New research published in Cleveland Clinic's Urology News shows that abnormal amounts of free radicals, naturally occurring but sometimes dangerous molecules that can damage cells, may be responsible for infertility in some men. Vitamins C and E, which are called antioxidants, may have the power to neutralize sperm-busting free radicals.
According to the CDC, more than two million married couples were unable to conceive, despite their best efforts, in 1995. Investigator and infertility expert, Ashok Agarwal, PhD, HCLD, says that at least half of the cases of infertility among couples are due to a problem in the man, and male infertility is on the rise. Agarwal is director of the andrology laboratory and sperm bank at the Urological Institute at The Cleveland Clinic Foundation.
Looking at the sperm of men with unexplained infertility, Agarwal has found that levels of a certain type of free radical, which he calls reactive oxygen species, are especially high in these men. While low levels of these free radicals are necessary for the production of normal sperm, levels that are too high have been linked to the destruction of sperm.
Given that free radicals appear to be the problem, it stands to reason that antioxidants, which neutralize free radicals, might be the solution. Antioxidants are everywhere, including in many healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. But some of the best known are vitamins C and E. Their effect on fertility, however, remains to be seen.
Expert Mapan Yemini, MD, tells WebMD that "this is a very interesting observation ... but we need much more research to look at this, so I'm trying to be cautious. ... Unexplained infertility is still a puzzle for us ... [and] maybe this will [teach us] something new we didn't know before. ... We've known for years that people have been reporting the potential of treating [unexplained infertility or male infertility] with antioxidant treatments ... such as vitamin C." Yemini is co-director of the Diamond Institute for Infertility and Menopause in Milburn, N.J. He was not involved in the research.
Even Agarwal agrees that although antioxidants are believed to have many health benefits, there is no proof they work on fertility. "There are several studies that have been done in the past, but some of the studies were flawed ... so there is conflicting data," he tells WebMD. "Some studies have shown effects [in the lab] as well as in [people's actual fertility rates]. But there are studies that have shown no potential benefits from taking vitamin C or E for five or six months. However, there are no harmful effects of taking these antioxidants. That has been well established."