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August 11, 2021 — 9:01 AM
Sperm count is declining, and we all should care. Take it from environmental and reproductive epidemiologist Shanna Swan, Ph.D.: She studied 42,935 men for 38 years and found that from 1973 to 2011, the total sperm count of men in Western countries dropped by 59%. This research became the catalyst for her most recent book (co-authored with award-winning health and science writer Stacey Colino), aptly titled, Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Health, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race.
These findings are staggering—but according to Swan, knowledge is power: “I think all men of reproductive age, while they’re still young, would do well to find out what their sperm count is,” she says on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. That way, they can do something about it. Below, she explains how sperm count affects your overall health (besides reproduction) and how men can increase their number.
We’ll start with the more obvious reason: fertility. If sperm count is low, there’s less of a chance of fertilization (for context: sperm count typically ranges from 15 million sperm to more than 200 million sperm per milliliter of semen, and anything less than 15 million per milliliter is considered low, per the World Health Organization).
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But according to Swan, sperm count is more than just having babies. “Having problems with their sperm could predict health problems more generally later in life,” she explains. “It’s about how healthy they’re going to be as they get older.” In fact, sperm count may be correlated with longevity: According to a study of 43,277 men in the American Journal of Epidemiology, an increase in sperm concentration was associated with lower mortality.
That’s why, Swan says, men should get their sperm count routinely checked, even if they’re not actively trying to conceive. “Just as we learn about our cholesterol and our blood pressure pretty early in life so that if there are problems we can do something about it, I think that should be done with sperm count as well,” she states.
So let’s say you get your sperm count checked—and it’s lower than the 15-million-per-millimeter benchmark. According to Swan, “There’s something you can do about it if it’s not very good,” starting with a few simple lifestyle interventions. While these factors are perhaps best used as a preventive measure before sperm count dwindles, they do have the potential to increase the number:
“We know that smoking has a strong toll on men’s sperm count,” says Swan, “particularly his own smoking, as well as his mother and father smoking in the period before he was conceived.” While you can’t exactly control whether your mother or father smoked before you were born, Swan strongly suggests quitting if you do personally smoke—if not for your sperm count, for your overall health.
She also recommends avoiding passive smoke, if you can. “One of the things [a man] can do to clean up his act, if you will, is to stop smoking or to avoid passive smoke,” she adds. “That actually has been shown to increase sperm count.”
Alcohol, on the other hand, is a little more complicated. According to Swan, there is a “sweet spot” when it comes to alcohol exposure: “A moderate amount of alcohol is probably good for your heart and your sperm, but binge drinking is bad for both,” she notes. A balanced relationship with the booze seems like the best bet.
We don’t need to tell you that exposure to endocrine disrupters can disturb reproductive function—so it only makes sense they can drive down sperm count as well. “We don’t know what percent of the problems in fertility and sperm count are due to these exposures, but certainly these exposures can drive down reproductive health, drive down sperm count, drive up [pregnancy loss] rates, and so on.”
It’s much, much easier said than done, but Swan suggests limiting your exposures in any way you can control: Look for BPA-free labels on cans and food packaging; make sure you buy furniture without flame retardants or PFAS (newer models typically make it clear on the label); and try to purchase personal care products without phthalates. She personally refers to the Environmental Working Group’s consumer guides when choosing household and personal care products (although they do not have a furniture guide yet!).
Swan is particularly interested in the effects of stress on sperm count; in fact, the number of stressful life events in a man’s life (loss, illness, marital conflicts, etc.) has an inverse association with sperm count. The kicker is, of course, that struggling with fertility can make you feel more stressed, which can snowball into more troubles. “It’s a hard thing to get around,” she explains, but she recommends finding ways to manage your stress the best you can—meditation, exercise, what have you.
According to Swan, a Mediterranean diet is top-notch for sperm count (so let’s add fertility to its long list of benefits). “Lower in meat, higher in fruit and vegetables, olive oil instead of butter, and so on and so forth,” she adds. If you’re able, she says eating organic produce can be super helpful as well; and if you do eat animal products, she recommends opting for less-processed meats.
If you’ve made it here, you probably noticed that the ways to increase sperm count are, indeed, general lessons for optimizing overall health. This is no coincidence: “the lifestyle factors that matter for health or those that matter for reproduction,” says Swan. Considering sperm count and longevity are perhaps closely correlated, increasing your health span at large can also trickle down to fertility.