If your quest to conceive has yet to be rewarded with a positive pregnancy test, you may have heard that you can boost fertility by popping antioxidant supplements, such as beta-carotene and vitamins C and E. And, if you’re a man, this appears to be true: Studies show that doctor-prescribed antioxidant pills seem to improve sperm quality. If you’re a woman, however, taking the same supplements won’t help boost fertility, according to a new review.
Although an earlier review published by The Cochrane Library found that couples who underwent fertility treatment enjoyed higher birth rates when men took antioxidants, an analysis of 28 studies on more than 3,500 women released last week in The Cochrane Library concluded that the supplements do not boost fertility for would-be moms.
“There is no evidence in this review that suggests taking an antioxidant is beneficial for women who are trying to conceive,” confirms lead researcher Marian Showell, MPH, trials search coordinator for the department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Auckland, in Auckland, New Zealand. Other experts agree: “This is not a surprising finding,” says Beverly Hills fertility specialist Peyman Saadat, MD, FACOG, pointing out that factors influenced by antioxidants affect female and male reproductive systems differently.
How antioxidants boost fertility in men
The natural process of oxidation (oxygen interacting with cells) produces unstable, cell-damaging molecules in the body called free radicals. An overabundance of free radicals causes oxidative stress, leading to organ malfunctions and disease. Antioxidants, found naturally in fruits and vegetables, neutralize free radicals, minimizing their adverse effects.
“Oxidative damage can severely impact male fertility,” says Saadat, who is the medical director at Reproductive Fertility Center. Since sperm cells, like other cells, can be impaired by free radicals, experts theorize that taking antioxidant supplements may boost fertility in men by reducing the numbers of free radicals and thereby maintaining more healthy sperm cells.
See more: 10 Ways to Increase Fertility in Men
On the other hand: “Decline in female fertility is usually more closely related to decrease in the energy of the egg,” Saadat says, adding, “the plausibility of an antioxidant working to improve egg quality is questionable.” In addition, although more research is needed, some experts speculate based on animal studies that ovulation may be a process that, like immune-system defensive functions, actually requires healthy numbers of free radicals. In other words, taking antioxidant supplements could even hinder a woman’s fertility by eliminating too many free radicals and thwarting the release of eggs from the ovaries.
What women can do to boost fertility
Until research provides more answers, stick to these basics:
- Eat a healthful diet. Getting antioxidants from nutritious foods, rather than from a supplement, will ensure that you get an appropriate amount.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Being severely overweight or underweight can decrease fertility potential, says Saadat. Eat well and stay fit with regular exercise.
- Don’t smoke. Environmental pollutants increase the negative effects of oxidation. “Exposure to toxins such as smoking can affect ovarian aging,” Saadat explains. “We recommend that couples stop smoking to improve their chances of becoming parents.”
See more: Top 10 Ways to Boost Fertility