WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Vitamins known as folates that prevent birth defects when consumed by women also help to keep men's sperm normal, researchers reported on Wednesday.
Men who took folic acid supplements and who ate folate-rich foods such as leafy greens had fewer abnormal sperm, the team at the University of California, Berkeley said.
Specifically, the men had fewer abnormal sperm in which a chromosome had been lost or gained, known as aneuploidy, they reported in the journal Human Reproduction.
"We found a statistically significant association between high folate intake and lower sperm aneuploidy," said Brenda Eskenazi, who helped lead the study.
"There was increasing benefit with increasing intake, and men in the upper 25th percentile who had the highest intake of folate between 722-1150 micrograms, had 20 percent to 30 percent lower frequencies of several types of aneuploidy compared with men with a lower intake," Eskenazi added in a statement.
She said larger studies were needed to confirm the findings.
Sperm aneuploidy can cause failure to conceive, causes up to a third of miscarriages and causes children to be born with Down's syndrome and other rare chromosomal syndromes.
Chemotherapy for cancer and exposure to pesticides also can damage sperm in this way but diet had not been investigated, the researchers said.
Folic acid can prevent nerve damage in growing babies and is so important that it is added to flour, rice and other staples in many countries.
But few studies had looked its effects on fathers.
Eskenazi's team said estimates suggest that between 1 percent and 4 percent of sperm in a healthy man have some type of aneuploidy but this varies from man to man.
Her team analyzed sperm samples from 89 healthy, non-smoking men of all ages and also questioned them about their daily total intake of zinc, folate, vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene in both food and supplements.
Eskenazi said her team and others had previously shown that vitamin intake may help make men more fertile by improving the quality of the sperm. "This study is the first to suggest that paternal diet may play a role after conception in the development of healthy offspring," she said.
The current U.S. recommended daily intake of folate for men aged over 19 is 400 micrograms. Men seeking to become fathers may need more, Eskenazi said.
Men who ate the most zinc and beta-carotene also had fewer instances of some sperm abnormalities, but not aneuploidy, the researchers found.
Reporting by Maggie Fox; Editing by Will Dunham and Eric Walsh