There is a lot of buzz about the use of antioxidants to improve male fertility, but why? What exactly are antioxidants? Why do people talk about them as a way to prevent cancer and how does that link to improved fertility? This article breaks down the science of antioxidants and gives some practical information about how to improve your diet to boost sperm health.
What do antioxidants do?
To understand antioxidants, we’re going to need to take a quick trip back to high school chemistry. Oxygen is a reactive element. It causes trucks to rust and cut apples to turn brown. Oxygen is also essential for life. We breath in oxygen and deliver it, via our bloodstream, to cells that in turn use it for energy. The process of oxidation, or creating energy from oxygen, creates molecules known as reactive oxygen species (ROS), sometimes called “free radicals” which can float around in the body and cause damage to our cells and our DNA. Elevated levels of ROS or “free radicals” is called “oxidative stress” and is linked to a number of medical conditions such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.
Antioxidants are a group of vitamins and minerals that chemically bind to reactive oxygen species and prevent them from damaging tissues or DNA. Different types of antioxidants can reach ROS in different places – fat-soluble nutrients like Vitamin E are often able to pass through the cell membrane and work within the cell, while water soluble nutrients like Vitamin C are most active between cells or in the blood stream. Collectively, antioxidants work together to prevent the body from accumulating too much oxidative stress, which in turn can protect against certain diseases such as cancer.
The connection between antioxidants and sperm
Sperm are lean, mean swimming machines. Movement means they need a lot of energy. To help improve speed, they generate their energy by directly using sugar in the environment around them rather processing it inside their cellular body. Consequently, they produce more ROS than other cells. Think of them as sports cars with double exhaust pipes. The energy they use pollutes the environment around them with reactive oxygen species.
Knowing this, researchers have studied the effects of various antioxidants on male fertility and have found that diets that are low in antioxidant nutrients are correlated with reduced sperm count, poor sperm motility, abnormal sperm morphology and increased DNA fragmentation. All bad for male fertility. Inversely, men who have adequate nutrition and antioxidant intake have higher sperm counts, better motility, improved morphology and better-quality sperm DNA. The key take-away here is eat your fruits and veggies, they are good for you.
Certain conditions and lifestyle choices are known to increase the oxidative stress on sperm – the presence of a varicocele, smoking and environmental toxins such as pesticides, air pollution and other chemicals.
Measuring Oxidative Stress in Semen
There are a variety of methods used by labs to measure oxidative stress in semen. Normal values will vary from lab-to-lab as the methods are not yet standardized across the industry.
It is not a typical measurement performed as part of a semen analysis because it is time-consuming and expensive to do. But it can provide useful insight as to an underlying cause of abnormal semen parameters or to the effectiveness of recommended dietary changes or nutritional supplements.
Innovative technology and ongoing research is in development to standardize the measurement of oxidative stress in semen and hopefully provide more future insight into the relationship between oxidative stress and male infertility and the effectiveness of various supplements or dietary changes on male fertility.
Dietary sources of antioxidants
Some of the most powerful antioxidants that are known to have an impact on male fertility include Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Coenzyme Q10, Selenium and Zinc. A well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables will typically provide sufficient quantities of these key nutrients to keep sperm healthy. Here are is a list of foods that are particularly rich in sperm friendly antioxidants:
- Bell Pepper
- Berries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, etc)
- Citrus or Tropical fruits (orange, lemon, pineapple, etc)
- Dark Chocolate
- Greens (spinach, kale, collards, etc)
- Nuts (peanuts, pistachios, walnuts, etc)
- Olive oil
- Seafood (shrimp, oysters, scallops, etc)
- Tuna and Salmon
- Seeds (pumpkin, sesame)
- Squash (pumpkin, butternut, etc)
Should I buy antioxidant supplements to boost my sperm count?
Sometimes it is difficult to access a well-rounded variety of foods to ensure proper nutrition. Nutritional supplements can help ensure that you get enough antioxidants while trying to conceive. There are several blends out there labeled as “male fertility blends” which include key nutrients shown to improve semen quality. If you are considering a supplement, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Don’t overdo it: Too little of a nutrient is a problem, but so is too much. Selenium, zinc and vitamin E, in particular, can be harmful if too much is consumed. Stick to a single supplement and follow the recommended daily dose. If you are considering multiple supplements, make sure to research maximum recommended values.
Keep it simple: Physicians often recommend prenatal vitamins to men who are looking for a fertility supplement. Prenatals tend to have simpler formulations and higher quality / traceable ingredients as companies are extra careful to protect mother and baby health during pregnancy.
Research any exotic additives: Many supplements (particularly ones marketed to men) have additional herbs or other substances in them. When researching potential supplements, make sure to research any additional herbs or other ingredients to see if they have a known impact on fertility (positive or negative).