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If you're thinking about becoming a dad, here's a list of what you can do to ensure a healthy pregnancy before trying to conceive.
Check in with your doctor
Make an appointment to see your doctor, especially if you have a chronic disease, take any medication, or experience problems with erections, ejaculation, or loss of libido.
It's a good idea to have a complete physical exam so your doctor can check for conditions that may affect fertility. Some conditions to watch for include:
- Varicoceles, which are enlarged veins on the scrotum (the skin covering the testicles). Varicoceles prevent the testicles from cooling normally, and doctors think that may lead to fewer, misshapen, or less mobile sperm. Although varicoceles are usually harmless, and no one knows exactly how they're related to infertility, 40 percent of men with fertility problems also have varicoceles. The condition is treatable, so talk to your doctor about the options.
- Sexually transmitted infections, which may cause male infertility. Your doctor can test you and give you the right treatment if necessary.
- Prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate) or mumps (which may result in swollen testicles), both of which may lead to infertility. Your primary care doctor can refer you to a urologist or a male fertility specialist if you need additional testing or treatments.
Let your doctor know about everything you're taking, whether it's prescribed or over-the-counter. Consider bringing the medications with you to your appointment, so your doctor will know exactly what you're taking and in what doses. Certain medications can affect the quality or quantity of sperm and cause male fertility problems. Such drugs include:
- Any steroid or hormone, particularly testosterone
- Some high blood pressure drugs
- A few antibiotics
- Some medications used to treat diseases like fungal infections, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, peptic ulcers, and seizures
In most cases, the effect is reversible once you go off the drugs. Talk to your doctor about your plans to become a dad, and find out if you can safely switch to a different medication.
Anabolic steroids, which bodybuilders use to bulk up, are well studied, and evidence shows they can reduce sperm count and shrink the testicles. Though herbs and supplements may seem harmless, your doctor is the best person to decide whether they could interfere with your ability to father a child.
Finally, ask your doctor about any hazards you may be exposed to on the job or elsewhere. Exposure to pesticides, heavy metals, and organic solvents, for example, can affect the quality and quantity of your sperm.
Get in touch with your medical roots
Find out whether anyone in your family has a genetic or chromosomal disorder such as Down syndrome, sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs disease, or a bleeding disorder.
Some conditions are related to ethnic background. For example, Tay-Sachs is common among Ashkenazi Jews and French Canadians, and sickle cell anemia occurs more frequently in people of African descent than other ethnic groups.
You'll also want to find out if any relatives have intellectual disabilities or other developmental delays, or if they were born with an anatomical birth defect, like a cardiac or neural tube defect.
You and your partner might want to consider genetic counseling. This type of counseling helps you find out what risks you face and which screening tests to consider before pregnancy.
Stock your fridge with healthy foods
Believe it or not, nutritious eating can benefit your swimmers.
Some studies suggest that certain antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, can boost sperm count and motility. But before you reach for the supplements, check with your doctor. Too much C and E may damage your sperm's DNA.
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine says that a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, along with a multivitamin, may improve sperm quality. Lean protein, whole grains, and low-fat dairy can also help to enhance sperm health.
Eating a healthy diet can help you maintain a healthy weight, too. Being overweight has been linked to lower testosterone, poor sperm quality, and reduced fertility. One study found that the odds of infertility increased by 10 percent for every 20 pounds of excess weight.
If you have questions about your diet, check with your doctor or a nutritionist.
Just say no to partying
Most people have heard that pregnant women shouldn't smoke or drink, but fewer people know that sperm is affected by tobacco, alcohol, and drugs, too.
Research suggests that this troublesome trio may lower sperm counts and slow motility. That means you should completely cut out recreational drugs (such as marijuana and cocaine), cut down on alcohol, and quit smoking before you start trying to conceive. Even using chewing tobacco has been linked to poor sperm function.
Plus, kicking the habit now can help your family later. Secondhand smoke is not only dangerous for your partner, it's also dangerous for your child – both in utero and after birth.
Check your workplace and home for hazards
Other hidden dangers to sperm may be lurking where you work. Regular exposure to pesticides and other chemicals such as organic solvents, which are often found in dry cleaning and auto shops, can make it more difficult to conceive. They also can alter sperm composition, leading to birth defects and premature delivery.
Because it takes three months for sperm to develop and fully mature, limit your exposure to these chemicals at least three months before you start trying to conceive. Ask your employer for a copy of the Material Safety Data Sheet that details any chemical exposure you have at work. And visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website for more information on how to avoid workplace hazards that can harm your reproductive health.
Certain hobbies may expose you to harsh chemicals as well. Refinishing furniture, repairing cars, painting, building models, or any other activity that uses strippers, degreasers, or non-water–based glues and paints can expose you to solvents.
Similarly, making pottery or stained glass windows and handling, shooting, and cleaning guns may expose you to lead or other heavy metals. That doesn't mean you have to drop all your hobbies, just check with your doctor to see what your risk level is.
Buy some boxers
The jury is still out on the boxers versus briefs debate. Some say the testes can get overheated in briefs, inhibiting sperm production. Others say it's really not an issue unless sperm count is already a concern.
But if wearing boxers can potentially give you an edge over briefs, why not go with boxers for a few months? It's a fairly simple wardrobe adjustment that could speed things along.
Stay out of the hot tub
Don't use hot tubs, saunas, or hot baths to unwind for up to three months before trying to conceive. Heat kills sperm. And because it can take that long for sperm to regenerate, spending a long time in the hot tub in January means it could be April before you have a full set of swimmers again.
Testicles function best when they keep their cool: The "boys" are happiest at 94 to 96 degrees, a couple of degrees cooler than normal body temperature.
Casual cyclists don't need to stress about the studies that found long hours on a hard bike seat can lead to lower semen volume and reduced sperm count and motility. It's the hardcore athlete who spends more than two hours a day, six days a week in the saddle who should take note: All that riding can injure the scrotum and testes, potentially leading to fertility problems.
What's more, wearing bike shorts for hours on end can kill sperm as effectively as soaking in a hot tub. The scrotal area gets hot and sweaty on a bike seat, and that can lead to lower sperm counts in avid cyclists. Men's testes are outside the body for a reason – they need a cooler environment to function properly.
If you're going to ride, limit your time in the saddle, wear loose-fitting shorts, and choose the softest seat available.
Although the possibility of becoming a dad can be wildly exciting, it can also be stressful, especially if conception takes longer than you expected. Take time to relax and unwind – go for a swim, shoot some hoops, or take a stroll. Studies haven't concluded that these activities will boost your conception odds, but they will certainly make the process more pleasant, says psychologist Alice Domar, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School.