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The 3 Telltale Signs of Healthy Sperm

A list of scientific and other signals that might be a sign of unhealthy sperm.

November 9, 2020
Katie Sabel

The journey to conception can be an arduous one. Fertility isn’t a sure-fire thing, and it can be frustrating when you can’t conceive after long periods of trying. Additionally, It’s especially hard to face that kind of discouragement when it’s unclear what’s going wrong.

In some cases, struggles with conceiving may be due to unhealthy sperm. However, that just makes matters more complicated- after all, it’s not exactly easy to detect sperm health with the naked eye. 

So, what are the signs of unhealthy sperm? Well, to understand the signs of unhealthy sperm, it’s first important to understand what it means scientifically for sperm to be unhealthy.

The Science Behind Unhealthy Sperm

A close-up of a microscope looking at an unhealthy sperm samplep
When it comes to the health of sperm, the science comes down to a microscopic level. This kind of analysis can occur either at the doctor’s office, or via the help of an at-home kit. 

When we say that sperm is unhealthy, the scientific breakdown is three-fold. Here are three common scientific criteria that are used to evaluate sperm health:

  1. Movement. Also called motility, this factor determines how movement there is within a sperm sample. You’ve likely heard of sperm being “swimmers”- essentially, if your sperm are not mobile enough to reach the egg, you are less likely to be fertile. 
  2. Quantity. This is determined by the amount of sperm within a sample of ejaculate. According to the Mayo Clinic, you’re most likely fertile if that number is at or above 15 million sperm per milliliter. 
  3. Shape. While this factor isn’t as important as movement or quantity, the morphology of sperm can also influence how well they move. Normal sperm have oval heads and long tails, which are good for movement. However, any abnormalities in this shape may mean that you are less likely to be fertile.

In order to evaluate sperm health scientifically, the easiest method is to undergo a semen analysis via a doctor’s office. While there are at-home tests available as well, these sorts of tests check for pure quantity. As such, they won’t be able to conclude anything about the sperm movement or shape, which are also important factors in sperm health. 

So, if you’re concerned about sperm health, the best course of action is to get a lab test done. Besides the three main criteria for sperm health, the lab test will also measure the sample’s pH level, volume, and liquefaction. These additional metrics test for things like potential infections, possible disease, or hormonal imbalance, which may also affect fertility.

Other Signs of Unhealthy Sperm

7 glasses of alcohol are lifted in a toast at a celebration
Other signs of unhealthy sperm include lifestyle habits. For example, while alcohol is fine in moderation, excess consumption of alcohol actually correlates to poorer sperm quality.

While semen analysis can catch signs of unhealthy sperm directly, it is not the only way to get a sense of your sperm health. Even without a lab test, you may be able to self-identify some bad habits that have been proven to correlate with poor sperm health.

These factors have less to do with our bodies’ natural processes, and a lot more to do with our lifestyle choices. Here are a few of the habits that may correlate to unhealthy sperm:

  • Poor diet. This includes meat as well. According to a Harvard University study, processed meats are correlated with worse sperm shape. Changing your diet and opting in for foods rich in antioxidants (such as fruits and vegetables) could improve your sperm health for the better.
  • Low amounts of exercise. Specifically, an increasing body mass index (BMI) has been correlated with decreasing sperm count and motility. Plus, men who partake in weekly exercise for 15 hours or more were found to have a 73% higher sperm concentration than those who did not work out at all. So, if you’re more of a channel surfer than a real surfer, it’s probably time to incorporate regular exercise into your routine.
  • Excessive consumption of alcohol or caffeine. Those who are trying to conceive are advised to consume moderate amounts of alcohol. As it turns out, heavy drinking can lead to reduced testosterone production and decreased sperm production. Plus, you should keep an eye on what you’re drinking in general. According to a 2017 study in the Nutrition Journal, men who drink upwards of 4 cups of coffee per day had a higher proportion of abnormally shaped sperm.
  • Lack of sleep. In a study from the Assuta Medical Center, lower sperm concentration and motility were correlated with self-reported device exposure before bed. What’s more, in that same study researchers found that longer periods of sleep were correlated with greater sperm quality. So, if you’re trying to conceive, it’s probably a good idea to unwind properly before bed and leave those devices out of reach.

Major Takeaways

A husband and wife go walking with their dog, as exercise can help improve sperm health
If you’re worried about fertility, it might not be too late- you can implement new lifestyle habits and see if the situation improves. However, if you and your partner haven’t gotten pregnant after a year of unprotected sex, it’s probably time to see a doctor about getting evaluated for infertility.

If that last list felt more like a checklist to you, then it might be time to work towards some healthier lifestyle changes. However, it’s worth noting that there is no magic cure- these factors have been correlated with better fertility in the past, but everyone’s situation is different. 

If you’ve been struggling with fertility issues for a long time, it’s probably time to go to the doctor. Experts recommend that you get evaluated for infertility by a doctor if you and your partner haven’t gotten pregnant after a year of unprotected sex. 

If it hasn’t been a year yet, don’t feel discouraged. Conception takes time, and there’s a lot of factors that go into fertility for both partners. Plus, even if your sperm are unhealthy, it’s not the end of the road. Specific treatment will vary from person to person, but there’s plenty out there to help you along on your fertility journey. For example, you and your partner might try In vitro fertilization (IVF), or artificial insemination. 

When in doubt, keep an optimistic outlook, and be in good communication with your doctor. You’ve got this!

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