A successful pregnancy requires both a quality sperm and a quality egg. Yet, sperm factor infertility, also known as male factor infertility, accounts for 40-50% of all infertility cases.
Luckily, testing exists today to determine an accurate diagnosis and to help pave the way forward. In this article, we explore everything to know about sperm quality, why it matters for a successful pregnancy, and what treatments are available.
Understanding Sperm Quality
Healthy sperm can make the journey to the egg and fertilize it. However, poor sperm quality means this is less likely to happen—but not improbable.
Three main factors impact sperm quality, including:
- Concentration: This refers to the number of sperm in a set amount of semen.
- Motility: This involves the characteristics of the sperm, such as the sperm’s ability to swim or move.
- Morphology: This term refers to the appearance of the sperm, such as whether it has a healthy-looking head, body, and tail.
With your fertility team, all the above is assessed through a semen analysis.
However, various factors can affect sperm quality. So, let’s take a closer look at what signifies poor sperm quality and what causes it.
Signs of Poor Sperm Quality
There are usually no signs or symptoms of poor sperm quality. To determine sperm quality, a semen analysis must be conducted. This will involve a provided semen sample, which is then taken to a lab (located on-site at TRIO). Testing can take up to two weeks, especially if it also involves DNA fragmentation.
Evidence of poor sperm quality may include:
- Poor concentration, which is defined as less than 15 million per milliliter.
- Poor morphology, which is defined as any less than or equal to 4% at TRIO.
- Poor motility, which is defined as less than 40% of the sperm moving normally.
- Poor DNA Fragmentation Index which may indicate poor fertilization potential even with IVF, is defined as greater or equal to 25%.
If your semen analysis comes back abnormal as indicated above, in vitro fertilization (IVF) may be an option.
Before a semen analysis, some signs and symptoms of poor sperm quality may include:
- Low libido
- Trouble maintaining an erection
- Reduced facial or body hair
- Pain or swelling in the testicular area
- Note: it’s more common to have no symptoms.
Causes of Poor Sperm Quality
Many things can lead to poor sperm quality, including lifestyle and diet choices, as well as certain medical conditions.
For instance, heat exposure to the testicles can lead to lower sperm quality. Research indicates a one-degree increase in testicular temperature can lead to a 14% decrease in the production of mature sperm. This means that spending more time than you should in a sauna or taking long, hot baths may have detrimental impacts on your fertility.
Yet, due to the intricate process involved in sperm production, many things can go wrong along the way. For good sperm production and quality, you need well-functioning testicles, healthy pituitary and hypothalamus glands, and a healthy reproductive system for the ejaculation of sperm.
Additionally, medical conditions that may impact sperm quality include infection, varicocele, the presence of anti-sperm antibodies, tumors, celiac disease, and hormonal imbalances.
Medications can also impact sperm quality. For example, anything that contains anabolic steroids or an androgenic component will impact the quality of the sperm negatively. Anti-fungal and antibiotics may also impair sperm quality.
However, lifestyle changes may significantly improve your sperm quality. So, let’s look at what may benefit sperm quality and your chances of pregnancy success.
Lifestyle Changes for Improved Sperm Quality
The good news is there are various interventions and lifestyle changes you can implement to help enhance sperm quality. These include:
- Maintaining a healthy weight.
- Quitting smoking (cigarettes and/or cannabis).
- Limiting or eliminating alcohol.
- Avoiding excessive heat exposure.
- Managing stress.
- Avoiding anabolic steroids.
- Participating in regular exercise.
- Eating a healthy and balanced diet.
In recent years, specifically, exercise has been highly researched due to its association with sperm quality. Whereas very intense exercise is linked to potentially lower sperm quality, recreational exercisers seem to have healthier sperm. Additional research shows sperm count increases through diet-induced weight loss and is maintained with exercise.
Overall, combining weight management, resistance training, and cardiovascular activity can support overall health, thereby improving reproductive outcomes. However, it’s important not to overdo it. If the goal is a successful pregnancy, it’s recommended to avoid competitive or high-stress sports as this can have negative impacts.
Avoiding Harmful Exposures
Overexposure to chemicals within our environment can also impact sperm quality and sperm count. These include industrial chemicals, heavy metal exposure, radiation, x-rays. It’s best to avoid these when possible.
If your occupation involves using chemicals, always ensure you wear the proper protective gear and take safety precautions.
As previously mentioned, sperm quality is tested in a laboratory setting with a semen analysis test. This test is indicative of your lifestyle and environment over the previous two to three months, as this is the average amount of time for sperm to mature (known as the spermatogenic cycle). This test can reveal how sperm quality is contributing to fertility and help you and your fertility team determine a path forward.
In some cases, additional testing may be needed. This may involve hormonal testing, testicular biopsies, or ultrasounds. From there, treatment involves addressing your specific fertility issue. For many, assisted reproductive technology (ART), such as IUI or IVF, may be the most suitable option for a successful pregnancy. If high DNA fragmentation is a concern, ZyMōt technology can help select the best sperm when undergoing IVF. When used during IVF treatment, ZyMot isolates the progressively motile sperm with the least amount of DNA fragmentation in the final sample to improve the chances of pregnancy.
Often, IUI (intrauterine insemination) is an option for addressing sperm factor infertility, such as low sperm concentrations or low sperm motility. Washed and concentrated sperm are collected and placed in the uterus, where the hope is that fertilization and implantation will occur. However, if it’s been several months of trying to get pregnant with IUI, your fertility team is likely to recommend IVF (with ZyMot if high DNA fragmentation index has been identified).
To learn more about sperm factor infertility and whether it’s impacting your chances of a successful pregnancy, TRIO is proud to offer the SEED program. With this specialized program, our team can get results faster for our clients and begin treatment quicker. Book a free SEED phone consultation online here.