Dear Healthy Men: My wife and I are planning to start a family and her doctor suggested that she start taking prenatal vitamins to prepare her body for pregnancy. When I asked the doctor whether there was anything I should be doing to increase the chances of a healthy pregnancy and baby, she just laughed—which I thought was really insulting. I find it hard to believe that as someone who’s going to be contributing 50% of the genes to our new baby, what I eat and do before the pregnancy is irrelevant. Am I wrong?
A: You’re right—on several counts. First, it sounds like your wife’s doctor was channeling Homer Simpson, who once said, “I never thought of fatherhood as something that could affect a kid.” Both Homer and the doctor are very much mistaken (although Homer has a better excuse). Second, what you eat and do before your wife gets pregnant can be very important.
To start with, your ability to impregnate your wife depends largely on your ability to produce healthy sperm, in terms of quantity, movement (their ability to reach the egg), and morphology (the sperms’ shape and amount of DNA damage). Numerous studies have shown that a variety of lifestyle factors can have a dramatic effect on your ability to become a father. For example, obesity is linked with lower sperm counts and less sperm movement; alcohol consumption can reduce sperm counts and cause impotence; the same goes for prolonged stress. Smoking (or vaping) tobacco or marijuana can increase the number of abnormal sperm you produce; and getting plenty of exercise can have the opposite effect. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health recently found that men who watched more than 20 hours of TV per week had a “44% lower sperm count than those who watched almost no TV,” and men who did 15 or more hours of moderate to vigorous exercise per week “had a 73% higher sperm count than those who exercised less than 5 hours per week.”
In addition, as with your wife, what you eat can also make a big difference. Several studies have found that various vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients may improve sperm quality and increase pregnancy rates. These include vitamins C and E, folate, selenium, and omega 3 fatty acids.
One study, published in the journal Human Reproduction Update, found that prospective fathers who ate diets rich in “fish, shellfish and seafood, poultry, cereals, vegetables and fruits, low-fat dairy and skimmed milk” had better quality sperm and were more likely to impregnate their partners. On the other hand, diets “rich in processed meat, soy foods, potatoes, full-fat dairy and total dairy products, cheese, coffee, alcohol, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sweets” were associated with lower quality sperm.
In addition to increasing your fertility, what you do (and eat) undoubtedly has an influence on the health of your future children. A study done at Australia’s largest maternity hospital found that when dads eat better, their partners tend to eat better too, which ultimately helps the baby.
But the most fascinating news comes from the field of epigenetics, a burgeoning branch of genetics that studies how genes are “expressed”—meaning turned on or off. Dr. Jean Bonhomme, co-founder of Healthy Men, Inc. (healthymen.org) has said that a man’s diet, stress levels, and preconception exposure to environmental toxins (whether at home, at work, or gardening in his backyard) could increase the risk to his future children of developing health issues such as obesity, birth defects, and some childhood cancers.
Despite everything I’ve said here, before you start taking nutritional supplements or making other major changes to your lifestyle, check with your healthcare provider—but be sure that he or she has a solid understanding of fathers’ impact on pregnancy and the long-term health of their children.
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