There is a stigma behind male infertility, with many men unaware of why it happens, or, more generally, how their sperm works. While there are many factors that contribute to a man’s infertility, one group of researchers wanted to determine if there was a way to boost it with a nutritional approach.

It took Dr. Summer Goodson, of the University of North Carolina’s Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) in Kannapolis, N.C, nearly a year of searching before she found six men who had the genetic qualifications needed to be involved in her sperm function study — traditional recruiting through fliers and advertisements proved difficult for finding potential participants. So, Goodson did the opposite of what any UNC sports fan would do: She teamed up with her school’s enemy, Duke University.

Even though they oppose each other on the court and field, UNC’s NRI is now collaborating on Duke’s MURDOCK study, also known as the Measurement to Understand the Reclassification of Disease of Cabarrus/Kannapolis. MURDOCK is a longitudinal health study working to reclassify health and disease through advanced scientific technologies, expert opinion, and collaboration with regional community partners. Using MURDOCK’s 12,000 participants, it only took a day before Goodson identified 13 men with the genetic variant she was looking for.

“The MURDOCK study has a ready population of men who are interested in clinical studies, and samples that allow me to more easily find men who meet our criteria,” Goodson said in a press release. “Our return on investment is much, much higher.”

In 2014, Goodson began looking for men who had a variant in a particular gene that helps the body metabolize the nutrient choline into betaine. Mice with the gene variant were found to be infertile, while men with the same variant, which affects 5 to 9 percent of the population, had sperm that were less capable of making it through the female reproductive tract to the woman’s egg (known as motility). Low motility sperm is also considered low quality, as it makes conception more difficult. Goodson was searching for these men to test whether betaine, which is found in spinach and beets, could increase sperm motility in men with that variant of the gene. Her current study is testing to see if men who take betaine as a dietary supplement experience improved sperm function.

For men, spinach, beets, and fertility seem to go hand in hand, according to previous research. A 2013 study published in Nature Communications found fathers were less likely to have children born with birth defects if their diet before conception included foods high in vitamin B9 (folic acid), such as spinach and beets. Aside from these two vegetables, yellow and orange fruits and vegetables (particularly carrots), have shown evidence of boosting sperm quality.  

“This could mean hope for some couples having trouble conceiving naturally,” Goodson said. “There are far too few options available to couples affected by male infertility, and this could represent a way to improve fertility using a natural, non-invasive approach.” Currently, the program is in its pilot stage. Depending on its results, the NRI will determine whether or not to move forward with a full-scale study involving hundreds of participants.