A Fertility Scientist Breaks Down Why Sperm Count & Quality Are Declining + What We Can Do About It
It's no secret that male fertility is on the decline in the Western world.
For a little background, when it comes to sperm health, it's not just quantity that counts. Quality—which refers to the shape (morphology) and mobility (motility)—matters, too. Sperm quality also goes beyond these metrics. DNA errors in the sperm, problems with the Y chromosome, and, surprisingly, even the endocannabinoid system are all relevant to sperm maturation and health, as well.
Now, there's a lot of data that indicate both sperm count and quality are declining. One 2017 meta-analysis consisting of 42,935 men—from Western countries including Australia, Europe, New Zealand, and North America—showed that sperm concentration and total sperm count declined by 50 to 60% in the four decades spanning 1973 to 2011. Another meta-analysis with 14,947 men across 61 studies suggests that this decline was already occurring as early as the 1930s1.
Moreover, the men included in these meta-analyses were not receiving fertility treatment or otherwise thought to be experiencing fertility challenges; therefore, the men most affected by the factors contributing to declines in sperm quantity were not included.
The good news is that even with this astronomical decrease, sperm counts are still within normal range. And still, It is important to understand this dip and ensure this rate of decline does not continue.
Why are sperm count and quality declining?
From a scientific standpoint, the jury is still out on why exactly sperm count and quality are declining. Nevertheless, there is one highly likely culprit: modern life.
What is it about modern life that is wreaking havoc on male fertility?
Try something with me: Search your mind's eye for a vivid movie of what your day looked like yesterday? Conjure up every detail you can: what you did, what you thought, what you worried about, what you consumed, how often you sat and what you were doing while sitting, and the details of the environment surrounding you.
Now do the same for an ordinary day in your grandfather's life when he was your age. This will require some imagination on your part, but consider the differences in what your grandfather did, what he thought and worried about, what he consumed, how often he sat and what he was doing while sitting, and the details of the environment surrounding your grandfather.
The difference between routines is where you can start to get a sense of what factors of modern life are taking such a toll on male fertility. (And female fertility, too.) Here are a few to consider:
Age of reproduction
Let's start with the most obvious. Let's say you are 30 years old. At 30, perhaps you do not yet have children. More than likely, at 30, your grandfather was already married and had his children—meaning that his children were created when he was biologically younger, so he had the advantage of youth on his side.
You may be more likely to eat breakfast from a package than your grandfather was. Your packaged breakfast was likely exposed to a number of chemicals, including the chemicals in plastics. If you did eat a fresh breakfast, if your fruit and eggs weren't organic, they could contain glyphosate, other pesticides, and inflammatory omega-6. Your grandfather probably didn't have to choose whether to buy organic or conventional because his food sources were more than likely from local sources, including small farms.
Before you even got to breakfast, you may have picked up the cell phone that was charging next to your bed, checked your email, and started scrolling social media. That means you started your day with a shot of stress over the demands in your inbox and social comparison.
You also may have woken up tired because you didn't get enough sleep after staying up late doing any number of things: watching TV, playing video games, or working on your laptop to try to meet endless deadlines and demands. You might have even been drinking caffeine and mindlessly snacking to keep yourself awake.
Lack of quality sleep
While you stayed up late, your body was experiencing the cumulative impact of three things: (1) insufficient sleep for repair functions within the body; (2) continued stress and activation from social engagement and other activity; and (3) continued exposure to blue light from your home and your devices that told your body and brain that it was still daytime.
Each of these interferes with your circadian rhythm, disrupts your balance of sex and stress hormones, and contributes to dysregulated blood sugar and risk for insulin resistance, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and accelerated aging. These types of stress, and their health consequences, are known in the scientific literature to affect sperm quantity and quality2.
Social media anxiety
All of these things that I have already laid out affect your stress levels and your mental health. But think about how your thoughts and worries are different from your grandfather's, too. Your grandfather may have thought about keeping up with the Joneses next door, but he definitely wasn't comparing his bank account, lifestyle, masculinity, leadership ability, or other aspects of his status to thousands of people on social media.
Add on top of this how rampant mental health challenges are today, and you can see how your grandfather's stressors were very different from your own (even if your grandfather had fewer means than you enjoy today).
Still, there are ways to enjoy modern life and promote healthy sperm.
The comforts and privileges of modern life are beautiful. The trick is to keep ourselves grounded in the simplicity of the world that the human brain, body, and fertility evolved to survive and thrive in.
At The Fertility & Pregnancy Institute, we teach how to do just that with the best-kept fertility secret: the Primemester™.
The Primemester™ is the 120-plus days leading up to conception, and it is one of the most important and valuable windows of opportunity that we will ever have as human beings. It is during this window when we can literally change the quality and expression of the genes that we will pass down to our children (and grandchildren), through a process called epigenetics.
Epigenetics literally means "above genetics," and it refers to the process through which the expression of certain genes can be activated or suppressed, based on how you take care of yourself. Through epigenetics, you have the power to shape how your genes express themselves to produce your mental and physical health, including your sperm health and fertility.
How can you positively affect your genes?
Gene expression becomes activated or suppressed based on how you interact with each 24-hour period and season. That includes how you sleep, what you think and worry about, what you consume and surround yourself with, how you move (or don't move) your body, and how you connect with other beings and nature.
Here are some of the most simple things that we teach in the Primemester™ Protocol that you can start doing today to reduce the physiological and psychological stress in your life to improve your sperm health:
- Maintain a healthy BMI: not too low, and not too high.
- Monitor and maintain healthy blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure levels.
- Keep caffeine and alcohol intake to a minimum.
- Avoid cigarettes, recreational drugs, and any unnecessary over-the-counter and prescription medications that are known to affect sperm health.
- Avoid fast food. Eat organic and local as much as possible. Eat the colors of the rainbow to increase your antioxidant intake and reduce oxidative stress.
- Monitor your sleep, and aim for seven-and-a-half to eight hours of sleep per night.
- Shut off devices and use amber lights in your home when it gets dark. If you can't do this, wear blue-blocker glasses.
- Get rid of plastics in your kitchen to reduce your exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Use glass and stainless steel instead.
- Clean up your self-care products to further reduce your exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Your skin is your largest organ. You are absorbing the things you put on your skin and hair.
- Meditate to increase your stress resilience. Even as little as three minutes per day, practiced every day, can amount to a huge shift in your body and brain.
The good news is that everything you do to contribute to your sperm health also contributes to your longevity. In my mind, that's the best of all worlds: getting to have your babies plus getting to be around for a long, long time to enjoy your grand-babies and great-grand-babies.
Dr. Cleopatra is The Fertility Strategist and Executive Director of The Fertility & Pregnancy Institute. She is a scientist and university professor who pioneered the field of fertility biohacking and creating superbabies. To date, Dr. Cleopatra has scientifically studied tens of thousands of women and families and has helped women in 19 countries on 6 continents have their superbabies. Dr. Cleopatra has been cited in over 1,000 scientific studies in the past 5 years alone, and is a selected member of the Fulbright Specialists Roster. She is also the author of the forthcoming book detailing her revolutionary at-home conceiving system, the Primemester™ Protocol.