ejaculated semen (4).
When values in the testicular veins do not function as they should, gravity forces blood to collect in the scrotum. It affects testosterone levels, although only rarely do they drop down to severely low levels. In those cases however, varicoceles may give rise to complications such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes and osteoporosis (4).
However, varicoceles are common and do not usually pose a danger. It affects 15% of adult men, and in the 20% of adolescents that have them, a small portion will resolve on their own. Eighty percent of men with varicoceles are also able to conceive with their partners, but they are more common in men who have already fathered at least one child, and are currently having difficulty conceiving (4).
This occurs when semen goes back inside the body and into the bladder during ejaculation. It happens when nerves and muscles do not close during orgasm. This may be caused by previous surgery, certain medications and issues in the nervous system. It is characterised by cloudy urine after ejaculation and ‘dry’ ejaculation, or less fluid ejaculated (5).
Sperm health is affected when antibodies in a man’s body attack them, making it difficult for sperm to swim through the fallopian tubes and fuse with an egg. Fortunately, this is an uncommon occurrence (5).
Abnormalities in chromosomes
A change in the number and structure of chromosomes can impact fertility such as a deviation in Y chromosome, which the male partner contributes to DNA makeup (5).
When the pituitary gland produces too much prolactin, it could lead to infertility and erectile dysfunction (5). Prolactin is a hormone present in both men and women. In women it triggers lactation after childbirth so mothers can breastfeed (9).
This condition causes testicles to not create sperm due to poor stimulation by the pituitary hormones (5).
Treatments for these conditions include surgical procedures, but it is best to talk with your healthcare provider about options open to you.
How to improve sperm health
A study6 confirmed that smoking, drinking alcohol, taking illicit drugs, obesity, psychological stress, dietary choice and advanced paternal age could negatively impact male fertility. Making changes with regard to these practices could increase chances of conception (6).
Other ways to improve sperm health are: maintaining proper weight; eating foods rich in antioxidants; preventing sexually-transmitted infections; managing stress; engaging in physical activity; avoiding toxins (e.g., pesticides); preventing increased scrotal temperature (7).
Zinc for sperm health
This trace element maintains reproductive health by acting as an antioxidant, particularly in men. It fights heavy metals and inflammatory agents in cigarettes. It balances hormones, specifically testosterone and prostate. It protects sexual health by acting as an antibacterial agent in men’s urinary systems. It also maintains the lining of reproductive organs (8).
This element is found in nuts, legumes, seafood, fortified cereals, low-fat yogurt, and animal-derived proteins; eating such foods can improve the proliferation of germinal cells, which give rise to gametes, or reproductive cells. A deficiency in zinc may then affect sperm health.
Research (8) cites that zinc can lessen testis injury from stresses brought on by heavy metals, fluoride and heat.
It is also necessary for the normal function of the hypothalamus-pituitary-gonadal axis, which, as earlier discussed, controls the reproductive glands. The element helps the release of thyroid-releasing hormones. If the thyroid is low in zinc, it may not produce enough hormones, which in turn can affect testosterone levels (8).
The prostate has high levels of zinc, which regulates the function of mature sperm cells. It serves as a cofactor for certain enzymatic reactions that help in preserving sperm motility, due to the high concentration of zinc in the tail of mature sperm (8).
Not only is zinc highly important in spermatogenesis and testis development, but it has also been found to be significant for conception, implantation and pregnancy outcome (8).
You can get Zinc, along with all the vitamins and nutrients you require for your specific health needs as supplements. Looking for the only personalised vitamin packs in Australia? Get your personalised supplements from Vitable. Vitable lets you take out a monthly vitamin subscription, with a vitamin delivery service to bring your packs to your doorstep.
*Always read the label. Follow the directions for use. If symptoms persist, talk to your health professional. Vitamin and/or mineral supplements should not replace a balanced diet.
- “Infertility - Fact Sheet.” World Health Organization. Published 14 Sept 2020 on https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/infertility. Accessed 22 Jan 2022.
- “What is the pituitary gland?” The Pituitary Foundation. Published on https://www.pituitary.org.uk/information/what-is-the-pituitary-gland/. Accessed 22 Jan 2022.
- “Male infertility.” Mayo Clinic. Published 13 Apr 2021 on https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/male-infertility/symptoms-causes/syc-20374773. Accessed 22 Jan 2022.
- “Varicocele.” Johns Hopkins Medicine. Published on https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/varicocele. Accessed 22 Jan 2022.
- “Male Infertility.” Urology Care Foundation. Published on https://www.urologyhealth.org/urology-a-z/m/male-infertility. Accessed 22 Jan 2022.
- Durairajanayagam, D. “Lifestyle causes of male infertility.” Arab Journal of Urology. Published 18 Mar 2019 on 10.1016/j.aju.2017.12.004. Accessed 22 Jan 2022.
- “Getting pregnant.” Mayo Clinic. Published 25 Apr 2020 on https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/getting-pregnant/in-depth/fertility/art-20047584. Accessed 22 Jan 2022.
- Fallah, A, Mohammad-Hasani, A & Colagar AH. “Zinc is an Essential Element for Male Fertility: A Review of Zn Roles in Men’s Health, Germination, Sperm Quality, and Fertilization.” Journal of Reproduction & Infertility. Published Apr-Jun 2018 on https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/getting-pregnant/in-depth/fertility/art-20047584. Accessed 22 Jan 2022.
- “What does Prolactin Do?” Hormone Health Network. Published Nov 2018 on https://www.hormone.org/your-health-and-hormones/glands-and-hormones-a-to-z/hormones/prolactin. Accessed 22 Jan 2022