Boys (and friends of boys): this one is for you....
The statistics are pretty clear - sperm is under fire. Both sperm count and motility are declining (by as much as half over the last 40 yrs! Click here for more on what/why).
Infertility, not just a female thing, as a result, is on the rise.
So, the question is what can we do about it?
This is happening for a variety of reasons. Environment, nutrition, lifestyle. However, the latest research is pointing to one culprit in particular:
What is it? Why does it have such an impact?
You may have heard this term before. You may also know it’s not great, but perhaps don't exactly know why?
Without going in to too much detail, here’s the deal:
All cellular functions produce what is known as free radicals. That's part of life - think of it as a waste product. In ideal circumstances, the other side (which mops this up) balances this out. This ‘mop’ is our friend: antioxidants. You have probably heard these are good/what we want. Now you know why.
The trouble comes where we get an imbalance. Too many free radicals (excess can be as a result/alongside infection, inflammation and environmental toxins) and not enough antioxidants to mop it up.
This = oxidative stress.
‘Efforts aimed to unravel the causes of male infertility at the molecular level have highlighted the significant contribution of oxidative stress (OS), a term given to describe the imbalance of the bodies’ redox state caused either by too high levels of oxidants or too low amounts of antioxidants’. (2)
It has been identified as one of the primary causes of male infertility.
What the science says:
Too much oxidation in the body is bad on all levels. It is the root cause of a whole host of issues and diseases. It particularly hurts fatty tissue, DNA and proteins in the body. We also know that sperm is particularly vulnerable and oxidation interferes with normal sperm function. This is why seminal plasma typically has a high concentration of antioxidants as a protective element. (1)
‘Defective sperm function is the most common cause of male infertility. Abnormal semen parameters include decreased sperm concentration, impaired motility, and altered morphology. There are many possible factors that influence sperm quality. Many studies indicate that oxidative stress should be regarded as a plausible cause of idiopathic male infertility’ .
So, what causes too much Oxidation? ie. what should we be avoiding?
Exercise: specifically the wrong kind. Doing it to extreme or living a very sedentary life can cause an excess amount. Click here to learn more.
Inflammation: specifically chronic inflammation. Once again this is usually at the root of a lot of issues and disease in the body. Click here to learn more as to why this can contribute to oxidative stress and things you don't want.
Pesticides: have been shown to increase oxidation in the body. Not to mention a whole host of other issues from hormonal disruption to disruptions to the gut microbiota, our immunity and many other things. Click here to learn much more.
Cigarettes: a pretty obvious one to avoid.
Pollution/toxic chemicals: chemicals found in a lot of everyday cleaning products are particular culprits
Poor Diet: high sugar/trans fats/alcohol/processed foods.
Avoiding these things is of course a smart strategy to avoid excess Oxidative Stress. However we cannot escape it entirely.
So…the other option is to increase ‘nature’s mop’: Antioxidants.
So, what’s the deal with Antioxidants when it comes to sperm?
The science here is actually pretty compelling, with many studies looking at the effect when it comes to the ability to protect/improve sperm quality and motility:
‘In all, 26 studies reported a significant positive effect of antioxidant therapy on basic semen parameters, advanced sperm function, outcomes of assisted reproductive therapy, and live-birth rate. Vitamin E, vitamin C, carnitines, N-acetyl cysteine, co-enzyme Q10, zinc, selenium, folic acid and lycopene were most commonly used.’ (2)
So what actually works and how?
Obviously there are different reasons why sperm might not be functioning as it should. Low count, poor motility and abnormal shape can all play a role. The key is working out the specific issue, as based on current research, it appears different antioxidants work better on different areas.
Here are the main things to know:
Glutathione. ‘An imperative antioxidant’ (1). This is one of the body’s most potent antioxidants - click here for much more on this wondrous stuff. In fact, I think it is one of the most important molecules most people have never heard of. In terms of its impact on sperm: one study showed a clear correlation between low levels within seminal plasma and infertility. It also showed that ‘GSH therapy was found to improve the semen quality’ (1). Translation: More Glutathione = potentially better sperm.
Where can you find it? Most antioxidants are derived from foods that you eat, however, glutathione is produced by the body - principally from three amino acids: cysteine, glycine and glutamine.
How to boost this? Help your body’s production by minimising toxic exposure and eating things like sulfur rich foods. Other things that are known to contribute: beef/fish and poultry (as a reminder I really like meat stock as a source of this). Cruciferous vegetables are another good source plus the likes of garlic, onions. Interestingly Vitamin C, as well as being an antioxidant in its own right, has been shown to boost Glutathione levels in the body. One study which involved taking a Vitamin C supplement (500-1,000mg/day) showed a near 20% increase in Glutathione (5).
Then on to Vitamin C itself. In its own right, it is generally well regarded as a potent antioxidant. When it comes to its effect on sperm specifically; one study looked at the decline in male fertility in Iran and linked it back to low levels of vitamin C and antioxidant consumption on average within the male population:
‘a large proportion of the Iranian population ingests insufficient amounts of antioxidants like vitamin C. According to a recent study, vitamin C intake was lower than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) in 28% of urban men and 55% of men living in rural areas of Iran. In 6% of urban men and 13% of rural men, the daily intake of vitamin C was lower than the lowest threshold intake’ (4)
Boosting this via supplementation appears to have a statistically significant positive impact. However, it appears that it has an impact on sperm motility rather than count:
‘All our analyses in this study showed that vitamin C supplementation had significant positive effects on sperm motility and morphology; but not in sperm count in infertile young adult males with low quality sperm.’ (4)
Interestingly it appears that Vitamin C (at a high enough dose) can have a positive effect on sperm impacted by Pesticide damage. ‘Pesticides produce sperm toxicity and one animal study on mice showed that vitamin C can prevent these effects. This study proved that higher doses of vitamin C resulted in more significant amelioration of sperm count and morphology after administration of pesticides.’ (4)
It's important to note that not all of the data is conclusive, but, it appears there is enough to suggest that it is likely to be helpful.
Natural sources: vegetables: broccoli, sprouts, peppers, cauliflower, leafy greens. Tomatoes, citrus fruits and kiwi are all good sources.
Zinc: Low levels of Zinc in seminal plasma have been linked to infertility. Interestingly in a couple of studies Zinc showed a positive impact on both motility and count.
‘We observed positive relationships between good sperm production, motility and increased seminal Zn content. With these findings we can support the extensive evidence defending the antioxidant capacity of seminal Zn to yield various benefits in sperm.’ (1)
Natural sources: remember - the body cannot store zinc so you have to keep on top of your intake with 11mg/day recommended for men. Red meat is a good source, however, eating this in large quantities is not recommended (particularly if it is not organic). Other sources: shellfish, seeds and legumes, dairy (again try and go organic), nuts, eggs, wholegrains. Bonus: one of my favourites: dark chocolate. Yum.
Selenium: has been shown to have a positive impact on sperm motility. Low levels have been associated with loss of motility and shape. It is also key for maintaining hormonal balance through its protective abilities around the thyroid in particular.
Natural sources: this is a mineral you dont want too little of but you also dont want too much of (55 Mcg is the recommended daily amount) so watch your intake on the upside too. On the vegetarian side good sources include: nuts (especially walnuts and Brazil nuts) brown rice, sunflower seeds, lentils, baked beans, spinach and mushrooms. Once again meat, dairy and fish are also good sources. In particular pork, beef and turkey and eggs. Go organic on these where you can to avoid the pitfalls of added hormones/antibiotics/steroids etc.
Fenugreek: while there have been few studies around its power on sperm specifically, Fenugreek is a known antioxidant with one study revealing ‘significant antioxidants activity in germinated fenugreek seeds which may be due partly to the presence of flavonoids and polyphenols.’ (6)
Bottom line: avoid toxicants where you can (including alcohol and cigarettes). Exercise sensibly and eat whole/real foods that are high in antioxidants as possible. Not too complicated and every little really can help!
1) ATIG F, RAFFA M, AJINA M: Impact of seminal trace element and glutathione levels on semen quality of Tunisian Infertile men. BMC Urology. 2012 12:6
2) MAJZOUB A, AGARWAL A: Systematic review of antioxidant types and doses in male infertility: Benefits on semen parameters, advanced sperm function, assisted reproduction and live-birth rate. Arab Journal of Urology. 2018 Mar: 18(1): 113-124
3) CHYRA-JACH D, KALETKA Z, KASPERCZYK A: The Associations between Infertility and Antioxidants, Proinflammatory Cytokines, and Chemokines. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. 2018: 2018: 8354747
4) CYRUS A, KABIR A, MOGHIMI M: The effect of adjuvant vitamin C after varicocoele surgery on sperm quality and quantity in infertile men: a double blind placebo controlled clinical trial. International Brazilian Journal of Urology. 2015 Mar-Apr: 41(2): 230-238
5) LENTON KJ, SANE AT, THERRIAULT H, CANTIN AM, PAYETTE H, WAGNER JR: Vitamin C augments lymphocyte glutathione in subjects with ascorbate deficiency: Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2003 Jan 77(1): 189-95
6) DIXIT P, GHASKADABI S, MOHAN H, DEVASAGAYAM TP: Antioxidant properties of germinated fenugreek seeds. Phytotherapy Research. Nov 2009 (19) issue 11.
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The information on this website has been developed following years of personal research and from referenced and sourced medical research. Before making any changes we strongly recommend you consult a healthcare professional before you begin.