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The Science Behind Smoking and Sperm Quality

We need to talk about smoking and sperm quality. Well, all know that smoking is bad for our health, you only have to look at the scary pictures on cigarette packets to work that out. But did you know that smoking is one of worst things you can do for your long term fertility?

Impotence, hormonal imbalances, and dramatically decreased sperm quality are all caused by smoking.

Tobacco smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals including a myriad of known carcinogens (plus a load of other harmful substances like tar). Exposure to tobacco smoke has a serious effect on semen quality. For example, one study showed that – in a cross-sectional analysis of 2,542 healthy men over 12 years – cigarette smokers had lower sperm quality and sperm count compared to men who didn’t smoke.

The study proves that smoking is a huge factor in male fertility – and that’s without looking at other areas such as impotence and DNA Fragmentation that the bad habit can also contribute to.

If you still need convincing that it’s time to ditch the cigarettes altogether, here’s our scientific breakdown of all the ways smoking is damaging your sperm.

Sperm volume and seminal fluid

 

Sperm is made up of seminal plasma, the stuff that makes ejaculation fluid. This seminal fluid plays a major role in male fertility, as it provides both nutrition and protection to sperm cells travelling through the female reproductive tract.

The chemicals in tobacco smoke not only lower the sperm volume in your semen but also decreases the protective seminal fluid components. As a result, the sperm cells of smoking have a lower chance of surviving their journey to the egg.

Sperm quality

 

Several clinical studies have reported that smokers have lower sperm quality compared to non-smokers. In a study including 1,786 men, smoking was associated with a decrease in sperm counts by 17.5% and in total motile sperm cells by 16.6% when compared to non-smokers.

Research also shows that smoking can lead to male infertility through a decrease in reproductive hormones (FSH and testosterone, amongst others), which are essential for sperm production.

Sperm Motility aka Sperm Speed

 

A sperm cell’s ability to swim (motility) is highly important for overall sperm quality. The better your swimmers are at swimming, the higher their chance of reaching and fertilising an egg.

Smoking increases Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS). ROS are biologically active, oxygen-containing free radicals that have the ability to damage DNA and kill sperm cells. This is called oxidative stress, which you can read more about here. This sperm DNA-damage negatively impacts sperm motility. Therefore, more “bad” swimmers are produced, lowering overall semen quality.

Sperm Morphology – aka Sperm size and shape

When it comes to sperm, size (and shape) does matter. Badly-shaped sperm cells aren’t good swimmers and don’t have the best chances of survival compared to normal looking sperm cells. This means they are less likely to reach and fertilise the eggs, lowering your chance of getting pregnant.

Smoking affects the shape of sperm cells, resulting in structural abnormalities such as curved tails. Several studies confirm that men who smoke have fewer well-shaped sperm cells than non-smokers – so stubbing out is definitely something you should consider if you want to improve your sperm morphology.

Sperm DNA

Besides alterations in sperm shape, size, volume, and quality, some studies have looked into sperm DNA in smokers.

The men who smoke seem to have increased DNA fragmentation (the separation or breaking of DNA strands into pieces), which may be associated with problems of fertilisation and embryo development. Some studies suggest that the DNA fragmentation in the sperm cells even can be transferred to the baby.

Overall, this can also mean that chances of pregnancy are poorer, even with artificial insemination or IVF treatment.

Erectile Dysfunction

Erectile dysfunction or other sexual impairments can have a huge impact on your sex life and make it harder for you to conceive. Several studies show that smoking is associated with a high risk of erectile dysfunction (ED). ED affects around 20% of all men and up to 52% of males aged 40–70 years.

Erections happen when is that healthy blood vessels dilate and get filled with blood. When you smoke, the lungs absorb toxins from the cigarette smoke. Those toxins cause damage to the vessels in the penis and impair blood flow, resulting in ED. Having trouble standing to attention doesn’t necessarily mean that you are producing bad sperm, but if you have ED, it can make sex touch and stressful, which could have a knock on effect on your baby-making plans.

Parental exposure

But smoking doesn’t just impact you in adulthood. There have been several studies that clearly find exposure to cigarettes while in the womb can have an impact on a man’s fertility in the future.

One study of 1,770 men demonstrated that those who had prenatal exposure to smoking had over 20% lower sperm density as adults than those without exposure. Other studies have found lower sperm concentration when making the same comparison.

This is useful to know because if your mother smoked whilst she was pregnant with you, it may be useful to raise this with your doctor if you are having problems conceiving.

It’s never too late – there is hope

 

Not all is lost – the impact of smoking is quite reversible for most men. So, it’s never too late to quit cigarettes and stop damaging your sperm cells! The process of making new sperm cells takes around 70-90 days. This means that you can see an improved sperm quality around 3 months after you stop smoking. However, it may take a little longer if you have been a heavy smoker for a long time.

Our top tips on quitting smoking

 

Speak to your doctor – You don’t have to do this alone! Many GPs will be able to offer advice on quitting smoking, put you in touch with support groups or recommend some replacement therapy (like patches or gum) to get you through it.

Share your goal with family and friends – You’ll probably need support from those around you as well as your doctor. Telling people how important quitting smoking is to you will mean they are more likely to help you stay on track.

Clean your whole house and clothes the day you smoke your final cigarette – It can really help to give you that fresh start feeling and adjust your mindset.

Start a piggy bank – Whilst the health benefits are the most important, they are not instant or the most tangible. But starting a piggy bank with all the money you would have spent on cigarettes can give you a boost if you are finding it tough!

Track your sperm health progress with ExSeed – You can use the ExSeed at-home testing kit to see how your sperm is improving thanks to quitting! This should give you some encouragement to keep going.

ExSeed Health not only analyses your sperm but also help you to start your smoke-free and improved life with our lifestyle programs. Make sure to check them out!

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Wearing tight pants and underwear

Studies show that men who wear looser underwear have higher sperm concentration and total sperm count compared to men who wear tighter underwear. So, lose the tight clothes and wear something loose to give your testicles some air.

CONCLUSION: learn more about how heat can affect sperm quality here.

Stress

Besides higher mortality rate and various diseases, stress is associated with low sperm quality. Stress is known to be associated with lower testosterone levels and oxidative stress with both playing an essential role in producing and maintaining healthy sperm cells.

CONCLUSION: If you feel stressed, we recommend you get some help so you can have a balanced mental health. For a stress management guide, download the ExSeed app for free and start your personalized action plan today.

Physical activity

Scientific studies show that men who are physically active have better semen parameters than men who are inactive. Fertility specialists also state that regular physical activity has beneficial impact on sperm fertility parameters and such a lifestyle can enhance the fertility status of men.

Prioritizing exercise can help improve your overall health and result in healthy, fast swimming sperm cells that have good chances of fertilizing an egg.

CONCLUSION: Try incorporating exercise in your weekly schedule to you ensure exercising at least twice weekly. We recommend a combination of cardio training and strength exercise. Read more about exercise and male fertility on our blog.

Nutrition

Fast Food
Processed foods damage the health of sperm-producing cells and cause oxidative stress, which lead to poorer sperm quality. Heavy consumption of junk food (every week) can increase the likelihood of infertility since men who consume vast amounts of unhealthy food are at risk of having poor sperm quality. Besides harming your fertility, junk food enlarges your waistline, harms your cardiovascular system, kidneys, and more.

Vegetables
Eating more fruit and vegetables can increase your sperm concentration and motility. It’s important that you consume a healthy diet filled with antioxidants and that you eat vegetables every day. Foods such as apricots and red bell peppers are high in vitamin A, which improves male fertility by nurturing healthier sperm. Men who are deficient in this vitamin tend to have slow and sluggish sperm.

Sugary snacks/beverages: several times a week Excessive consumption of high sugar items can lead to oxidative stress, which negatively impacts testosterone levels and sperm motility. Sugary snacks and beverages are also highly associated with obesity and low fertility.
CONCLUSION: To boost sperm quality, stay away from fast food, processed food, and sugary snacks or beverages. You need to implement a healthy prudent diet filled with necessary superfoods needed for good sperm production. Check out our guide to Male Fertility Superfoods. For personalized guidance and support on how you can start improving your sperm health, check out the Bootcamp.

Heat

Direct heat can inhibit optimal sperm production and cause Sperm DNA damage. Sperm cells like environments that are a couple of degrees lower than body temperature. Avoid overheating from warm blankets, seat warmers, heat from your laptop, hot showers, and saunas.

Cigarette smoking

The exposure to tobacco smoke has significant negative effects on semen quality. The damage of cigarettes and nicotine of course depends on how many cigarettes you smoke per day and for how long, but even low usage (up to 10 cigarettes / day) can inhibit healthy sperm production.  

CONCLUSION: Stay as far away from cigarette smoking as possible if you care about your general health and your fertility. Read more here.

Cell phone

When you have your cell phone in your front pocket, your testicles are exposed to electromagnetic radiation, which studies have shown to damage the sperm cells. Put your phone in the back pocket of your pants or in your jacket pocket.

BMI

There is a clear association between obesity and reduced sperm quality. At least part of the reason for this is that obese men may have abnormal reproductive hormonal profiles, which can impair sperm production and lead to infertility. 

A BMI higher than 30 can lead to several processes in the body (overheating, increase in oxidative stress in the testes, sperm DNA damage, erectile dysfunction) that can have a negative impact on male fertility. This can result in problems when trying to conceive.  

CONCLUSION: BMI is one of the risk factors that influence semen quality and, for example, sperm motility.  

Alcohol

A beer or glass of wine now and then do not really harm sperm quality. But excess alcohol drinking (more than 20 units per week) can reduce the production of normally formed sperm needed for a successful pregnancy.

CONCLUSION: If you want to stay safe, stay under 14 units of alcohol per week. For more information on how alcohol can affect male fertility, take a look at our blog: “Alcohol and Sperm Quality”.

Age

Studies show that women younger than 35 and men younger than 40 have a better chance of getting pregnant. Men can produce sperm cells almost through their entire life, but the sperm cell DNA is more fragile and prone to damage after the age of 40.

As men age, their testes tend to get smaller and softer resulting in a decline in sperm quality and production. These changes are partly because of an age-related decrease in testosterone level, which plays a very important role in sperm

production. Higher male age (>40 years) is not only associated with a decline in sperm production but also with increased sperm DNA fragmentation and worsened morphology (shape) and motility (movement). These negative effects make the sperm cells less qualified for egg fertilization.

CONCLUSION: with an age under 40, you shouldn’t have to worry much about age as a factor in itself. However, studies have shown a slow decline after the age of 30-35 years

and if you are above 40 years of age, your sperm quality can be affected due to increased sperm DNA damage resulting in a decrease of sperm motility and concentration. Remember that you cannot evaluate the quality of a sperm sample by just looking at it – this requires a sperm analysis.