There is a lot to learn about male and female fertility, but we all know the basics – that a single sperm and a single egg need to meet in order to make a baby.
However, what you might not know is that when couples experience infertility, 40 – 50% of the time it is due to male contributing factors.
Sperm need to swim a great distance in order to reach an egg, and healthy sperm are more likely to achieve a pregnancy. Therefore, sperm motility is an important factor when discussing male fertility.
In this blog, we’ll talk more about:
Table of Contents
What is sperm motility?
You already know from grade school sex ed that sperm enters a woman’s body during sexual intercourse. You may not realize that the journey from the vagina, into the cervix, and through the uterus and fallopian tubes is indeed arduous for these little guys.
In order for the sperm to make this journey, they need to be strong swimmers. Remember, sperm are microscopic organisms and they have to swim a distance of approximately 15 – 18 cm.
That may sound short, but for a tiny sperm, this is quite a long way to travel! So sperm motility refers to the movement of sperm and its ability to swim.
Sperm with good motility will swim straight in a forward progression, and their speed is measured in micrometers. On average, healthy sperm have a speed of approximately 25 micrometers per second.
That’s equivalent to 5 millimeters per minute, which might be an easier way of understanding how fast these guys can go.
So how long does it take a sperm to reach the egg? It typically takes about 5 to 20 minutes after ejaculation. However, if a woman hasn’t ovulated yet, then the sperm can live inside the reproductive tract for up to 5 days, waiting for an egg.
Types of low sperm motility
If a man is diagnosed with low sperm motility, it means that the majority of his sperm is unable to move rapidly in a forward progression. The technical name for low sperm motility is asthenospermia. This diagnosis is determined when the number of sperm that are able to move well is less than 32%.
A grading system is used when sperm are being evaluated on their motility.
- Grade A Sperm: Strong sperm that swim in a straight and progressive line.
- Grade B Sperm: Non-progressive sperm that swim in a crooked motion. They might be considered slow or sluggish. These sperm will swim at a speed of less than 5 micrometers per second.
- Grade C Sperm: These sperm swim in circles, or they may only twitch their tails.
- Grade D Sperm: The sperm do not move at all.
Grade D sperm are classified as asthenozoospermia/asthenospermia. This is when 100% of a male’s sperm are alive, but they do not move at all. In this case, it would be almost impossible for a male/female couple to achieve a natural pregnancy.
It is important to note that asthenospermia is different from a diagnosis of low sperm count. Motility is how effectively the sperm moves. While low sperm count or oligospermia is when a male has fewer sperm in his semen than average.
Sperm morphology is another important factor when it comes to male fertility. Morphology refers to the size and shape of a single sperm. For example, abnormally shaped sperm might have trouble fertilizing an egg if the heads are too large or too small.
It is possible for a male to have a combination of these issues at once. However, pregnancy is still possible if the male partner has low sperm motility, but the sperm count or morphology are normal.
Is it possible to get pregnant with low sperm motility?
Yes, as previously mentioned, it’s definitely possible to get pregnant when the male partner has low sperm motility. It just might take longer, or even require the assistance of Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART).
If a couple hasn’t gotten pregnant after one year of trying, it’s generally advised they seek help from a fertility specialist. Several preliminary tests are conducted in order to rule out or confirm a variety of things causing infertility, including asthenospermia.
Sperm motility and IUI
If low sperm motility is a contributing factor to a couple’s infertility, a doctor might start out with a few rounds of intrauterine insemination (IUI). This process involves injecting the sperm straight into the uterus during ovulation, so that the sperm’s journey is a little less arduous compared to during intercourse. There is potential for more sperm to reach the egg for fertilization.
However, if the sperm motility is quite poor (grades C or D), IUI will likely be a waste of time and IVF with the use of ICSI might be a better option.
Sperm motility and IVF/ICSI
While most of us are familiar with the IVF process, you may not be familiar with the acronym ICSI. ICSI stands for intracytoplasmic sperm injection, and it’s a terrific option for couples dealing with low sperm motility issues.
Instead of waiting for one lucky sperm to fertilize an egg in a petri dish (traditional IVF), an embryologist actually injects a single sperm from the male partner’s sample directly into an egg.
This improves the chances that an embryo will develop, since the sperm didn’t have to do any of the hard work. ICSI is actually a very common practice in the IVF process today, regardless of whether or not the male partner has low sperm motility as it can improve a couple’s IVF chances overall.
What affects sperm motility?
There is a whole laundry list of potential causes for low sperm motility, so let’s break them down;
- Smoking: A healthy lifestyle is important for all aspects of overall physical wellbeing. This includes the reproductive system! Cigarette smoking can cause chromosomal changes and DNA damage, causing self-destruction of the sperm cells. This ultimately affects motility.
- Radiation: If a male has had any previous radiation therapy either to the reproductive organs or even near the spine or abdomen, it can cause low sperm motility. This also includes radiation from the laptop, mobile phones, or any other electronic gadget that you may keep around your pelvic area. Radiation damages the DNA in our cells. This is why high levels of exposure to radiation is extremely detrimental to one’s health.
- Drugs/Alcohol: Just like smoking, chronic drug or alcohol consumption is detrimental to your overall health. Studies show that this includes male fertility and sperm motility. Many females avoid or limit alcohol when trying to conceive, to ensure they have as healthy of a reproductive system as possible to improve their chances of conception each month. But a lot of men don’t realize that they too should be doing the same.
- Environmental toxins: We are increasingly exposed to a variety of environmental toxins daily. This could be why male fertility is generally on the decline. Air, water, and soil pollution, along with chemicals found in our food can contribute to low sperm motility. Unfortunately, these are difficult factors to control. Pesticides in our produce can also be harmful.
BPAs or Bisphenal As are a big culprit for decreasing fertility. BPA is a widely used industrial chemical that is found in plastics. Think about the amount of plastic in our lives… Many daily use items contain BPA. However, one controllable way to limit BPA exposure is to swap plastic water bottles, plates, tupperware, etc. for glass and ceramics.
- Heat: Exposure to high heat on a regular basis can impair sperm motility, sperm count, and morphology. Examples of this are a warm laptop that often sits on top of the male reproductive organs, a cell phone kept in the front pant pocket, or frequent hot-tub usage.
- Stress: Stress can wreak havoc on all of the body’s regulatory systems, including reproduction. Studies show that an increase in stress levels can negatively impact sperm motility. Stress reduces LH and testosterone production, resulting in reduced sperm production and quality. Stress can also cause high levels of cortisol, causing self destruction of all cells in the body.
- Sexually transmitted infections: If left untreated, chlamydia can lead to a considerable decrease in both sperm motility and quality and can even lead to asthenozoospermia.
- Varicocele: This is a condition when veins inside the scrotum become enlarged, and it has been linked to low sperm motility.
- Mitochondrial abnormalities: While not fully understood yet, sperm motility and male infertility in general might be linked to deletions in mitochondrial DNA.
- ASAs: Short for anti-sperm antibodies. This is when the immune system attacks a man’s semen, mistaking it for an intruder. Low sperm motility can be a result of a man having ASA. ASA may be triggered by trauma to the reproductive region, either by injury or surgery.
- Sexual abstinence: Studies show that there is a decrease in sperm motility with longer periods of sexual abstinence. Lower abstinence time improves the percentage of sperm motility.
How do you increase sperm motility naturally?
While sperm motility doesn’t affect a male’s overall health (although it can be an indicator of poor health), the desire to increase sperm motility will likely be the result of a couple trying to conceive. Most men don’t know they have sperm motility issues until their semen is tested.
But whether you’re a couple trying to optimize your fertility, or asthenospermia is already determined, there are some proven ways to increase sperm motility naturally.
Lifestyle and sperm motility
Let’s begin with the obvious – living as healthy of a lifestyle as possible is important for improving male fertility, including sperm motility.
Let’s look back at the above list of potential low motility causes; eliminating things like smoking, and limiting alcohol consumption, stress, and heat exposure, are all excellent ways to start improving sperm health.
Supplements for improved sperm motility
Research shows that specific supplements, when used together may help improve sperm motility naturally. One study shows that men with asthenospermia who took both selenium and vitamin E together for 100 days showed a 52% improvement in their sperm motility.
Both selenium and vitamin E are powerful antioxidants which prevent cell damage. Both can be found in many of the foods we eat and if one eats a balanced diet, they should receive enough of each. However, both can be purchased as supplements and it is important to consult with your doctor before making any radical changes to your supplementary routine.
There is also evidence that coenzyme Q10, another antioxidant, might help improve sperm motility. In one study, male patients took 400mg per day of coenzyme Q10 for 3 months, and the results showed improved results for men even with asthenozoospermia.
Foods for improved sperm motility
Let’s look first at foods to avoid if you want to improve sperm motility:
- Processed meats
- Trans fats
- Fried foods
- Soy products
- High fat dairy products
Processed meats, trans fats, and fried foods in particular are bad for anyone’s overall health when consumed regularly. So while it’s not entirely clear how these affect sperm motility, studies show a correlation between diets heavy in the above foods and low sperm motility.
Now here is a list of foods that can improve sperm motility naturally:
Vegetables (especially dark, leafy greens): Veggies should come as no surprise since they are full of antioxidants!
- Tomatoes: Tomatoes are technically a fruit and they contain a large amount of lycopene, which is a powerful antioxidant.
- Walnuts: A small study in 2012 concluded that men who ate 18 walnuts a day for 12 weeks had significantly improved their overall sperm health!
- Brazil nuts: Brazil nuts are an excellent natural source for selenium.
- Fish: Fish are rich in omega-3s which are an important vitamin that can be traced to improving male fertility and sperm motility. They are also a healthy alternative to consuming large quantities of red or processed meats.
- Liver: While not a popular dish, liver is often boasted as a superfood because of the many vitamins and minerals it contains. Liver in particular contains a lot of vitamin A, which is another amazing source for supporting male fertility.
- Oysters: Oysters contain high levels of zinc, which is another proven mineral, essential for improving semen health.
- Garlic: Another food rich in antioxidant properties, adding garlic to a dish will not only add some extra flavor, but can help with sperm health too!
The male body constantly produces new sperm cells, so this means that a man will not run out of sperm.
However, new sperm take about 2 months to mature. Improving sperm motility is not an overnight fix. But by following the above tips, a man can hopefully improve his motility naturally in a few months time.
Read More: Semen Health: How To Produce More Sperm?
If you want to see a quick video about semen testing and more ways to improve your overall semen and sperm quality, check out this quick reel.
Let’s bust some myths now that you know all about sperm motility.
Mythbusting: Do Y-carrying chromosome sperm swim faster than X-carrying chromosome sperm?
Unlike hundreds of years ago when the wives of monarchs were blamed for not producing male heirs, we know better today that the gender of a baby is determined by the male’s sperm contribution.
You may have also heard the old wives tale that genetically male sperm or Y-carrying chromosomes “swim faster” than their female X-carrying chromosome counterparts.
This belief came from a study back in 1960 that suggested Y sperm had smaller heads, allowing them to swim faster to the egg.
Today, through more sophisticated computer assisted sperm analysis, researchers have found no morphological differences between X and Y sperm. It is impossible for one “gender” to outswim the other.
Sperm motility is one the most important criteria for healthy sperm. Out of the 1 in 8 couples who experience infertility, 40 – 50% are due to male contributing factors, which includes sperm motility.
So if you and your partner are trying to get pregnant or you have already been diagnosed with asthenospermia, it is important to remember the following;
- Pregnancy is still possible if the male partner has low sperm motility, especially if sperm count or morphology are normal.
- Low sperm count and sperm morphology are different from motility, but all 3 are important factors when assessing a man’s fertility.
- There are different grading levels when diagnosing low sperm motility, which is important in determining the best course of action if trying to conceive.
- Your best way to increase or prevent low sperm motility naturally is to live a healthy lifestyle.
- If diagnosed with low sperm motility, selenium, and vitamin E are supplements that can help improve motility over time.
- It also wouldn’t hurt to add walnuts to your daily diet!
- IVF and ICSI are wonderful ways to overcome the fertility challenge of low sperm motility.