Oxidative Stress – A Significant Factor of Male Infertility

Oxidative Stress – A Significant Factor Of Male Infertility

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The field of oxidative stress research, as a significant factor of male infertility, is relatively new. However, it has grown rapidly over the past years. It focuses on the balance between oxidants and antioxidants. And as a result, how they affect tissues in living organisms [1] .

Essentially, Oxidative stress is an imbalance between the production of oxidants (also called free radicals), and the ability of the body to counteract harmful effects through neutralization by antioxidants. Prolonged oxidative stress can damage and lead to death of cells. And this can act as a significant factor of male infertility.

Oxidants or oxidizing agents are by-products generated through several reactions within our body. In sperm, oxidants may lead to protein damage, lipid peroxidation (destruction of lipids), apoptosis (controlled cell death) and DNA damage weakening its fertilization potential [1][2][3].

Antioxidants, our self-defence to oxidation

Antioxidants describe a broad category of substances, which can inhibit oxidation and protect our bodies against the damaging effects of oxidants. Their role is to neutralize oxidants, maintaining the required balance within the cells, to protect them from getting injured (and possibly leading to male infertility) [1] [4].

The list of antioxidants is long. Accordingly, it can be divided into those that are:

  • produced naturally in our bodies (e.g. glutathione, catalase)
  • present in food called dietary antioxidants (vitamins, minerals, carotenoids, polyphenols, etc.)[3].



Berries (strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries)

Fruits (orange, kiwi, pomegranate, tomatoes)

Leafy greens (kale, spinach, cabbage, romaine lettuce)

Other vegetables (artichoke, broccoli, arugula, bock choy)

Herbs (ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, cumin, cocoa, basil, thyme)

Tobacco smoking or air pollutants

Excessive consumption of alcohol

Excessive stress

Excessive consumption of calories, sugars, refined carbohydrates

Infections (e.g. virus, bacterial infection or other)

Lack of sleep

Presece of  a varicocele


So, if you are interested to know more about which dietary compounds can boost your fertility, check our article on fertility supplements here.

How does Oxidative Stress affect human sperm?

While low production of oxidative stress is necessary for normal physiological function, excessive production disrupts the balance between oxidants and antioxidants and brings a number of pathological defects. These defects have been directly associated with impaired sperm function.

Thus, oxidants react with the bio-molecules that compose the sperm cells (lipids, proteins, nucleic acids, sugars)[3] [4]. Damage to the lipids, proteins and sugars may inactivate or cause the death of sperm cells. This is while DNA damage is correlated with poor fertilization rate, high frequency of miscarriage and morbidity in the offspring [5][6]

Sperms are vulnerable to oxidation because their membranes contain large amounts of unsaturated fatty acids, a certain category of fatty acids that are very sensitive to oxidation[5]. Moreover, spermatozoa have limited repair mechanisms against the damage caused by free radicals since they do mot have the building blocks to produce new material [5].

How to fight sperm cell damage

Studies have highlighted that nutrition and supplementation as playing a key role in counteracting the harmful effects on sperm. Especially vitamins and minerals have been found to be vital for the protection against oxidative stress [7].

Therefore, treatment with antioxidants may increase sperm parameters such as sperm count, sperm motility, and sperm morphology. The biggest source of natural antioxidants are fruits and vegetables. We highly recommend you consume a high amount of fruits such as berries and vegetables such as leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables and tomatoes [8] .

Furthermore, nother essential route of getting the oxidants is physical activity. Exercising for 45 minutes 3 times per week has been shown to decrease the oxidative stress of the seminal fluid. We therefore highly recommend that you do some sort of physical activity. If you want to know more, have a look at our blog post on how to improve male fertility with exercise

Moreover, it is highly advised to minimise the exposure to lifestyle factors, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, exposure to heat, radiation and other pollutants. These increase oxidative stress and, in turn, lead to sperm damage, decreasing your fertility status.

BOX 1: What is oxidative stress?

Oxidative stress is a condition associated with an increased rate of cellular damage in our body.  It is initiated by oxygen and oxygen-derived oxidants commonly known as reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS are highly reactive oxidizing agents belonging to the class of free radicals [2]. A free radical is a molecule or element with an unpaired electron that is extremely reactive in order to reach an electronically stable state.This property makes ROS damaging to many living systems as they will readily take hydrogen atoms from lipids, proteins, and DNA to fulfil their electron requirement. ROS can be produced through numerous reactions in the atmosphere, plants, animals and bacteria [2].

The most common ROS include:

  • Superoxide anion (O2.)
  • Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2)
  • Peroxyl radicals (ROO.)
  • Hydroxyl radicals (OH.) (the most reactive)
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Wearing tight pants and underwear

Studies show that men who wear looser underwear have higher sperm concentration and total sperm count compared to men who wear tighter underwear. So, lose the tight clothes and wear something loose to give your testicles some air.

CONCLUSION: learn more about how heat can affect sperm quality here.


Besides higher mortality rate and various diseases, stress is associated with low sperm quality. Stress is known to be associated with lower testosterone levels and oxidative stress with both playing an essential role in producing and maintaining healthy sperm cells.

CONCLUSION: If you feel stressed, we recommend you get some help so you can have a balanced mental health. For a stress management guide, download the ExSeed app for free and start your personalized action plan today.

Physical activity

Scientific studies show that men who are physically active have better semen parameters than men who are inactive. Fertility specialists also state that regular physical activity has beneficial impact on sperm fertility parameters and such a lifestyle can enhance the fertility status of men.

Prioritizing exercise can help improve your overall health and result in healthy, fast swimming sperm cells that have good chances of fertilizing an egg.

CONCLUSION: Try incorporating exercise in your weekly schedule to you ensure exercising at least twice weekly. We recommend a combination of cardio training and strength exercise. Read more about exercise and male fertility on our blog.


Fast Food
Processed foods damage the health of sperm-producing cells and cause oxidative stress, which lead to poorer sperm quality. Heavy consumption of junk food (every week) can increase the likelihood of infertility since men who consume vast amounts of unhealthy food are at risk of having poor sperm quality. Besides harming your fertility, junk food enlarges your waistline, harms your cardiovascular system, kidneys, and more.

Eating more fruit and vegetables can increase your sperm concentration and motility. It’s important that you consume a healthy diet filled with antioxidants and that you eat vegetables every day. Foods such as apricots and red bell peppers are high in vitamin A, which improves male fertility by nurturing healthier sperm. Men who are deficient in this vitamin tend to have slow and sluggish sperm.

Sugary snacks/beverages: several times a week Excessive consumption of high sugar items can lead to oxidative stress, which negatively impacts testosterone levels and sperm motility. Sugary snacks and beverages are also highly associated with obesity and low fertility.
CONCLUSION: To boost sperm quality, stay away from fast food, processed food, and sugary snacks or beverages. You need to implement a healthy prudent diet filled with necessary superfoods needed for good sperm production. Check out our guide to Male Fertility Superfoods. For personalized guidance and support on how you can start improving your sperm health, check out the Bootcamp.


Direct heat can inhibit optimal sperm production and cause Sperm DNA damage. Sperm cells like environments that are a couple of degrees lower than body temperature. Avoid overheating from warm blankets, seat warmers, heat from your laptop, hot showers, and saunas.

Cigarette smoking

The exposure to tobacco smoke has significant negative effects on semen quality. The damage of cigarettes and nicotine of course depends on how many cigarettes you smoke per day and for how long, but even low usage (up to 10 cigarettes / day) can inhibit healthy sperm production.  

CONCLUSION: Stay as far away from cigarette smoking as possible if you care about your general health and your fertility. Read more here.

Cell phone

When you have your cell phone in your front pocket, your testicles are exposed to electromagnetic radiation, which studies have shown to damage the sperm cells. Put your phone in the back pocket of your pants or in your jacket pocket.


There is a clear association between obesity and reduced sperm quality. At least part of the reason for this is that obese men may have abnormal reproductive hormonal profiles, which can impair sperm production and lead to infertility. 

A BMI higher than 30 can lead to several processes in the body (overheating, increase in oxidative stress in the testes, sperm DNA damage, erectile dysfunction) that can have a negative impact on male fertility. This can result in problems when trying to conceive.  

CONCLUSION: BMI is one of the risk factors that influence semen quality and, for example, sperm motility.  


A beer or glass of wine now and then do not really harm sperm quality. But excess alcohol drinking (more than 20 units per week) can reduce the production of normally formed sperm needed for a successful pregnancy.

CONCLUSION: If you want to stay safe, stay under 14 units of alcohol per week. For more information on how alcohol can affect male fertility, take a look at our blog: “Alcohol and Sperm Quality”.


Studies show that women younger than 35 and men younger than 40 have a better chance of getting pregnant. Men can produce sperm cells almost through their entire life, but the sperm cell DNA is more fragile and prone to damage after the age of 40.

As men age, their testes tend to get smaller and softer resulting in a decline in sperm quality and production. These changes are partly because of an age-related decrease in testosterone level, which plays a very important role in sperm

production. Higher male age (>40 years) is not only associated with a decline in sperm production but also with increased sperm DNA fragmentation and worsened morphology (shape) and motility (movement). These negative effects make the sperm cells less qualified for egg fertilization.

CONCLUSION: with an age under 40, you shouldn’t have to worry much about age as a factor in itself. However, studies have shown a slow decline after the age of 30-35 years

and if you are above 40 years of age, your sperm quality can be affected due to increased sperm DNA damage resulting in a decrease of sperm motility and concentration. Remember that you cannot evaluate the quality of a sperm sample by just looking at it – this requires a sperm analysis.