- Oxidative stress is a measure of the balance between reactive oxygen species and antioxidants in our body.
- Maintaining a healthy balance is crucial for fertility, as sperm is highly vulnerable to the effects of reactive oxygen species.
- Healthy lifestyle choices can reduce oxidative stress and the impact on fertility, and a simple semen analysis test can be used to measure levels of oxidative stress.
- When is comes to fertility-related concerns, ensure you visit your doctor and if necessary, undergo comprehensive testing and ivnestigation.
Oxidative stress is a term often associated with fertility, but what does it really mean? In this article, we aim to explain the basics of oxidative stress in simple terms and emphasize its significance.
What is oxidative stress?
In simple terms, oxidative stress means the measure of the balance between reactive oxygen species (ROS), also known as free radicals, and antioxidants in our bodies. When the balance tips toward higher levels of ROS, it indicates that the body is experiencing oxidative stress.1
Reactive oxygen species are molecules with an uneven number of electrons, making them unstable. Due to their instability, they seek to gain electrons from other "stable" molecules. If left uncontrolled, this process can lead to a cascade effect, increasing oxidative stress, which has a detrimental impact on our health.2 High oxidative stress is associated with various health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, inflammation, high blood pressure, and infertility.
Reactive oxygen species are a natural part of our physiological processes, particularly in cell degradation and regeneration. While there are some benefits to ROS, it is crucial to maintain a healthy balance.1
Balance is key
The key to maintaining this balance lies in antioxidants. These molecules possess an extra electron that can be donated to stabilize other molecules. Think of antioxidants as the "good guys" that fix the "bad guys" by providing their electrons.
Oxidative stress and fertility: Why does it matter?
Sperm, being one of the smallest cells in the body, are highly vulnerable to the effects of ROS. Oxidative stress significantly impacts sperm quality and, importantly, has been linked to DNA damage within the sperm head (DNA fragmentation). Poor sperm quality affects a couple's chances of conceiving naturally or through assisted reproductive treatments. DNA fragmentation is known to cause failed in vitro fertilization (IVF) cycles and recurrent miscarriages.
What are the most common causes of oxidative stress?
If you have been trying to conceive for a while, you may have come across lists of foods and lifestyle factors to avoid for maintaining healthy fertility. While some of these recommendations may seem inconvenient or questionable for men, research confirms their importance.
The primary factors that contribute to oxidative stress include:3
- Processed foods, especially those high in unhealthy fats, sugars, and additives.
- Fried, burnt, and barbecued food.
- Recreational drugs.
- Environmental pollution.
- Radiation (e.g., sunburn).
- Excessive heat.
How to address oxidative stress?
Naturally, it makes sense to limit exposure to the aforementioned factors. Additionally, you can incorporate practices into your lifestyle that increase your antioxidant levels and counteract oxidative stress.
Diet is one of the most effective ways to achieve this. Nature provides us with the necessary tools for a balanced and healthy life. Foods that are rich in antioxidants include fresh fruits and vegetables, oily fishes containing essential fatty acids, dark leafy greens, and lean cuts of meat instead of saturated fatty meats.4,5,6
Can antioxidants alone fix the issue?
While antioxidant supplementation can be beneficial and potent, it is crucial to exercise caution. Evidence regarding the use of some antioxidant or oxidative stress supplements may be promising. However, indiscriminate use of antioxidants can be as detrimental to fertility as oxidative stress or at best a waste of money.7
Oxidative stress is all about maintaining a balance between ROS and antioxidants. Excessive use of antioxidant supplements can push the body into a state known as "reductive stress," where the amount of antioxidants outweighs the ROS. It's important to remember that ROS also play a beneficial role in the immune system and sperm production. Thus, inducing reductive stress can be equally harmful.7
How do I know if I have high oxidative stress?
First and foremost, it is always advisable to adopt a healthy and balanced lifestyle, which puts you in a better position overall.
Testing for oxidative stress is a relatively straightforward process and can be conducted as part of a semen analysis. This test is not currently available through the NHS and must be sought privately, where more specialised technologies are used to measure oxidative stress levels in the body. If this is something of interest, speak to your doctor for a private practice recommendation.
It is also important to consider consulting with a urologist or andrologist to rule out other potential causes of oxidative stress, such as heat from varicocele or latent infections.
Interested in exploring more fertility content?
This article was produced by testhim. TRTed is not financially supported or benefiting from testhim in any capacity. testhim have a number of resources on their website to support men with infertility. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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- Hülya B. Critical Care Medicine 2015;33(12):498–501.
- Tan BL, et al. Oxid Med Cell Longev 2018;DOI:10.1155/2018/9719584.
- Tiwari S. Reactive Oxygen Species in Plants: Boon Or Bane ‐ Revisiting the Role of ROS 2017;DOI:10.1002/9781119324928.
- Vincent HK, et al. Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism 2007;9(6):812–839.
- Pingitore A, et al. Nutrition 2015;31(7–8):916–922.
- Alahmar AT. J Hum Reprod Sci 2019;12(1):4–18.