Everybody knows that we need oxygen to live. In the body, oxygen is vital for many of the chemical reactions that keep us alive and healthy. But these reactions also produce "free radicals" – highly unstable molecules that can damage cells. Free radicals are produced when the body breaks down foods for use or storage. They are also produced when the body is exposed to tobacco smoke, radiation and environmental contaminants.
The body protects itself from free radicals by producing antioxidants – molecules that neutralize or destroy free radicals. We also get antioxidants from food. Antioxidants are abundant in vegetables and fruits and are also found in grain cereals, teas, legumes and nuts. Examples of antioxidants include anthocyanins, beta-carotene, flavonoids, lipoic acid, lutein, lycopene, selenium, and vitamins C and E.
In lab experiments, antioxidant molecules clearly block the damage that can be caused by free radicals. It is not as clear whether consuming antioxidants – in food or supplement form – actually benefits health. Many studies have now been conducted and the evidence is mixed. Interestingly, however, it may be that one area in which antioxidants play a key role is in supporting sexual health and fertility.
A recent article in the respected Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that among couples undergoing fertility treatments, men taking antioxidants were over fourfold more likely than men not taking supplements to get their partner pregnant and see a successful live birth.
"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," the authors concluded.
Further studies are needed to confirm these results, but the findings are certainly encouraging. They also make sense from a physiological perspective. Semen contains vitamins E and C and other antioxidants to scavenge free radicals, which can break down sperm membranes and damage sperm DNA. It may be that oxidative stress damage to sperm contributes significantly to male subfertility.
The clinical trials that were reviewed in the Cochrane paper used a wide range of antioxidant supplements, predominantly vitamin E, vitamin C, carotenoids, ubiquinol, folate and zinc. No one antioxidant seemed to be better than another.
As with any type of supplement, you shouldn’t use antioxidants as a replacement for a healthful diet and lifestyle. Fresh fruits and vegetables contain a wealth of important nutrients in addition to antioxidants, and your overall sexual health is supported by many things such as getting enough exercise, sleep, and avoiding obviously unhealthy habits such as smoking.
It’s also a good idea to let your doctor know if you decide to take an antioxidant supplement and to avoid mega-doses, which might be harmful. The bottom line, though, is that antioxidants are very beneficial and they may be particularly helpful in maintaining sexual health and fertility.