When it comes to fertility, the focus tends to fall on the female body. We know that a delicate balance of hormones and a healthy menstrual cycle is essential for successful conception, plus it's our job to carry a baby. But what about the contribution from the men – aren't we massively underestimating the importance of their tip-top sperm?

Today, we hear from two leading experts to get the NTKs on male fertility.

How common is infertility in men?

Male infertility is on the increase with it estimated that male factor fertility makes up to 40% of all infertility in couples with a further 20% of cases being due to mixed male/female factors. Despite this, fertility expert and author Emma Cannon believes infertility in men is often overlooked. “Female fertility awareness has really improved, but there is still a lack of awareness among men and also a lack of acknowledgement from some medical professionals on the importance of male fertility,” she says.

So, what can affect male fertility?

Healthy sperm is crucial for conception, but the development and quality of sperm can be influenced by various nutritional and environmental factors. "Poor nutrition, exposure to pollutants and toxins, recreational drugs and medications, plus general lifestyle factors such as stress all play their part in affecting sperm count, motility (the spontaneous movement) and morphology (the shape)," says The Zita West Fertility Clinic.

How can diet improve sperm health?

“There is little by way of treatment offered to men by mainstream medicine in terms of improving the quality of sperm, so diet and lifestyle changes offer the best chance for men to optimise and preserve fertility," says Emma. She advises eating a diet rich in the following key nutrients to help improve sperm function.

  • Carotenoids – carrots, sweet potatoes, avocados, leafy greens, cantaloupe melon, red peppers, tomatoes and dried apricots
  • CoQ10 – beef offal, chicken and oily fish, nuts and seeds
  • Folate – leafy greens, asparagus, liver, chickpeas, brown rice
  • L-Arginine – red meat, nuts (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, cashews, peanuts), seafood, dairy products, chocolate
  • L-Carnitine – beef, pork and seafood
  • Omega-3 long chain fatty acids – Oily fish walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds
  • Selenium – brail nuts, sunflower seeds, fish (mackerel, halibut, tuna, herring, sardines), shellfish (oysters, clops, lobster), poultry, meat and whole grains
  • Vitamin B – fish, shellfish, dairy, offal, eggs, beef, pork
  • Vitamin C – peppers, citrus fruits, berries, leafy greens
  • Vitamin D – regular daily sunshine or supplement
  • Vitamin E – sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, Swiss chard, avocado, peanuts
  • Zinc – oysters, lentils, pumpkin seeds, nuts, spinach, chicken, lamb, pork, cocoa

And what to avoid?

A good diet is essential for healthy sperm development, but sperm can be vulnerable to what is known as oxidative stress or free radical damage.

“Free radicals are unstable molecules that are linked with cellular destruction, and high levels endanger sperm function and viability. Some causes are poor nutrition, pollutants such as smoking and poor detoxification processes in the body. Damage often results in abnormally formed sperm, and a poor morphology result. Free radicals can also cause sperm to become hyperactive whilst still in the reproductive tract which affects their motility. Semen normally contains agents known as anti-oxidants to protect sperm against free radicals and if in some way this natural defence system is impaired, the effect on sperm can be extremely damaging,” says The Zita West Clinic.

Removing the following potential causes of free radical damage and eating a diet high in anti-oxidants can help to protect sperm.

  • Smoking
  • Alcohol
  • Processed foods and fast food – particularly foods that are high in artificial additives and poor quality fats and oils
  • Recreational drugs
  • Environmental pollution such as traffic fumes.
  • Fried, barbecued and burnt foods