All cells are fascinating, but maybe, just maybe, sperm cells are a little more fascinating than other cell types. Not only do they contain the man’s DNA (his genetic material), they also can swim to the egg to deliver it!
However, one thing that sperm cannot do is make repairs to damaged DNA. Although a woman’s egg has the machinery needed to make some repairs, even healthy sperm do not possess this function. Therefore, protecting sperm DNA is one of the most important things a future dad can do for his potential kids.
Sperm DNA 101
The two functions of healthy sperm – the DNA payload and the delivery system – mean that sperm cells have highly specialized sections: the sperm head to house the DNA and the sperm tail that acts as a motor for delivery.
DNA is the “payload” because it contains the father’s genes to make the male contribution to the new baby. Sperm start out in the testis as round cells, but their shape changes as they mature into the “tadpole” we all think of when we imagine a picture of sperm. The DNA moves into what will become the sperm’s head, where it gets packaged extremely tightly. This is to protect it against damage on its’ journey to the egg since intact DNA gives the fertilized egg the best chance to continue to develop beyond conception. Once the sperm is inside the egg, the sperm head swells and its’ DNA is unpacked and made ready to mix with the egg’s DNA.
The DNA in sperm (like other cells) is shaped like a long ladder, with the side rails made up of the genetic code, joined by steps (or rungs). When the DNA is damaged, there are breaks in one or both of the side rails, meaning that the genetic code is interrupted. This damage is usually caused by free radicals, which can be made by the body or come from the environment, but there are other causes, too, like radiation, infections and medications.
Maintaining Healthy Sperm and Protecting the DNA
It takes 8-12 weeks from when the sperm cell starts to form until it is mature. Any exposure to factors that cause DNA damage during this time may affect the sperm’s ability to create a healthy embryo. While there isn’t a treatment to guarantee protection of sperm DNA, there are things you can to do reduce the risk of sperm DNA damage:
- Give up smoking – smoking is one of the major causes of DNA damage in sperm
- Give up drug use (including that of marijuana)
- Maintain a healthy body weight –increased BMI reduces sperm DNA quality
- Have a healthy, balanced diet that focuses on less-processed foods, and that includes fresh fruit and vegetables
- Avoid exposure to environmental pollutants like heavy metals and pesticides
- Treat any genital tract infections (like prostatitis) right away, as the inflammation can generate those damaging free radicals
- Avoid hot-tubs, saunas, seat heaters and heavy bicycle use as these may cause DNA damage by increasing chances of testicular cancer. Similarly, if you have had a high fever within the past couple of months, it might be better to wait a few weeks until trying to conceive.
Normally, both the male and female bodies work together to protect sperm DNA. When the sperm are ready to leave the man’s body in ejaculation, they are bathed in semen that is high in antioxidants. Some men with fertility problems have low levels of antioxidants in their semen that can make their infertility worse. In the woman’s body, sperm rapidly reach the fallopian tube (within minutes), where the woman’s tubal antioxidant sugars protect the sperm as they wait for the egg.
Common lubricants have been shown to damage sperm DNA, so they should be avoided when trying to conceive. In contrast, Pre-Seed Fertility Friendly lubricant may be used when you are trying to get pregnant because it is formulated to mimic fertile cervical fluids and it contains arabinogalactan, a plant based antioxidant shown to decrease oxidative stress which can damage sperm.
Testing the Health of Your Sperm
The health of sperm DNA can be measured using a test called the Sperm Chromatin Structure Assay www.scsadiagnostics.com. This looks at the percentage of sperm that have broken DNA. If you have been trying to conceive for a year (or 6 months if the woman is 35 or older), I recommend having this test run. High rates of sperm DNA damage can cause infertility, miscarriages and even disease in children. The test gives you a measurement to track over time and can help you know if the man’s sperm health is improving. You can order the test with or without a physician’s referral. SCSA is like any test, it won’t tell you everything about a man’s sperm, but it gives you important information that is part of the puzzle.
One example of how the DNA test can be used is in supplementation with fertility vitamins. There are studies suggesting a benefit and some actually showing harm from fertility vitamin products. The topic is very hotly debated, but it doesn’t need to be. Some men DO have trace mineral and vitamin deficiencies. The best way to see is to have a sperm analysis including an SCSA done and then to take the vitamins for three months and rerun the SCSA test.
Sperm supplies change every day. The main thing to remember is that DNA quality of sperm can change and you can do many things to make the healthiest sperm possible. You can also measure sperm DNA and get insight into the man’s sperm DNA quality. It is valuable information to have as part of fertility evaluations for couples who have been trying unsuccessfully for a long time.