Christine Yeh, Lab Director at Twig Fertility, graciously sat down with us to talk about sperm testing and all things sperm health. As the Lab Director at Twig Fertility, Christine brings to the team a diverse and multi-faceted background in fertility and reproductive biology. It is through her passion for evidence-based research and overall exposure to multiple parts of the patient journey, that Christine has meticulously designed their laboratory – incorporating best practices from leading clinics across North America and intertwining them into workflows that take a holistic view of the entire patient experience.
I got a negative result on the Male Fertility Test–now what?
For those of you who might not be familiar with Ovry’s Male Fertility Test, it is an at-home test that evaluates if there are >15 million sperm per milliliter present in a semen sample. It does so by looking at a protein that's related to the concentration of sperm present in a semen sample. Similar to an at home Covid test, it provided a positive or negative result.
Semen is the fluid that comes out when somebody ejaculates and sperm are the cells found within semen that can fertilize an egg. As such sperm concentration plays an important role in fertility and one’s ability to reproduce.
If your test comes back negative, it does not necessarily mean that your reproductive potential is decreased or that you can't conceive naturally. It is, however, a good indication to go speak with your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider may send you for a full laboratory Semen Analysis, which provides a more in-depth analysis on additional semen parameters and the sperm that's within it.
What is the difference between the Male Fertility Test and a lab semen analysis?
This at-home test is a qualitative test. It tells you a yes or no answer–is there approximately 15 million sperm per milliliter or not.
For a traditional lab semen analysis, you would produce a semen sample either at home and transport it to the lab, or produce one onsite in the clinic. The lab then evaluates many factors, in addition to concentration, that are important for fertility and the ability to conceive.
Some of these other factors include the volume and quality of the semen produced, the concentration of sperm present, as well as their motility. Motility answers questions such as: are the sperm moving? how are they moving? are they strong ‘swimmers’ or are they slow and sluggish? all of which can affect the ability to conceive.
A lab semen analysis also looks at the morphology, or shape, of the sperm, to evaluate how many look “normal”.
If any of these factors are below average, they could be indications of reduced fertility potential, but it’s important to note that they don’t correlate one to one. With any laboratory results, it is important to review them with your healthcare professional.
How is sperm quality impacted and what are ways to improve sperm health?
There can be different factors that affect sperm quality–some are more well-known and backed by research and some are a correlation that people draw but have not been well-researched or defined. One thing’s for sure, there's a lot more research to be done on the subject!
First it is important to understand that sperm cells are constantly being produced and take about three months for them to mature. Therefore, changes in environmental and lifestyle factors can have a noticeable effect on sperm quality.
One very well-known factor on sperm quality is smoking and/or lots of exposure to carcinogenic smoke. Moderate to heavy smokers are more likely to have a diminished sperm count, lower motility, and higher abnormal morphology when compared to non-smokers. Stopping smoking can increase the health of your sperm cells as well as increase your overall health.
Getting the right nutrition and hitting your body’s daily optimal water intake can help, as sperm health correlates to the overall cell health of your body.
Regular exposure to hot baths, hot tubs and/or saunas can have a negative effect on sperm quality due to overheating of the testes.
Again, I will note not all of this is 100% research-based, some of it is anecdotal.
When should a person with sperm start thinking about sperm health?
It is never too early (nor too late) to start thinking about sperm health. That being said, because the sperm maturation cycle is approximately 70-days, it's a good idea to start thinking about your sperm health at least three months before you're wanting to either freeze your sperm for future preservation or try to conceive.
What are the common information gaps or myths around sperm health?
One that I love to debunk is the boxers versus briefs debate. There is no sound research out there that actually shows tighty whities to be worse than boxers, or something that's a little airier. So wear what's comfortable, and what you like to wear!
In the vein of saunas and hot tubs, there is some research suggesting that regular use of computers on one's lap when sitting down for an extended period of time can also heat up the testes and be detrimental to sperm production. So if you’re someone who likes to work from home with your computer on your lap all day, it's a good idea to reduce that heat exposure, especially if you're looking to conceive or freeze your sperm.
Another myth is that sperm doesn't change with age. In egg producers, it's well known that quality tends to decrease once ovaries and eggs get to be around 35-38 years old. For sperm producers, many believe that they can produce sperm their whole life, therefore the quality is fine. While some individuals can produce sperm all throughout their life, that doesn't mean that the quality remains the same as they age.
Knowing about one's sperm quality can be helpful for individuals trying to conceive or for future fertility preservation. It is also important to understand that sperm quality is not static. You might do a semen analysis one year and have a great result. Then in one, two or three years' time you may have difficulty trying to have a baby. In this instance, it would be good to re-evaluate with a repeat semen analysis as your sperm production may have changed.
Lastly, I want to remind everyone that even if semen and sperm quality is lower, this does not mean it is impossible to conceive. It may be more difficult, and it might take a little bit longer, but it doesn't dictate your fate in a hard-fast way. It takes one sperm to fertilize one egg to create one baby.
Plus that’s why we, reproductive specialists, exist! We’re here to help people on their reproductive journey.