Antioxidants are important natural substances that help prevent damage to cells in the body. A huge variety of chemical reactions constantly take place inside the cells in our bodies, and sometimes these reactions form by-products known as free radicals. A certain amount of free radicals are needed by the body; for example, some are used by your body’s immune system to attack viruses or bacteria.
However, if free radicals build up in your body, they can cause ‘oxidative stress’. This can damage your cells and impact your health. For example, oxidative stress can affect your
Antioxidants are able to prevent the negative effects of these free radicals by neutralising them.
Sperm have a special outer layer made up of polyunsaturated fatty acids, which help them penetrate and fertilise the egg during conception. However, free radicals damage this outer layer, and also reduce the sperm’s motility (ability to swim properly). As a result, the fertility of the male is reduced.
An even more significant effect of free radicals is the direct damage they cause to the DNA contained in the sperm. Sperm lack the DNA repair proteins that can stop this oxidative damage, so they are helpless to prevent this occurring. This leads to DNA fragmentation, and the majority of sperm with fragmented DNA cannot mature and fertilise an egg. However, if a sperm cell carrying damaged DNA did manage to reach and fertilise an egg, it is very likely that the resulting genetic mutations would cause a miscarriage or even birth defects. Whilst the likelihood of this occurring is low, we feel it is prudent for men trying to have a baby to reduce activities that increase free radicals in their body, and to take a high quality antioxidant supplement, preferably one that is specific for protecting the health of the sperm.
An increase in free radicals can be due to alcohol consumption, poor nutrition, air pollution, electromagnetic waves, insecticides, and obesity. (One study reported severe abnormalities and molecular alterations in the sperm of men who lived in polluted areas. And recent research showed that the Mediterranean diet helps to improve male infertility and reduce the cancer risk caused by environmental pollutants.)
There are many different types of antioxidants, and they all have a different way of protecting the body. A combination of various antioxidants works best, and ideally the combination should be designed to help prevent the free radical damage to specific cells. (That is why a specific antioxidant formula is recommended by optometrists and eye specialists for people with macular degeneration, for example.)
One of the key antioxidants for protecting sperm is zinc. Zinc supplementation has been shown to protect sperm against oxidative damage, and as a result, improve semen function. For example, when 60 infertile men with abnormal levels of oxidation were given zinc supplements for three months, the oxidised levels within their semen returned to normal. Zinc also helps to increase the number of sperm, so it is beneficial to both the quality and quantity of the sperm. However, zinc is only one of a number of antioxidants needed for healthy sperm, and a trained naturopath will be able to identify which are most important for each individual.
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