What causes low sperm count?

Talking about low sperm count is not the sexiest conversation to have but, when you’re trying to conceive, it’s a necessary one. Many people assume that difficulty getting pregnant falls on the woman but studies have shown that in 1/3 of infertile couples, the problem lies solely with the male. Another 1/3 of infertility issues are due to problems with both partners.

When the trouble getting pregnant is due to a male factor infertility issue, there's a 90% chance that it has to do with low sperm count, poor sperm quality, or both. For the purpose of this post, let's learn more about low sperm count -- also known as oligospermia -- and how it can affect your ability to get pregnant.

What is a healthy volume of sperm?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a healthy male will produce a volume of 1.5 mL of semen. Sperm count for a "normal" male will be between 20 million sperm per mL to 300 million sperm per mL of semen. A male is diagnosed with a low sperm count when his semen has less than 20 million sperm per mL of semen. Learn more male fertility facts and figures.

What causes low sperm count?

There's no one thing that causes low sperm count but there are many things that can contribute to it. Let's take a look:

  • Obesity -- One of the biggest lifestyle changes necessary to promote fertility is weight loss. Men with a BMI higher than 25 are found to have significantly less healthy sperm than men who are not obese.
  • Too much sex -- Yeah, this isn't our favorite either but it's true. Ejaculating too often can cause a lower volume of sperm in your semen. When you're trying to get pregnant, it's best to have sex every other day around the time of ovulation, according to Dr. James Goldfarb.
  • Low testosterone -- Simply put, testosterone is needed for sperm production. If your testosterone levels are low, you can count on your sperm count being low, too.
  • Exposure to endocrine disruptors -- Since your endocrine system is an integral part of a properly functioning body, any kind of disruptor can be harmful. Knowing which endocrine disruptors to watch out for, where you can find them, and the potential effects they have on your reproductive health can help you make wise choices when it comes to your fertility. Check out our guide to 9 Endocrine Disruptors That Affect Male Fertility, if you're curious.
  • Not enough vitamins -- Men need a variety of nutrients to maintain optimal sperm health. Here’s a breakdown of some key nutrients, along with recommended food sources, courtesy of natural-fertility-info.com:
    • Zinc — Zinc is a trace mineral that boosts sperm levels and improves the form, function, and quality.

    Foods with zinc: Tofu, tempeh, legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, sesame seeds, yogurt, peas.

    • Folic acid — Men with low levels of folate can have an increased risk of their sperm having too few or too many chromosomes, which can lead to birth defects or an increased chance of miscarriage.

    Foods with folic acid: lentils, chickpeas, spinach, and asparagus.

    • L-carnitine — This is a nutrient necessary for the proper function of sperm cells — especially sperm count and motility. Taking L-carnitine supplements can help boost sperm count and increase your chances of conception.Foods with L-carnitine: organic red meat and dairy products

    Of course, there are plenty of other nutrients that men can benefit from when trying to improve sperm count (and quality). Most importantly, eat a balanced diet of protein, complex carbs, and plenty of vegetables.

Can you increase your sperm count?

Unlike female eggs, which are released once a month during ovulation, sperm is constantly being produced. This is good news for couples trying to conceive — every 70 days, you have a new set of matured sperm, giving you the chance to improve your sperm health and count every few months. Which brings us to...

4 ways to boost your sperm count

  1. Lose weight - If you're overweight, losing even a small percentage of body fat could help you improve your sperm count. Consider hitting the gym, ok? Exercise is proven to help boost fertility.
  2. Stop smoking - Studies have found that when it comes to nicotine, it doesn’t matter how much you use — any amount can cause low sperm count and poor morphology and motility.
  3. Go easy on the alcohol - You don’t have to give up alcohol entirely (though an act of solidarity with your partner would surely not go unnoticed). A drink or two every once in awhile won’t have a large impact on your fertility but regular drinking can cause a low sperm count.
  4. Keep your testicles cool -- When sperm are exposed to too high of temperatures, they begin to die. That’s why it’s important for your man to be mindful about his heat exposure. There are also medical reasons why your testicles could overheat, like varicocele. When in doubt, talk to your doctor about testing and treatments.

Keep in mind, a low sperm count doesn't necessarily mean you can't conceive. It's simply one in a number of factors that can cause male factor infertility. If you think you might have a low sperm count (or other sperm-related issue) t's a good idea to get a semen analysis. This test is usually recommended if you’ve been trying to conceive for a year without success. It’s a common procedure that can usually be done by your primary doctor. Your semen will be tested for things like shape, movement, pH level, volume, and, of course, count. If one or more of these variables is abnormal, your doctor can talk to you about treatment options.

In the meantime, take this quiz to find out how much you know about sperm production!