Can Omega-3s Naturally Support Male Fertility?
- Men with fertility problems tend to have lower levels of omega-3s in their blood and seminal fluid
- A healthy omega-3 status appears to support sperm quality and motility
- Being overweight or obese is linked to higher amounts of oxidative stress in semen and sperm – a common problem seen in males with fertility issues
It’s the woman’s fault, right? When a couple doesn’t achieve pregnancy after months of trying, people typically assume that the problem is related to a “female issue.” In reality, factors affecting male fertility are just as important when it comes to getting pregnant, and just as likely to be complicating conception as female issues.1 Indeed, fertility issues are a significant problem for men and women alike, affecting roughly 70 million couples worldwide.2 In this article, we will discuss some of the most common factors impeding male fertility, dietary and lifestyle habits related to male fertility, and whether omega-3s can support a male’s chances of reproductive success.
Factors Affecting Male Fertility
Several factors are associated with reproductive difficulty in men:1
- Reduced sperm concentration
- Poor semen quality and motility (movement ability)
- Low semen volume
- Declining function of the prostate, epididymis, and seminal vesicles
Low sperm quality, concentration, and motility are thought to be the most critical male factors affecting conception. Fortunately, specific diet and lifestyle changes can promote positive changes in sperm cells and seminal fluid.
Diet and Lifestyle Habits That Affect Sperm Quality and Quantity
Consuming a “healthy diet” full of vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, fish, seafood, chicken, and low-fat dairy products is associated with better sperm quality.3 More specifically, recent evidence shows that nutrients such as selenium, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, carnitine, and Coenzyme Q10 can support sperm concentration, and motility.4
Why might a higher intake of certain nutrients help support sperm count and quality? Good question. One of the most influential factors believed to affect sperm health is oxidative stress—an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body that can damage sperm, seminal fluids, and various parts of the male reproductive anatomy.5,6 For instance, lab studies reveal that men with fertility issues tend to provide semen samples with much higher levels of oxidative stress and sperm damage than men without fertility problems.5 Because nutrients like selenium, zinc, and CoQ10 have been shown to help neutralize oxidative stress and promote cellular vitality, these nutrients are believed to help defend sperm cells from the harmful effects of free radicals.7
Lifestyle risk factors such as obesity, poor sleep habits, high-stress levels, and high testicular temperatures (think skinny jeans) may lead to increased oxidative stress and sperm damage.8,9 Overweight men are more likely to experience lower testosterone levels, poor sperm quality, and reduced fertility than men of healthy weight.10 As such, overweight men interested in fathering children should talk to their doctor or nutritionist about healthy ways to lose excess weight.
Research shows that insufficient sleep (less than 6 hours) and going to bed after 10 PM is associated with reduced sperm count, poor motility, and low sperm-survival rates.11 Even though it can be fun to be a “night owl,” staying up late and not getting enough rest negatively impacts sperm health – a reason why good sleep hygiene practices are a must for couples trying to get pregnant.
A lifestyle factor that can play an important role in reproductive success (and is often overlooked) is stress. Chronic stress increases the hormone cortisol, which may lead to lower testosterone levels and reduced sperm production.12 Experiencing fertility issues can be a source of stress itself, which is why strategies for neutralizing stress — such as practicing mindfulness, getting adequate physical exercise, and practicing better time management—can be beneficial.13 For those of you interested in learning more about stress management, check out our article about how omega-3 fatty acids influence your body’s stress response.
Omega-3s & Fertility Support
Sperm cell membranes contain high amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are required for optimal sperm cell flexibility and movement.14,15 Because omega-3 DHA is the most abundant fatty acid found in the membranes of sperm cells, it is believed to play a dominant role in sperm performance.14,15 Unfortunately, Americanized diets generally contain high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids and saturated fat, and relatively little amounts of omega-3s, including DHA. Eating a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids can eventually lead to an unhealthy omega-3 status – a factor that’s been linked to a variety of health problems, including impaired sperm vitality.14,16
A recent study found that men with fertility issues had higher omega-6 to omega-3 blood ratios, lower levels of omega-3s in blood and seminal fluid, and increased blood concentrations of arachidonic acid, as compared to fertile men.17 The fact that connections between a low omega-3 status and reproductive health have been documented in many studies begs the question of whether supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids can enhance reproductive success for men with fertility issues. And according to the findings from a recent meta-analysis in 2019, the answer is yes.18 More specifically, this meta-analysis of nearly twenty years of research found that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids increased DHA concentrations and positively influenced sperm motility in men with fertility problems.18 Given that sperm motility is one of the most important factors for sperm performance and vitality, the finding that a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids can support motility is quite encouraging.
Millions of couples experience challenges with conception; fortunately, many of these roadblocks can be addressed by making specific dietary and lifestyle changes that can promote fertility. Such changes include getting enough omega-3s, practicing good sleeping habits, exercising, maintaining a healthy body weight, consuming a nutrient-rich diet high in antioxidants, avoiding toxins, and, for some of you, hanging up those skinny jeans for a while.19,20
Arachidonic Acid: An omega-6 saturated fatty acid.
Epididymis: Specialized connective tissue that sits atop the testicles that’s responsible for giving sperm movement ability.
Free Radicals: Unstable molecules that can damage your cells.
Prostate: A gland of the male reproductive system which is partially responsible for the production of semen.
Seminal Vesicles: Glands that are primarily responsible for production of semen.