Sperm DNA fragmentation, or sperm fragmentation, happens when the genetic material in sperm is broken or damaged, and it’s one of the most common causes of male infertility. If you or your partner have been struggling with infertility, you know just how frustrating this problem can be. Luckily, DNA fragmentation in sperm is treatable, and there are also things you can do to prevent it from happening in the future. It’s also important to note that it’s still possible to get pregnant even with high levels of sperm DNA fragmentation. Here’s what you need to know about sperm fragmentation and what you can do to improve it. 


What is Sperm DNA Fragmentation?

Sperm plays a very important role in conception. It carries DNA from the male parent to the female parent’s egg for fertilization. 

So, what is DNA fragmentation in sperm exactly? Sperm DNA fragmentation happens when the physical structure of the DNA within the sperm is damaged. This makes it very difficult for the sperm to successfully fertilize the egg.1

If you or your partner are concerned about the integrity of your sperm DNA, a sperm fragmentation test is the easiest way to find out. Your urologist can help you determine which test is best for you. 

Sperm DNA Fragmentation and Male Fertility

While sperm DNA fragmentation does not necessarily lead to complete infertility, it is associated with increased rates of infertility. Multiple studies2 have shown that high levels of sperm DNA fragmentation in the male partner are linked to difficulties in achieving pregnancy. This trend holds true even for couples undergoing IVF treatments;4 those with higher levels of sperm DNA fragmentation have lower pregnancy success rates compared to those without this issue.

Sperm DNA Fragmentation and Miscarriage

DNA fragmentation in sperm is recognized as a significant risk factor for couples experiencing miscarriages. Multiple studies5 have demonstrated that increased levels of sperm DNA fragmentation are associated with a higher rate of miscarriages, particularly recurrent miscarriages and those occurring early in pregnancy. This correlation highlights the need for comprehensive genetic assessments in fertility treatments.

Sperm DNA Fragmentation and Health of the Child

Paternal sperm DNA fragmentation has been linked to specific health conditions in children, including retinoblastoma,7 a rare pediatric eye cancer. Additionally, conditions commonly associated with advanced paternal age.8 which itself correlates with increased sperm DNA fragmentation, suggest a potential causal relationship between sperm DNA fragmentation,9 and various genetic disorders. Further research is crucial to confirm these associations.


What Causes Sperm DNA Fragmentation?

There are a variety of factors that can cause sperm DNA fragmentation. These include: 

  • Oxidative stress: This is one of the most likely causes10 of sperm DNA fragmentation. Oxidative stress happens when the body is exposed to free radicals without consuming antioxidants to balance them out. Antioxidants can be found in many nutrient-rich foods. 
  • Chronic health conditions: There are a variety of chronic diseases that could increase your risk of developing sperm DNA fragmentation. Cancer13 and diabetes14 are two of the most notable instances of this. Cancer treatments like chemotherapy can also affect sperm quality. 
  • Exposure to high temperatures: When the testicles are exposed to high temperatures,15 it can impact the genetic quality of sperm. This often happens when men sit with laptops on their laps for an extended period of time or sit in hot tubs. 
  • Internal genetic issues: In some cases, sperm DNA fragmentation is a result of internal DNA issues. For example, some bodies struggle to generate structurally sound DNA or repair DNA that has broken. 

How Long Does It Take To Improve Sperm DNA Fragmentation?

Sperm generally lives in the body for 42 to 76 days.16 If the sperm is not ejaculated while it is still alive, it will be reabsorbed back into the body. 

It takes time for the body to produce new sperm after you start treatment for DNA fragmentation. Most men need to continue treatment for at least one sperm production cycle before their DNA quality improves. While the exact cycle length varies from person to person, this usually takes three to four months. Your urologist can help you with ongoing testing to see if treatment is effective and make adjustments to your plan. 


How to Improve Sperm DNA Fragmentation

Sperm DNA fragmentation can be very frustrating when you’re trying to start a family. Luckily, there are many things you can do to improve your sperm quality, many of which are simple lifestyle changes. Here’s how to improve DNA fragmentation in sperm.

Exercise Regularly

Maintaining a regular exercise routine is good for your overall health, and it’s also helpful for male fertility. For example, working a sedentary job can double the risk of DNA damage to your sperm.17 Making workouts a part of your regular routine can help you avoid these issues. 

Light to moderate exercise is best for men looking to improve their fertility. This is because high-intensity and ultra-endurance exercise can actually cause sperm DNA fragmentation.18 This is due to the high levels of stress that these workouts put on the body. Low-impact workouts like walking, swimming, or yoga make good alternatives.

In particular, high-intensity cycling can be damaging to fertility. Cycling for long periods of time puts stress on the testes, which can lead to sperm DNA fragmentation. In fact, training volumes for cyclists are directly correlated19 with sperm DNA damage. 

Eat a Healthy Diet

If you want to know how to repair sperm DNA damage naturally, your diet is a great place to start. Oxidative stress is one of the most significant causes of sperm fragmentation, so eating antioxidants is a crucial part of a fertility diet. Antioxidants balance out free radicals in the body, which reduces stress on the cells. They are a broad category of substances that include vitamins and minerals. 

There are many fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants,20 such as spinach, artichokes, blueberries, strawberries, and more. Cooking with herbs and spices is also a great way to add more antioxidants to your diet. Turmeric, ginger, sage, and rosemary are all very high in antioxidants. You can even try antioxidant-rich desserts, as dark chocolate contains high levels of antioxidants as well. 

Your doctor may also recommend an antioxidant supplement to help reduce your sperm DNA fragmentation. These supplements are capsules that contain a concentrated amount of antioxidants for more efficient recovery. 

Limit Exposure to Heat

As previously mentioned, ongoing exposure to heat can cause damage to sperm DNA.15 Spending extensive amounts of time in a hot tub or sauna could result in increased sperm DNA fragmentation. It’s best to avoid these hot environments while trying to conceive, just to be cautious. 

Reduce Alcohol Consumption 

Alcohol has been associated with high levels of sperm DNA fragmentation21 and other fertility issues. These issues are most common when drinking very frequently or in large quantities. 

To avoid sperm DNA fragmentation while trying to conceive, keep your alcohol consumption to a minimum. While the occasional glass of wine or beer is unlikely to do long-term damage, avoid drinking as a regular habit. Instead, opt for non-alcoholic alternatives like mocktails, sodas, and juices. 

Reducing your alcohol consumption can also have benefits outside of your sperm quality. For example, drinking less can help you have more energy22 and improve your overall health, setting a solid foundation for your fertility journey.

Quit Smoking

Smoking is another major contributor to sperm DNA fragmentation.12 This is likely because tobacco products contain a variety of harmful substances that can damage your cells and cause issues with DNA. 

Although quitting smoking is difficult, it’s a must if you’re looking to improve your fertility and your overall health. Talk to your doctor about options to help you quit. There are many treatments that can help you start this process, and your medical provider can help you find the right one for your needs. 

Manage Stress

While trying to conceive can be a stressful time, it’s important to try to keep that stress under control. High stress levels23 can contribute to sperm DNA damage, so taking your mental health seriously is a must. 

There are many things you can do to manage your stress levels. Aim to maintain a healthy work-life balance and make time for your favorite hobbies and relaxing activities. Spending time with friends and family is also a great way to blow off steam. Exercising is good for improving sperm DNA fragmentation in its own right, but it can also help you manage your stress levels. Try to exercise outside if you can, as the fresh air can also be very helpful for minimizing stress. 

Avoid Exposure to Pollutants and Toxins

Since pollutants and toxins have been linked to sperm DNA fragmentation.11 it’s best to be cautious about your exposure to them. An easy way to do this is by researching the products you purchase and use in your home. Opt for items with natural ingredients that don’t contain potentially harmful pollutants. 

Of course, there are some instances where exposure to pollutants can’t be controlled. In this case, you should take steps to protect yourself. For example, if you work in an industrial environment with potential exposure to toxins, be sure to follow all safety precautions and wear protective gear. If you live in an area with high levels of air pollution, use air filters and other protective tools to reduce your exposure. 

Take Supplements

Male fertility supplements that contain antioxidants can help support a healthy reproductive system and potentially reduce sperm DNA fragmentation. Be sure to discuss any supplements you’re taking with your doctor and stick to the recommended dose.


How Can Sperm DNA Fragmentation Be Tested?

There are several specialized tests that can detect sperm DNA fragmentation. These tests need to be ordered through your urologist or another medical professional. Some of the most popular options include: 

  • Sperm chromatin dispersion (SCD): This method uses a powerful microscope to examine sperm and find healthy, intact DNA structures. These structures will produce a “halo” effect, while broken DNA structures will not. 
  • Sperm chromatin structure assay (SCSA): In this test, the sperm is dyed and examined with lasers. The color of the sperm indicates whether the DNA inside is healthy or not. 
  • Terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase dUTP nick end labeling (TUNEL): This test uses an enzyme that only attaches to broken pieces of DNA. This test also uses dye and a laser. Under the glow of a laser, the enzymes will emit a certain color to identify damaged DNA in the sperm sample. 
  • Single cell gel electrophoresis assay (SCGE): This test breaks down the cell membrane around the outside of the sperm to identify fragmented pieces of DNA. These fragmented pieces will have a small tail, while healthy DNA does not. This is sometimes referred to as the “comet test,” because the tail on the DNA resembles that of a comet. 

If you and your partner have been struggling with infertility, these test results can help you identify whether DNA fragmentation might be the cause. If the tests come back with high levels of fragmentation, you can work with your doctor to put together a treatment plan. You can also conduct periodic tests to determine whether treatment is working effectively and make adjustments as necessary.


Boost Your Fertility with FertilitySmart

While sperm DNA fragmentation is a common cause of infertility, addressing it may be possible with certain lifestyle adjustments, such as maintaining a healthy diet and increasing your activity levels, alongside targeted support. FertilitySmart is dedicated to enhancing fertility at any stage of your journey, and we're here to support you in achieving the family you've always dreamed of.

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7Gautam, Surabhi, et al. “Sperm DNA Damage in Non-Familial Sporadic Heritable Retinoblastoma (NFSHRb).” Clinical Epidemiology and Global Health, vol. 3, no. 1, (18 Nov. 2018), pp. S20–S25. ScienceDirect, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2213398415000718

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9Donatti, Luiza M., et al. “Advanced Paternal Age Affects the Sperm DNA Fragmentation Index and May Lead to Lower Good-Quality Blastocysts.” Reproductive Sciences, (10 Mar. 2023), https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36897559/

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13Song, Seung-Hun, et al. “Semen Quality and Sperm DNA Fragmentation in Cancer Patients Undergoing Sperm Cryopreservation.” Investigative and Clinical Urology, vol. 64, no. 5, (1 Jan. 2023), pp. 489–489, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10482665/

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