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While it takes just one sperm cell to fertilize an egg, around 200 million are needed to start the process. So, how much sperm does it take to get pregnant?
The general rule is that the more sperm the better. If you have a low sperm count, it’s less likely you’ll get your partner pregnant. Here’s what you need to know about sperm count and pregnancy, and some tips for upping your chances of conception.
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How much sperm is needed to get pregnant?
Technically speaking, it only takes one healthy sperm to fertilize an egg. The odds are pretty good since men release millions each time they ejaculate, right?
There’s a reason so many sperm are needed to start the pregnancy process. If a male ejaculated just one sperm, there would be almost no chance of pregnancy. These little swimmers have a very difficult journey from the vagina to the fallopian tubes where they meet an egg for fertilization. And many don’t make it.
That’s why tens to hundreds of millions of sperm cells are deployed every time a person ejaculates. One study found that of the millions of sperm that start out the process, only a thousand or fewer made it to the fallopian tubes, which is where fertilization takes place (Williams, 1992).
Researchers have found men who release 39 million sperm or less per ejaculation, a condition called oligozoospermia or low sperm count, are more likely to experience infertility (Leslie, 2022).
How much sperm is in semen?
During ejaculation between 1.5–5 mL of semen are released. Just 1 mL of semen contains 15–150 million sperm. If we do the math, that means each ejaculation contains hundreds of millions of sperm cells, although the exact number varies from each person and each ejaculation (Leslie, 2022).
How long does it take sperm to reach the egg?
From the moment of ejaculation, sperm are released into the vaginal canal. From there they travel into the entrance to the uterus (the cervix). In one study, sperm was found in the cervix 90 seconds to three minutes after ejaculation (Sobrero, 1962).
After passing through the cervix, the sperm begins traversing the uterus. It’s a distance of just a few inches but it’s a long way for the tiny sperm cells to swim. Researchers believe that contractions in the vagina, cervix, and uterus aid the sperm cells in their journey. This distance can be covered in less than 10 minutes (Kunz, 1996).
Most of the sperm are lost along the way, due to the pH of the vagina and other factors, but thousands reach the fallopian tubes within minutes. This is where they can fertilize an egg if one is present or arrives later on.
Sperm morphology: what is it, and how does it affect fertility?
How long does sperm survive?
After ejaculation, sperm can survive in the female reproductive tract for seven days or more while waiting for an egg to arrive. If ovulation occurs within a few days of unprotected sex, pregnancy is possible (Sakkas, 2015; NICE Clinical Guidelines, 2013).
It’s useful biologically to have sperm waiting since an egg is only viable for about 24 hours after being released from an ovary. This also means that if you have sex a few days before your partner ovulates, they can still get pregnant.
Still, seven days is only a rough estimate. And while some people use the “rhythm method” to count down the days to ovulation and avoid pregnancy, there’s evidence of people getting pregnant after unprotected sex on any day of their menstrual cycle.
That’s why the rhythm is one of the least reliable methods of contraception, resulting in around 24 pregnancies per hundred people who use this method every year.
Tips to increase sperm count
Research shows some practices can help you produce more sperm––or at the least, avoid reducing your sperm count. Here are some tactics to keep sperm healthy.
1. Exercise regularly (but skip the bike)
The American College of Sports Medicine and American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days each week. Getting 20 minutes of vigorous exercise three days a week also promotes a healthy lifestyle.
Running, swimming, and weightlifting are all good options, but if you have a low sperm count, it may be best to skip long bike rides. Research shows that cycling five or more hours each week was associated with a lower sperm concentration and fewer mobile sperm (Wise, 2011).
2. Keep your lap cool
There is an association between elevated scrotal temperature and reduced semen quality (NICE Clinical Guidelines, 2013).
Things you can do to keep your testicle temp even include wearing loose-fitting underwear and avoiding hot tubs and saunas. There’s no evidence showing these choices will improve your sperm count, but they are easy to do (Leslie, 2022).
8 tips for getting pregnant with low sperm count
3. Get your thyroid checked
Having an overactive or underactive thyroid gland can negatively affect sperm. Thyroid dysfunction can lead to reduced semen volume, decreased quality of sperm, and low sperm count (La Vignera, 2018).
If you have symptoms of hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism, see your healthcare provider who can check your levels.
4. Take vitamins
Getting your daily dose of nutrients is important when it comes to maintaining sperm quality. For example, proper levels of vitamin B12 and vitamin C are associated with a healthy sperm count and sperm motility (Banihani, 2017; Rafiee, 2016).
Researchers know vitamin D is important for pregnancy, though it’s not clear how it affects male partners. One small study found couples with typical vitamin D levels had a significantly higher chance of conceiving than couples where the male partner was vitamin D-deficient (Tartagni, 2015).
But loading up on supplements isn’t usually the answer unless recommended by a healthcare provider. Most people get enough of these vitamins from their diet alone, but a blood test can tell you if you’re deficient.
5. Maintain a healthy weight
Studies show that having a body mass index (BMI) in the overweight or obese range is linked to fewer sperm cells than men with an average BMI. Having obesity may also have a negative impact on erectile function, especially if you have heart disease or diabetes (NICE Clinical Guidelines, 2013).
Additionally, one very small study found that getting to a healthy weight can increase the amount of semen you produce, its concentration, and the number of normal sperm cells within it. These are factors that can possibly lead to better fertility (Rafiee, 2016).
6. Try antioxidant supplements
Free radicals are substances in the body that cause damage over time, and that includes the organs involved in sperm production. Antioxidants are compounds that counteract those free radicals.
Antioxidant supplements that may affect sperm count, motility, and quality include (Ahmadi, 2016):
What can a man eat to help produce healthy sperm?
7. Avoid alcohol, drugs, and smoking
These three things can all affect sperm and fertility. Research finds that things like anabolic steroids and recreational drugs like cocaine can reduce sperm quality and quantity (Leslie, 2022).
Although researchers don’t yet know how it affects fertility, there is an association between smoking cigarettes and reduced sperm quality. It’s recommended to quit smoking if you’re trying to get your partner pregnant (NICE Clinical Guidelines, 2013).
Research has shown that consuming more than five alcoholic drinks per week can negatively affect semen quality. The biggest effects were seen in men who consumed more than 25 drinks per week. Drinking alcohol was also associated with changes in testosterone levels (Jensen, 2014).
8. Avoid environmental toxins
Toxins at your home or work can be harmful to your reproductive system. These can include insecticides, fungicides, and pesticides. If you work with these substances, make sure you use proper protective equipment. Be sure to check the safety data for any chemicals you work with and use proper precautions (NICE Clinical Guidelines, 2013; Leslie, 2022).
What causes abnormal sperm?
Many factors can affect the quality of sperm. Some of these include (Leslie, 2022):
- Hormonal disorders
- Genetic disorders
- Congenital reproductive tract abnormalities (ones you’re born with)
- Injury or reproductive surgery
- Autoimmune diseases
- Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Sexual dysfunction
- A history of certain cancers or cancer treatment
- Certain medications
- Illicit drugs
- Excessive alcohol use
- Exposure to environmental toxins
How to increase sperm count: 7 things to try
If any of these impact you, talk to a healthcare provider. They can perform a semen analysis and give medical advice about increasing the odds of getting pregnant.
- Ahmadi, S., Bashiri, R., Ghadiri-Anari, A., & Nadjarzadeh, A. (2016). Antioxidant supplements and semen parameters: An evidence-based review. International Journal Of Reproductive Biomedicine, 14(12), 729–736. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5203687/
- Banihani, S. A. (2017). Vitamin B12 and Semen Quality. Biomolecules, 7(2), 42. doi:10.3390/biom7020042. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5485731/
- Jensen, T. K., Gottschau, M., Madsen, J. O., et al. (2014). Habitual alcohol consumption associated with reduced semen quality and changes in reproductive hormones; a cross-sectional study among 1221 young Danish men. BMJ Open, 4(9), e005462. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005462. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4185337/
- Kunz, G., Beil, D., Deininger, H., et al. (1996). The dynamics of rapid sperm transport through the female genital tract: evidence from vaginal sonography of uterine peristalsis and hysterosalpingoscintigraphy. Human Reproduction, 11(3), 627–632. doi:10.1093/humrep/11.3.627. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8671281/
- La Vignera, S. & Vita, R. (2018). Thyroid dysfunction and semen quality. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology, 32. doi:10.1177/2058738418775241. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5946587/
- Leslie, S. W., Siref, L. E., Soon-Sutton, T. L., et al. (2022). Male Infertility. StatPearls. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK562258/
- National Collaborating Centre for Women’s and Children’s Health (UK) (NICE Clinical Guidelines). (2013). Fertility: assessment and treatment for people with fertility problems. London: Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK327786/
- Rafiee, B., Morowvat, M. H., & Rahimi-Ghalati, N. (2016). Comparing the effectiveness of dietary vitamin C and exercise interventions on fertility parameters in normal obese men. Urology Journal, 13(2), 2635–2639. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27085565/
- Sakkas, D., Ramalingam, M., Garrido, N., & Barratt, C. L. (2015). Sperm selection in natural conception: what can we learn from Mother Nature to improve assisted reproduction outcomes? Human Reproduction Update, 21(6), 711–726. doi:10.1093/humupd/dmv042. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26386468/
- Sobrero, A. J. & Macleod, J. (1962). The immediate postcoital test. Fertility and Sterility, 13, 184–189. doi:10.1016/s0015-0282(16)34447-8. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/13914711/
- Sunder, M. & Leslie, S. W. (2022). Semen Analysis. StatPearls. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK564369/
- Tartagni, M., Matteo, M., Baldini, D., et al. (2015). Males with low serum levels of vitamin D have lower pregnancy rates when ovulation induction and timed intercourse are used as a treatment for infertile couples: results from a pilot study. Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology, 13, 127. doi:10.1186/s12958-015-0126-9. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4654914/
- Williams, M., Barratt, C. L., Hill, C. J., et al. (1992). Recovery of artificially inseminated spermatozoa from the fallopian tubes of a woman undergoing total abdominal hysterectomy. Human Reproduction (Oxford, England), 7(4), 506–509. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.humrep.a137680. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1522194/
- Wise, L. A., Cramer, D. W., Hornstein, M. D., et al. (2011). Physical activity and semen quality among men attending an infertility clinic. Fertility and Sterility, 95(3), 1025–1030. doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2010.11.006. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3043154/