Health & Fitness

The Healthy Skeptic: Male fertility supplements are no magic path to fatherhood

HealthFitnessBrown UniversityPoliticsProvidence (Providence, Rhode Island)

The average man produces hundreds of billions of sperm cells in his lifetime. Only a minuscule fraction of those little guys ever manage to swim far enough and fast enough to fertilize an egg. Successful sperm must be strong. It stands to reason then that they also must be well-nourished.

Several nutritional supplements purport to help men take a big step closer to fatherhood. FertilAid for Men, manufactured by Fairhaven Health, contains megadoses of antioxidant vitamins and B vitamins. Take three capsules a day as directed and you'll be getting almost seven times your recommended dietary allowance of vitamin E, more than 10 times your RDA for vitamin B12 and almost three times your RDA for vitamin C. The product also contains large doses of minerals such as zinc, selenium and chromium. It's topped off with a blend that includes the amino acid L-carnitine and coenzyme Q10, two nutrients that, according to some theories, may help boost the swimming power of sperm.

FertilAid is available at many drugstores and health stores. On the Fairhaven Health website, a bottle of 90 capsules — a one-month supply — retails for about $30. The site says men have to take the supplement for at least two to three months to get any benefit.

FertilityBlend for Men, a supplement from Daily Wellness Co., takes a similar approach. Users are instructed to take two to four capsules a day separated into two doses. Two capsules a day — the low end of the recommended dose — will provide 10 times your RDA for vitamin E and more than your full allotment of vitamin C, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, zinc and selenium. It also contains a blend of L-carnitine, green tea and the Chinese herb dong quai.

FertilityBlend for Men is sold in many of the same stores that carry FertilAid. You can buy a 60-capsule bottle (a one-month supply if you take just two capsules a day) on the Daily Wellness website for about $30. The company site says the product works best when taken daily for at least three to six months.

The claims

According to the product website, "the ingredients in FertilAid for Men have been scientifically demonstrated to enhance male fertility." It also says that the supplement "is designed to support the healthy formation of sperm and increase both sperm motility and sperm count."

Ethan Lynette, a Fairhaven Health spokesman, says the company has received many testimonials from men who became fathers — or at least managed to impress their doctors with their newly robust sperm counts — after trying the product. Lynette adds that supplements should be only one part of a total fertility strategy that also includes exercise and stress reduction.

The FertilityBlend website says that most men with fertility problems need either better nutrition or supplements to make up for "stress or past abuses." The ingredients in FertilityBlend are said to improve sperm motility and sperm count. A bar graph shows that L-carnitine alone could increase sperm motility by 40% in just four months, though the dose isn't specified.

The president of Daily Wellness Co. did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The bottom line

Sperm cells are fragile, and they definitely need good nutrition to give their best effort, says Dr. Marc Goldstein, director of the Center for Male Reproductive Medicine and Microsurgery at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. He encourages his patients to supplement their diets with a multivitamin along with an extra 500 milligrams of vitamin C (more than five times the RDA), 200 international units (IUs) of vitamin E (about nine times the RDA), 200 micrograms of selenium (almost four times the RDA), 800 micrograms of folic acid (almost twice the RDA), and 200 mg of coenzyme Q10. He says he doesn't recommend L-carnitine because recent studies suggest it doesn't really help.

But according to Goldstein, supplements — including those specifically designed to improve male fertility — aren't exactly a fast path to fatherhood. As he puts it, the effects of vitamins and minerals on male fertility are, at best, "minimal." In his view, other steps — coping with stress, avoiding hot tubs and saunas, getting regular exercise — should be a much higher priority than popping a pill. Still, he says, supplements aren't likely to be harmful, and there's some evidence that they might be better than nothing.

Although male fertility supplements haven't been put to the test in a published, peer-reviewed study, Fairhaven Health did present the results of a small pilot study at the 2009 meeting of the American Society of Andrology. The study found that eight men randomly selected to take FertilAid every day for three months ended up with significantly higher numbers of normal, active sperm than six men who didn't take the supplement. For some men, the supplement seemed to boost the number of healthy sperm by more than 240%.

Some other studies have suggested that antioxidant supplements can boost male fertility, but the results haven't been consistent. A 2008 review of nine studies that looked at the fertility effects of vitamins C and E concluded that the jury was still out. However, an analysis of 34 published studies that appeared in Cochrane Reviews in January suggests that men with fertility problems could roughly quadruple their chances of a pregnancy by taking antioxidants.

It makes some sense that antioxidants could help protect sperm, says Dr. Mark Sigman, co-author of the 2008 report and a urologist on the faculty of the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Providence, R.I. He explains that vitamins C and E should help clean up free radicals that can slow down and stress out the sex cells. But many men already get plenty of antioxidants in their diet, he says, and not everyone has enough free radicals to hamper fertility.

Products like FertilAid and FertilityBlend offer a convenient way to get a lot of potentially fertility-friendly nutrients at once, but Goldstein says it would probably be cheaper to buy the different parts of his regimen separately. And, he says, it would be wise not to expect a miracle either way.

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HealthFitnessBrown UniversityPoliticsProvidence (Providence, Rhode Island)
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