Raising My Game
A Personal Experiment in Health, Business, and Sperm Tracking
About four months ago I began a personal quest to see whether I could boost my sperm count by getting in shape and living better (Spoiler alert: it worked. And a lot.) I’m not a particularly unhealthy guy. I’m also a father and am by all accounts a “fertile man”. So why would I want to do such a thing?
First, a little background on me
I’m 33 years old and a first time CEO of a company that I co-founded about over 3 years ago called Sandstone Diagnostics. Our first product, called Trak, is an at home male fertility tracker that allows couples to measure and monitor sperm counts at home. It’s a really cool little gadget — you can think of it as a small battery-powered device (about the size of a bagel) and disposable cartridges that take a small amount of a man’s semen sample and measures the sperm concentration (or sperm count).
Ok, so this experiment has been part shameless promotion for a product that I plan to start selling soon. But more so it’s an experiment in personal health tracking and general wellness. You see, I want Trak to be much more than just an at-home test kit. I want it to really help men take control of their health, fertility, and improve their chances of conception.
I believe we’re going to change the way people think about and manage their reproductive health, but we need to put some proof to the pudding.
So I started with me.
Sperm, health, and sperm health
Men contribute to half of all cases of infertility. This statistic often surprises people, even though it makes a lot of sense if you think about it. The world needs birds and bees.
1 out of every 5 men has a sperm count low enough to impair a couple’s chances of conception. But what’s scarier is that sperm counts are plummeting. Some studies suggest that the average sperm count in healthy men has dropped by about 33% from over the past 30 years. That’s borderline epidemic.
Research shows us that this is more than just a “fertility issue”- it’s also a men’s health issue. Sperm actually provide a “window” into a man’s overall health. Low sperm counts have been tied to poorer health including higher rates of chronic health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. This means that a man’s low sperm count could be a sign of an underlying medical condition.
For now let’s focus on the fertility ramifications. Men’s fertility is basically a numbers game — the higher number of healthy sperm cells in your semen, the better your chances that one of them will reach and fertilize the egg. So, if you’re trying to get pregnant it is in your interest to maximize the number of sperm you’re bringing to the party.
Like most health parameters, sperm quality is part nature, part nurture. Your genetics and family history play a big role. But so do your the way you live. You’ve probably heard debates about “boxers versus briefs” and staying out of hot tubs. But it goes much farther than that. The food you eat, how you exercise, drugs you take, your stress level and sleep quality… all of these things that impact your general health seem to transcend to your reproductive health. Let’s face it… a lot of young guys simply do not lead healthy lives, and that hard living can wreak havoc on sperm.
Some of these things have been well studied, some not as well, and some not at all. It’s somewhat difficult to conduct proper research studies in this field due to the challenges and expenses in recruiting subjects, monitoring their behavior, and measuring sperm results over time.
We need guinea pigs, and I’m the biggest pig I know.
Shameless plug #2: my team has built a website that addresses anything and everything you’d want to know about male fertility.
Check it out at www.dontcookyourballs.com.
Reflections on fatherhood
My daughter is only one and a half years old, but I can’t imagine life without her.
I’m a lucky guy. I have an amazing wife, and we were fortunate that we had no problem getting pregnant when we decided it was time. Now we’re blessed with the happiest, pudgiest, most perfect little girl.
Prior to 3 years ago — when my co-founders and I decided we were going to build a sperm counter — I had very little appreciation for the strife that infertility can bring. I’ve had friends who have had trouble conceiving and ended up seeking professional fertility services such as in vitro fertilization. It was always a difficult thing for them to talk about (with good reason), and I admittedly didn’t fully understand how painful their experience was at the time.
After becoming a father and talking with hundreds of people about the trials and tribulations associated with trying to get pregnant, I’ve become extremely passionate about wanting to build awareness about infertility and helping people improve their reproductive health.
Having children is a human right, not a privilege.
Unsolicited Life Tip: Have you ever asked someone “So, are you guys going to have kids soon?” I certainly have, but my advice is to not do it. For all you know that couple is 6 months into IVF treatments, just took out a second mortgage on the house to pay for it, and probably don’t need any added pressure from friends, family, or anyone else.
My sperm hack
I was about 15 lbs overweight when I started and meaning to get into better shape for a while — easier said than done. I’ve never been incredibly unhealthy (you wouldn’t see me on the Biggest Loser). But at the time I was far from the peak physical specimen of my youth (ok, maybe young Greg wasn’t exactly setting Guinness records either).
So my plan was to get in better shape and use my nifty little device to track my sperm count along the way. Here’s what I did:
Ate better. I started using a calorie tracker on my iPhone to monitor everything I was eating. It’s a bit of an eye opener when your phone gets mad at you for downing 1,400 calories at Taco Bell in 12 minutes. This helped a lot. “Phone shaming” is a new thing, but it’s effective. For whatever reason I’m more embarrassed to tell my phone what I ate than I am ordering it from an actual human being. It works though, in a very weird self-centered 21st century kind of way.
Moved more. I basically started walking and jogging more in the mornings. I live in California with nice weather, which no doubt is more amenable to outdoor exercise than other parts of the world. But I figured that since my goal was to drop 15 lbs I might as well just try to walk my butt off.
Kept it cool. We called our website Don’t Cook Your Balls for a reason. The baby-makers like to be a few degrees cooler than the rest of the body to optimize sperm production. So I’ve been much more mindful about heating up the nether regions: not sitting for long periods of time, reducing hot showers, keeping the laptop off the lap, etc.
I also used a cool new product called Snowballs — it’s underwear with a pouch in the front for freezable ice packs to cool down your balls. I was skeptical going in (ice packs in your shorts?) but this product is quite well designed. I used Snowballs about 5 times a week for a few hours as they recommend, usually at night. Just so you know, this is by far the sexiest pair of underwear I’ve ever owned. My wife approves and likes to call them my “tighty grays”.
Sperm testing: If you think testing your own semen sample at home might be a little weird, you’re right. But it’s also very exciting. After the first test I found myself oddly looking forward to testing again. I had a “baseline” score and really wanted to see how it would change the following week. It definitely unlocked some sort of competitive, primal instinct deep down inside: I have to do better. I will do better. I will conquer. I am man.
The results blew me away:
17 lbs lost
Sperm count up 78%
To give you a little context, my count when I started was right around the population average (73 million per mL). My count now (130+ million per mL) is super high.
I know… you may be reading this and thinking this guy is totally biased and just trying to hock his product. Fair enough. And if my count didn’t go up maybe I wouldn’t be writing this right now. But these results were way beyond what I expected. In retrospect, however, perhaps it shouldn’t be that surprising.
Here’s the thing: I’m in the best shape of my life. I feel better, I’m light on my feet, my energy is high, the testosterone is pumping… overall I feel manlier and happier. Why shouldn’t my sperm feel the same way?
Quick side note about BMI (body mass index): I’m 6'1" tall, which put my initial BMI at 26.3 and classified me as “overweight.” Fine, I agree that I was overweight. But my current weight of 183 lbs just barely puts me in the “normal weight” range. Really? I feel like I’m a lean, mean, Greg machine right now. I would have to drop below 140 lbs to be classified as “underweight” by this obscene scale, which would mean I’d either have to shrivel up like a raisin or lose a leg. Yes we live in an obese society, but I feel like this scale needs to be updated a bit for 2015 standards of living.
More than anything I’m hoping to build awareness around male fertility issues. This is an under-appreciated men’s health condition that affects millions of people each year. Guys don’t talk about it, and most people don’t realize how big of an issue it is. It’s a difficult topic to broach; we’re talking about semen, penises, testicles, prostates, urethras, and all sorts of other words you might not have used since sixth grade health class. But communication is one of the most powerful tools to dealing with health issues, especially when it comes to reproductive health.
As an entrepreneur, I’m excited about introducing a whole new approach to fertility improvement that relies on improving one’s wellness to make the necessary difference. As a father, I’m excited to help more people take control of their health and start their families.
So I’d love to hear from you. Maybe you’ve done something similar and want to share stories, or you’ve dealt with fertility issues in the past, or you’re just curious and would like to learn more. Please start a conversation!
One last piece of Sommer Family news to share: my wife and I are expecting our second child this winter. We couldn’t be happier, more excited, or feel more blessed to welcome the new baby into our family. Being parents is the best part of our lives, and I hope to help more people realize their dreams of having children.
Greg Sommer is a co-founder and CEO of Sandstone Diagnostics. A North Dakota native, he now lives in Livermore, CA with his wife and daughter.