If you’re looking to make a baby, you’re going to need winning swimmers. For most readers, this tidbit likely won’t come as a shock. What you may find surprising however, is the extent to which the quality of that sperm is affected by the vitamins and minerals the person producing it consumes.
There are four main aspects to sperm quality: sperm count, meaning the concentration of sperm in a sample of semen; sperm morphology, which refers to the size and shape of sperm cells; sperm motility, which is how effectively sperm can swim; and semen volume, as a minimum amount of the stuff is needed to get the sperm it contains through the female reproductive tract.
Whether it comes in the form of food or supplements, increasing one’s intake of certain things has been shown to increase sperm quality in all four areas. If you’re looking to hear the pitter-patter of tiny feet in the not-too-distant, you may want to consider getting some more of the following into your diet.
Infertile men have been shown to have less zinc than their more fecund brethren. One small study looked at the baseline serum testosterone level of 40 men aged between 20 and 80—testosterone is vital for healthy testes function and one of those testes’ main functions is to produce sperm. For the next 20 weeks, researchers restricted the amount of zinc the younger guys consumed while giving the older participants—who were marginally zinc deficient—a daily zinc supplement. The young guys saw their sperm-healthy testosterone levels dip while the older gents saw a significant bump.
Another study looked directly at zinc levels and the sperm quality of fertile and infertile men. They found that whether they were smokers or not, fertile subjects had significantly higher seminal zinc levels than any infertile group. Zinc is not a mineral the body can store so you need a daily dose if you’re trying to pass on your genes any time soon. The recommended dietary allowance for men and boys is 11 mg per day and, if you like oysters, you’re in luck. Just six medium oysters will give you 32 mg or around 290 percent of the RDA. You’ll also find zinc in red meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, fortified cereal, nuts, and beans.
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"There is strong evidence that normal Zinc levels are needed for optimal male fertility,” says Michael Reitano, New York-based urologist and doctor-in-residence at Roman, a men’s health startup. He explains that while supplementing normal levels of Zinc probably has little effect, maintaining a steady dietary intake to prevent deficiencies is important at any age. Taking it in larger quantities isn’t going to have a benefit because, as previously mentioned, zinc cannot be stored for later use.
Vitamin B12 helps protects the DNA in sperm from damage and I maintain the genetic integrity of DNA so that each of the cells created through division and replication is an exact replica of the cell which divided, explains Reitano. A dearth of vitamin B12 on the other hand, can disrupt the genetic integrity of the DNA and may result in cells which are produced slightly differently. That’s not something you want in sperm, as these corrupted cells may include irregularities which are linked to genetic health conditions or cancer.
“B12 deficiency is surprisingly common and not just in the elderly,” Reitano says, adding that vegans and people who regularly use antacids habitually can be most affected. “It’s also vital in maintaining adequate DNA integrity and production, especially in rapidly developing cells like those that make blood and sperm."
B12 and other group B vitamins also play an important role in the production of an antioxidant called homocysteine. Homocysteine is an endogenous antioxidant—this means that it is only produced in the human body, unlike the dietary antioxidants we take in food or supplement form. Homocysteine plays an important role in protecting cells from oxidative damage throughout sperm production and, as its fabrication in the human body is dependent on the availability of B group vitamins, getting a sufficient amount of it can protect sperm health.
One 2017 meta study exploring vitamin B12’s effect on sperm health showed that it increases sperm count, enhances sperm motility, and reduces sperm DNA damage. The RDA is just 2.4 micrograms (µg) but if you ate 3.5 oz of clams, you’d get a whopping 98.89 µg of B12. If mollusks aren’t your thing, you can get almost as much (96 micrograms from 3.5 oz of beef liver). And if you think offal is just as awful, a 3.5 oz fillet of sockeye salmon will net you a littleover 18 µg which is still over six times the RDA.
There’s not a ton of evidence to support the idea that loading up on vitamin C to thwart a cold will do much good. There is, however, some evidence demonstrating a link between vitamin C and sperm quality.
In a small but significant 2006 study, researchers looked at 13 men with oligospermia—the scientific name for a low sperm count, defined as less than 15 million sperm per milliliter of semen. The dudes were given 1,000 mg of vitamin C twice daily for two months and at the study’s end it was found that sperm count, sperm motility, and sperm morphology had all significantly improved.
The reasoning is that vitamin C may improve sperm quality by reducing oxidative stress—vitamin C being an antioxidant. “Oxidation is a known factor in male infertility,” Reitano says. “In particular, antioxidants like vitamin C and E have been shown to be effective in improving fertilization and pregnancy rates.”
This oxidative stress theory seems to be borne out of a study on rats that had long term exposure to cyclophosphamide. Cyclophosphamide a medication known to cause oxidative stress, found that rats that were administered vitamin C saw improved sperm motility (the ability of an organism to move on its own), count, and viability. They also found the vitamin had increased the weight of the rats’ testicles and epididymis when compared to other groups of rats that were not treated with vitamin C.
According to the USDA, the food with the most vitamin C is acerola juice, which contains 13 times more vitamin C than an equal portion of orange juice. The acerola is also known as the Barbados cherry and one cup of its juice will give you a staggering 3,872 milligrams of vitamin C. Health food stores and supermarkets like Whole Foods carry acerola juice, as does Amazon.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.