Oxidative Stress Affects Fertility and Hormonal Harmony

I originally wrote this blog for Rebel Health Tribe

You know what’s crazy? That we spend more time preparing a nursery for a baby than we do preparing our bodies to nourish a growing baby. That’s our baby’s first home!

When women or couples ask me what they can do to optimize their bodies before they start trying to conceive, I get really excited. Like, double high fives excited. These clients are about as rare and magical as spotting a unicorn because, in our society, getting pregnant isn’t given much thought until difficulty achieving or sustaining pregnancy occurs.

Starting to optimize even just a few months before trying to conceive will greatly improve your chances of not only getting pregnant, but also of having robust, smart children and an easier postpartum time. However, what we do to our bodies years before we get pregnant – what we put in them, on them, or put them through – can play a huge part in the betterment or detriment of our own health and the health of our offspring.

One reason for this is because it takes about 120 days/4 months for a female egg to mature to be ready for ovulation and roughly the same amount of time for a man to produce a healthy batch of sperm. The sperm a man starts producing today will be the sperm that gets to run free four months from now, in hopes of fertilizing an egg. The quality of your sperm and egg are an accumulation of everything you’ve done with your diet and lifestyle, but especially in the past 4 months.

Oxidative Stress’s Role in Fertility

Oxidative stress causes damage to numerous parts of the cell. This is where I make an obvious statement that our eggs (oocytes) and sperm are single cells.

It is a key component in any aging process and chronic health condition (1). Free radicals are what induce oxidative stress, and antioxidants are what neutralize them. To put it simply, a free radical is an atom with an unpaired electron in the outermost shell. Electrons like to be paired and stable, so the atom that is “unstable” will steal an electron from a stable one, causing that one to be unstable and so perpetuating a free radical cascade/domino effect.

What causes free radicals to form?

This topic can get pretty technical with rabbit holes galore. I don’t want to bore you so just know that the shortest answer is “almost everything.” Anything that creates stress on the body, whether it’s physical, emotional or environmental stress, can lead to oxidative stress – which promotes aging and disease… and infertility! The usual things you would think of – toxic exposure, nutrient deficiencies, and poor detoxification and over exercising – are all widely known to increase free radical formation.

Free radicals do, however, have a beneficial role to play in fighting bacteria and viruses, but problems arise when there aren’t enough antioxidants to keep them in check. Our bodies produce their own antioxidants (endogenous), as well as getting them through nourishing foods and quality supplements. 

It’s when the level of free radicals surpass the body’s ability to neutralize them that our cell membranes and DNA can get damaged. This causes imbalance in organs, tissues and glands, which further results in malfunctioning of systems and creates chronic inflammation and disease… So, pertaining to fertility, oxidative stress causes hormone imbalance and can damage sperm and egg cells.

As I mentioned before, our bodies are able to make antioxidants. These are things like:
• Glutathione (the “master antioxidant”)
• Superoxide dismutase (which neutralizes the free radical superoxide and turns it into hydrogen peroxide)
• Catalase (enzyme that turns hydrogen peroxide into oxygen and water).
Each person has varying degrees of antioxidant production based on their genetics/epigenetics. For example, my ability to produce glutathione (which is super-duper important for fertility) may be less optimal than yours because of genetic variations called SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms).

We may also have genetic variants that contribute to free radical production. Again, my genetics could cause me to create more peroxynitrite* than yours, creating inflammation and increased susceptibility to chronic diseases, poor mental functioning, and poor hormone metabolism. *Peroxynitrite is an incredibly nasty free radical because it can damage a wide array of cellular molecules. I mean, even its chemical formula is (screaming) ONOO-.

Our genetics can affect how much oxidative stress our bodies create, as well as the type and amount of antioxidants that neutralize it, but there are also genes that affect hormone production, transport, and metabolism. There are genetic variants that are correlated with increased chances for all sorts of things related to reproduction – from preterm labor to placenta previa (when the placenta is covering the opening to the cervix).

There are hundreds, likely even thousands (as scientific research may discover) of SNP’s that can contribute to oxidative stress in the body. The software I use to run clients’ genetics currently (as of writing this post) looks at over 2,000 possible SNP’s. Remember, as mentioned previously, that a SNP is a common type of genetic variation that represents a difference in a single DNA building block (2). The SNP’s the software examines relate to fatty acid metabolism and the Krebs cycle, variants that impact gut health and digestion, detoxification capacity, the folate pathway and methionine cycle, tendencies to create elevated ammonia and glutamate levels, neurotransmitter production and clearance, and quite a few other areas. Variants in many of these SNP’s can cause imbalance in the body, setting the ground for oxidative stress.

But even with the understanding of what your genetic predispositions are, they are just that: predispositions. Just because you have certain variants doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be expressed.

The CDC (3) has found that our genes account for a surprisingly small percentage (about 10%) of human disease. What this means is that diet and lifestyle are major determining factors of whether a gene is expressed (like a light switch turning on). This is exactly the reason why one identical twin can get a disease in which the other does not.

Nutritional Cofactors Are the Head Mo-Fo’s in Charge

Each of our genes has a specific function to produce a protein or enzyme. Most genes are named for the enzyme they produce. For the gene to produce these enzymes and proteins, cofactors (think of them as necessary helpers) are needed. These cofactors are amino acids and nutrients. If we aren’t giving our bodies proper amounts of amino acids, fats, vitamins and minerals, the enzymes and proteins aren’t adequately made and your body has to “rob Peter to pay Paul” and steal them from another place. Often times, this place is your reproductive system since reproduction isn’t necessary to remain living.

This is the reason why I am so passionate about eating nutrient dense food – not just “healthy” food. I know how the nutrients contained within the food I eat are used by my cells and genes to carry out their functions. Saying “food is energy” is such an understatement. Nutrient dense food is part of our blueprint for optimal programming and functioning.

So when a woman goes to her doctor for matters of hormonal imbalance, you can see how merely just prescribing the pill or hormonal therapy isn’t addressing the root cause and it certainly isn’t helping to create a healthy body that is able to optimally nourish a fetus.

Because our bodies have an innate desire and ability to heal themselves, it is totally possible to overcome reproductive challenges, from period problems to infertility; we just have to give them the right tools. The right tools are different for each individual person, so functional and genetic testing is a good place to identify what they are. However, there are some things that everyone will benefit from, like having a healthy way to manage stress, avoiding pesticides and toxins in food and body care products, and moving your body in a way that feels good at least a few times a week.

Improving your level of oxidative stress is an important place to begin for overall health and for fertility. Here’s to healthy egg and sperm cells!


#1:  Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2684512/
#2 https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/handbook/genomicresearch/snp
#3 http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/exposome/