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Oxidative Stress and Male Infertility: What You Should Know

With knowledge of how oxidative stress can contribute to male infertility, individuals can modify their lifestyles and seek out the medical help they need to reduce the fertility problems that are tied to oxidative stress.

March 8, 2021
Annabeth Collis

Throughout daily life, there are biological and environmental factors that impact the health and well-being of humans. For prospective parents, it’s especially important to be aware of the different factors that can affect both male and female fertility. 

Recently, researchers have found a connection between oxidative stress and male infertility. While understanding this relationship might seem complicated at first, the link between these two components isn’t difficult to understand.

Here’s what prospective parents should know about oxidative stress’ impact on male infertility. 

industrial complex emitting large amounts of smoke
The presence of free radicals in a person’s body is necessary and natural. However, when there is a significant imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants, individuals experience the negative effects of oxidative stress. 

What is Oxidative Stress? 

In simple terms, oxidative stress refers to the imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in a person’s body. But let’s break this down even further. 

The term “free radicals” means oxygen-containing molecules that have an uneven number of electrons. Because of this uneven number, these molecules are prone to reacting with other molecules and can cause large, chain chemical reactions in a person’s body. These reactions involving free radicals are called oxidation, and these can be beneficial or harmful to a person. 

On the other hand, antioxidants are molecules that have the ability to give one of their electrons to a free radical, all while maintaining their own stability. Through this process of electron donation, free radicals become less reactive and stabilize. 

Oxidative Stress: Risk Factors

Having free radicals in your body does not necessarily mean that you are at risk for the negative health effects of oxidative stress. In fact, all individuals naturally produce free radicals when exercising or experiencing inflammation. 

However, individuals can be overexposed to free radicals that come from the environment. When trying to monitor oxidative stress, it is important to be aware of your exposure to these sources:

  • Cigarette smoke
  • Ozone
  • Pesticides
  • Radiation
  • Pollution
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Foods high in fat and sugar

Oxidative Stress: Effects on the Body

While oxidation is a normal part of human body processes, oxidative stress is not. Rather, oxidative stress is the result of an imbalance between antioxidant activity and free radical activity. If there are more free radicals present than antioxidants in the body, then this imbalance can occur. 

As a result of this imbalance, free radicals can damage proteins, DNA, and fatty tissue in a person’s body. If this imbalance is prolonged, it can lead to other health issues, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Atherosclerosis
  • And diabetes

In addition to these issues, studies are finding that male fertility is also negatively impacted by the molecular imbalance that is part of oxidative stress. 

a doctor looks through a microscope
Oxidative stress negatively impacts male fertility, specifically harming the functionality of sperm cells. 

How Oxidative Stress Affects Male Infertility

When thinking about factors that can lead to male infertility, oxidative stress might not immediately come to mind. Even though oxidative stress may not seem like an important element to consider when addressing male infertility, it can still significantly impact male reproductive functioning. 

Free Radicals and Their Damage

The free radicals in a person’s body that are responsible for other adverse health effects are also responsible for damaging and inhibiting the typical processes of male reproductive systems. 

When the balance between oxidative stress and antioxidant capacity is not appropriately regulated, many male fertility problems start to become prominent, such as:

  • Oxidative destruction of sperm lipid membranes 
  • Damage to gamete DNA by gene mutation and the direct breakdown of the DNA backbone
  • Mitochondrial dysfunction
  • And apoptotic cell death

In addition to these molecular levels of damage, oxidative stress can also lead to other negative fertility consequences:

  • Varicocele
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Testicular cancer
  • And idiopathic male infertility

Sperm Vulnerability and Pregnancy Complications

Looking more specifically at the issue, oxidative stress adversely affects the structural and functional integrity of sperm cells and is a substantial cause of defective sperm function. Particularly, spermatozoa are especially vulnerable to oxidative stress and oxidative DNA damage, due to the fact that these cells have limited antioxidant defense mechanisms. Additionally, spermatozoa have a limited capacity for repairing DNA damage. 

This damage to sperm DNA, RNA transcripts, and telomeres not only results in male infertility but can also lead to recurrent pregnancy loss and poor pregnancy outcomes. 

two bowls of fruit next to a knife and cutting board
Oxidative stress can present real problems for prospective parents, but there are preventative actions that individuals can take to mitigate these fertility issues. 

Ways to Manage and Prevent Oxidative Stress

If you’re a prospective parent, learning about the complications of oxidative stress might be troubling or intimidating. But there are ways that an individual can monitor and manage their oxidative stress to decrease their infertility issues. 

Increasing Antioxidant Levels

The primary course of action to combat oxidative stress is to increase your levels of antioxidants. A simple way to ensure that you have enough antioxidants is by keeping an eye on  your diet. Specifically, eating a sufficient amount of fruits and vegetables is a great way to boost your antioxidant levels. 

Here are some good foods to add to your diet to make sure you are receiving the appropriate amount of antioxidants:

  • Citrus fruits
  • Dark leafy greens
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Tomatoes
  • Olives 
  • Fish
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • And green tea

Already eating these foods? Other lifestyle choices are also critical for reducing oxidative stress:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Avoiding smoking
  • Being cautious with exposure to chemicals
  • Wearing sunscreen
  • Limiting alcohol consumption
  • Getting a sufficient amount of sleep

Through these simple lifestyle shifts and additions, prospective parents can help decrease their oxidative stress.

a father and two kids at the shore of a lake
Learning about the connection between oxidative stress and male infertility can be concerning, but with the proper lifestyle modifications and fertility treatment, people can manage issues related to oxidative stress. 

When trying to start a family, prospective parents have many things to consider. In the midst of a lot of fertility information, it is important to understand factors that might be contributing to infertility. With knowledge of how oxidative stress can contribute to male infertility, individuals can modify their lifestyles and seek out the medical help they need to reduce the fertility problems that are tied to oxidative stress. 

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