Sperm • Function, Appearance & Lifespan

When a female egg cell is fertilized by a sperm, new life can arise. However, this is not an easy task, only about a dozen of the millions of sperm make their way through the fallopian tube to the egg cell. But how exactly do egg and sperm find each other? How long do they survive? And above all: Can sperm quality be influenced?

Article content at a glance:

The most amazing facts about sperm

What are the functions of sperm?

Sperm – also called seminal threads, spermatozoa or spermatozoids – are germ cells that carry the man’s genetic material. They are needed for pregnancy to occur. Accordingly, they are the most important component of the sperm (ejaculate). The transparent milky liquid that escapes from the penis during male ejaculation serves as a means of transport for the spermatic cords. Sperm make up about five percent of the ejaculate.

With the two to six milliliters of sperm that is expelled from the urethra during a man’s orgasm, forty to several hundred million sperm leave the body at the same time. Due to the many obstacles, however, only about 300 sperm cells reach the end of the fallopian tubes. Ultimately, only one sperm can penetrate the egg cell and fertilize it. From there, it travels down the fallopian tube and lodges in the lining of the uterus. The remaining sperm cells are broken down by the female body.

This is how sperm are produced

By the time a boy hits puberty, the spermatic ducts in his testicles are usually fully developed. Sperm are formed from stem cells in the testicular tubules. The entire maturing process takes about three months. Mature sperm are stored in the epididymis and vas deferens. During an orgasm, sperm and secretions pass as seminal fluid through the vas deferens into the urethra and out through the penis.

Ideally, men can produce sperm throughout their lives. However, serious illnesses or old age can impair sperm formation. But even in young people, sperm cell formation disorders can occur, for example if the testicles are undescended.

Semen congestion: myth or health problem?

A common belief is that prolonged abstinence in men can lead to semen congestion. In fact, new sperm are constantly being produced in the testicles. However, if these are not needed, immune cells break down the sperm again or they are transported to the outside by involuntary ejaculation (usually during sleep). A permanent backwater is therefore not to be feared. However, the muscles of the seminal ducts, for example, can cramp painfully if ejaculation does not occur after prolonged sexual arousal.

How long does sperm production take after ejaculation?

Couples who want to have children are often advised not to have sex every day so that the sperm depot has time to replenish itself. While it is true that a man who holds back for a few days usually has significantly more sperm, the proportion of motile sperm also decreases. Frequent sex therefore does not have to be a disadvantage. Since a healthy man produces new sperm every day, there are always sperm at different stages of maturity in the man’s spermatic ducts and testicles.

buildup of sperm

Sperm look like tadpoles. The sperm cells are about 0.06 millimeters long and cannot be seen with the naked eye. They are usually broken down into the following sections:

  • Kopf: This is where the cell nucleus is located, which contains one set of chromosomes (either the X or Y chromosome). In addition, the tip is equipped with the so-called acrosome cap. It contains enzymes that help dissolve the egg membrane during fertilization so that the sperm can penetrate the egg cell.

  • middle piece: In the center of the sperm, mitochondria (tiny structures within a cell) provide the energy needed for locomotion. They are also referred to as the powerhouses of the cells.

  • Tail: The end is a movable tail part (flail).

How do sperm and egg find each other?

Sperm cells are programmed to find their way to the egg cell. It is not yet known which mechanisms they use exactly for navigation. Researchers suspect that attractants that secrete the egg or other cells in the genital tract could attract them. Another theory is that progesterone, the female sex hormone, attracts sperm.

It is now known that sperm do not move by whip-like movements of the tail, as was previously assumed. Rather, they swim forward in corkscrew movements.


How long can sperm survive outside the testicles?

Under the best conditions, sperm can survive in the female vagina for up to five days. Accordingly, unprotected intercourse a few days before the woman ovulates can lead to fertilization. Outside the body, however, the conditions for sperm are not optimal.

  • In the air: If they get on absorbent materials (such as bed sheets) or on the body skin after sexual intercourse, they remain capable of being fertilized as long as they are surrounded by the protective seminal fluid (seminal plasma). However, this usually dries up after a few minutes and the sperm die off. With larger amounts of semen, this may take a little longer.

  • In water: Sperm cannot survive in water either. There is therefore no risk of becoming pregnant if there is sperm in the bath water.

Semen can be stored frozen for several years: many women have given birth to viable children after artificial insemination using semen that had been frozen for several years.

Can sperm quality be improved?

If the desire to have children is not fulfilled, in addition to examinations of the woman, a spermiogram is often carried out on the man to check the sperm quality. An important indicator is the sperm concentration. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), sperm should contain at least 15 million sperm per milliliter. If the sperm count is below this value, men are classified as infertile. However, other factors such as the mobility of the sperm, their structure and vitality must be taken into account.

The following tips can help improve sperm quality:

  • Ensure a healthy, balanced diet: Studies show that omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, selenium and folic acid in particular have a positive effect on male fertility.

  • Avoid toxins and anabolic steroids: Alcohol, cigarettes and other drugs can negatively affect sperm quality. Likewise, anabolic steroids (anabolic steroids) can decrease sperm production. The active ingredients, which are similar to the male sex hormone testosterone, disrupt the body’s hormone balance.

  • Maintain a healthy body weight: Being overweight – especially excess fat in the abdomen – changes the metabolism and can lead to a lower sperm count.

  • Avoid high temperatures: For sperm production to run smoothly, the temperature of the testicles in men should be two to three degrees below the body core temperature. Frequent full baths, visits to the sauna or solarium can heat up the testicles too much and impair sperm production.

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Source: Lifeline | Das Gesundheitsportal by www.lifeline.de.

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