Maybe you’ve been trying to conceive unsuccessfully (for a while) to get your partner pregnant, or maybe you’re about to start trying and want to make sure your body and sperm are in their best health before you do. Or you could just be a health nut who loves to take supplements and are curious about male fertility supplements.
Whatever the reason, the main questions you probably have are: what is in male fertility supplements? Do they work? If not, what else can I do to improve my fertility and odds of pregnancy?
We’ve got answers below. But if you’re in a hurry, here’s the gist: first, most fertility supplements contain a lot – a lot! – of different ingredients, many of which can be found in food. Second, most of these supplements have not been proven in rigorous clinical trials to be effective. And third, if you want to boost your fertility, start with diet and lifestyle changes, and if that doesn’t work, see a fertility doctor.
Let’s get into the details.
What do male fertility supplements contain?
What don’t they contain? There are a lot of vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, and antioxidants found in fertility supplements for men, many of which you can find online, although some health food stores carry them as well.
Because supplements (for women, too) are not medications, they are not subject to FDA scrutiny, meaning manufacturers can legally make all sorts of claims – and sell – supplements that either don’t work at all or have low efficacy rates.
A 2020 study co-authored by a Cleveland Clinic urologist and fertility specialist found that 17 of the most popular male fertility supplements contained 90 unique ingredients in total, giving you a sense of the variety of ingredients on the market today.
Top male fertility supplements include:
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin B 12
Some lesser-known ingredients include NAC N-acetyl-cysteine, cryptoxanthin, inositol, alpha-lipoic acid, D-aspartic acid, PQQ, ashwagandha, and shilajit, plus many more.
The specific ingredients and dosing in male fertility supplements vary across brands, meaning each bottle offers a different mix, usually for top dollar. While male fertility supplements often contain naturally occurring compounds that likely aren’t dangerous to the health of the user, they can be harmful to sperm, despite what they promise to do!
Plus, most of them don’t actually work when measured by the highest clinical standards. In other words, most don’t improve sperm parameters or increase pregnancy rates.
Do male fertility supplements work?
We’ve already hinted at this answer (hint: not really), so before we get into exactly why, it’s important to touch on several foundational points: First, how does male fertility work? Second, are there vitamins and minerals that are helpful for male fertility? And finally, how do we judge credible scientific studies versus less credible ones?
While the heart of a woman’s fertility is her egg reserve and ability to ovulate those eggs monthly, the heart of a man’s fertility is, you guessed it, his sperm. Half of all infertility cases involve an issue with the male partner.
Three main sperm parameters are important to achieving pregnancy– the first is the sperm count or the number of sperm. Because the female cervix, vaginal canal, and uterus are full of barriers that prevent a lot of sperm from advancing, the more sperm a man has in each ejaculation, the higher his chances of having one sperm penetrate an egg and result in pregnancy.
Sperm motility—whether or not the sperm are good swimmers—is also very important. Again, getting from the cervix through the uterus and fallopian tubes to penetrate the egg is hard work. If the sperm aren’t good swimmers, they’ll never reach their final destination.
Last but not least is sperm morphology, which is the shape and size of the sperm – if the sperm are not exactly the right shape (both head and tail), penetration and pregnancy are less likely to happen. There’s also a fourth aspect that has gotten some attention lately: the DNA quality of the sperm – meaning, does the sperm have high levels of DNA damage? Higher levels of sperm DNA fragmentation are more common in older men and men with varicoceles.
Are there vitamins and minerals that improve male fertility?
A truly underappreciated part of health is the naturally occurring vitamins and minerals found in foods that keep our bodies active, strong, protected, and healthy. Vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are vital for fertility-related hormone production, oxidative stress reduction, and sperm development, all-important for male fertility.
But the vast majority of vitamins and minerals found in supplements have not been proven to improve male fertility or increase pregnancy and live birth rates. Also, too much of a good thing can be bad. Lastly, most supplements available today contain synthetic vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and amino acids, which means they are produced artificially in an industrial process – not providing the same health benefits as those ingested through whole foods.
So if you’re looking for the best male fertility supplements then look no further than your very own body and what you put into it.
How do we separate good science from regular science?
Three words: Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT). This type of study, which measures the ‘truth’ of a hypothesis by comparing two similar groups – one given the treatment in question, and another not given the treatment (the control group) – is the gold standard study that helps us get as close to the truth as possible.
Unfortunately, RCTs are expensive to run and complex, making them more challenging to conduct. You’ll find plenty more studies that still adhere to sound scientific principles that are not RCTs, and these are the studies you’ll usually see mentioned in articles about the ‘clinically-proven benefits of male fertility supplements’ or on supplement labels themselves.
This is often where the confusion comes in – not all science is created equal. Fortunately for you, though, there are some RCTs about male fertility supplements, and this is how we know that only some of them are proven to be effective.
So – do male fertility supplements actually work?
A systematic review of the ingredients in popular male fertility supplements found that only about 17% of ingredients found in supplements had data published showing a positive effect.
These 5 ingredients had the most evidence for a positive effect:
- Vitamin E: a powerful antioxidant that reduces free radicals caused by cellular damage in the body and has been linked to improvements in sperm motility and morphology
- Vitamin C: contains antioxidants and has been shown to support sperm count and motility
- CoQ10: another antioxidant linked to improvements in sperm count, motility, and morphology
- Zinc: a vital fertility mineral for men that has been associated with sperm development and better sperm quality, as well as sperm count and motility
- L-Carnitine: an amino acid derivative that plays a role in cellular energy production and has been linked to improvements in sperm motility
We know what you’re thinking – why not take CoQ10, L-Carnitine, Zinc, Vitamin C, and Vitamin E supplements if they’ve been shown to potentially work?
Some of the best-designed studies out there (RCTs) have shown that these supplements do not actually work. A double-blind RCT involving 9 fertility centers in the United States evaluated the effects of an antioxidant formulation containing vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, L-carnitine, zinc, folic acid, and lycopene.
This study found that these antioxidants did not improve semen parameters, DNA fragmentation levels, and pregnancy/live birth rates. Another RCT looking at folic acid and zinc supplementation in men found that not only did these supplements not help improve semen parameters or live birth rates, but they also led to an increase in DNA fragmentation.
We’re not saying that these compounds are bad for you. But they are probably more beneficial if you ingest them through food.
Vitamin C is found in lemons, oranges, apples, chili peppers, pineapple, bell pepper, kale, and loads more. Vitamin E is found in avocado, dry apricots, sunflower seeds, almonds, peanuts, green beans, spinach, pumpkin, and more. Zinc is found in milk products, oysters, red meat, poultry, baked beans, almonds, chickpeas, whole grains, and more. CoQ10 can be found in liver, organ meats, salmon, tuna, and whole grains. L-Carnitine can be found in animal products like meat, fish, poultry, and milk.
Male fertility supplements contain large daily dosages, often exceeding recommended dietary requirements. And that can be harmful to your health and your sperm.
For example, excessive iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamin C levels could lead to gastrointestinal issues, and high levels of vitamins D and C could increase kidney stones. Too much vitamin B6 can result in nerve damage.
You can also have too many antioxidants. Antioxidants in moderation are suitable because they help maintain homeostasis by limiting the number of free radicals that cause cellular damage. However, taking too many can potentially lead to adverse effects and even damage to sperm.
As a leader in fertility research, IVI RMA has a website dedicated to all of the fertility research that we conduct.
So what else can I do to improve fertility?
Start with a healthy diet, exercise, and weight loss – these three factors can help with hormone production and sperm function. Next, cut down on substance use, which includes nicotine/tobacco products, cannabis, and alcohol. Finally, if you can, try to limit your exposure to environmental toxins like air pollution. You can check out this blog for more lifestyle modifications: Boosting Your Fertility – Lifestyle Modifications.
If you still want answers, the best bet is to see a fertility specialist or reproductive urologist who can identify other potential causes of male infertility.
It’s possible you may be suffering from a genetic condition, abnormal testosterone levels, or an anatomic issue like a varicocele, which occurs when the blood vessels around the testicle are dilated, causing temperature increases that disrupt sperm production.
There are potential solutions to all of the above issues, even if the underlying cause of the fertility issue ends up being unknown.
Vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are beneficial to promoting overall health and sperm health in men, but male fertility supplements have a spotty scientific track record of achieving these benefits. Change your diet, exercise more, and maintain healthy habits before thinking of supplements. If you are still dead set on taking them, please research their ingredients and dosage and talk to your doctor. For men serious about getting answers, consult a fertility specialist – you won’t regret it.