Male infertility, which has been gradually increasing worldwide over the last six decades, is mainly caused by free-radical damage to sperm cells through a process called oxidation. These free radicals are generated by high temperatures, electromagnetic radiation, pesticides, and other pollutants, or may be encountered through lifestyle choices such as alcohol, smoking, stress, obesity, and poor diet.
Over the years, researchers have tried to determine whether men who supplement with antioxidants have healthier sperm. A recent review of the research concluded that couples seeking fertility assistance due to low sperm count or low sperm motility are indeed more likely to become pregnant and have a child if the man is taking antioxidants.
The review, which comes from the esteemed Cochrane Library, included 34 studies with a total of 2,876 couples having difficulty becoming pregnant and undergoing assisted reproductive techniques, such as intrauterine insemination (IUI) and in vitro fertilization (IVF). The cause of all of these couples’ infertility was determined to be low numbers of sperm or low sperm motility. Each study compared some kind of antioxidant treatment for the men to either placebo or no treatment.
The literature review led to several observations:
• Couples in which the men were given antioxidants were more likely to conceive and have a child than couples in which the men received placebo or no treatment.
• In particular, vitamin E, zinc, and L-carnitine were associated with increased rates of pregnancy and successful delivery in separate trials; however, there was not enough data to recommend one antioxidant supplement over any other.
• Overall, conception was more than four times more likely when men were taking antioxidants.
• Antioxidant use was similarly associated with a nearly five times increased chance of successfully delivering a child.
“In many cases of unexplained subfertility, and also in instances where there may be a sperm-related problem, taking an oral antioxidant supplement may increase a couple’s chance of conceiving when undergoing fertility treatment,” the authors of the review said. “When trying to conceive as part of an assisted reproductive program, it may be advisable to encourage the male partner to take an oral antioxidant supplement to improve his partner’s chance of conceiving.”
In addition to having the man of the couple supplement with antioxidants, couples can take steps on their own to improve their chances of conceiving:
• Keep the conditions right for healthy sperm. Wearing loose underclothes and avoiding hot tubs and whirlpools may help. Stay away from toxic chemicals such as those found in lawn care products, and supply your body with lots of fruits, vegetables, and fiber-dense foods.
• The woman needs to be healthy, too. Women also need to pay attention to diet and exercise and maintain a healthy weight to optimize the chance of conception. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can reduce the odds of getting pregnant.
• Quit smoking. Smoking has a negative impact on both male and female fertility.
• Practice relaxation. Studies have shown that couples facing infertility who learn and practice relaxation techniques increase their odds of conceiving.
(Cochrane Database of Syst Rev 2011;1:CD007411)