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Oxidative stress as a driver of infertility

Posted by Bold Commerce Collaborator on

Infertility, antioxidants, fertility treatments
 Key learnings:
  • Oxidative stress may be behind unexplained infertility
  • The role of glutathione in preventing oxidative stress 
  • Selenium: a vital nutrient


How could an insufficiency of two basic nutrients be harming your reproductive system? How could chronic oxidative stress be hindering your reproductive efforts?

Fertility problems affect both men and women, at varying stages throughout their reproductive lives, and at a surprisingly high rate of one in every six couples. The World Health Organisation estimates that up to 12% of couples worldwide experience some form of fertility struggle during their lifespan, which means that up to 80 million couples are battling infertility every year. Although infertility bears no lethal effects, it can be a significant emotional and physical strain on those unable to conceive. (1)

Commonly, infertility is treated with a variety of medical procedures. For women, medications are generally prescribed to address cycle dysregulation and encourage ovulation; there are two methods of assisted conception that are commonly used on women experiencing infertility: intrauterine insemination (IUI) and in vitro fertilization (IVF). While these methods are often effective at treating infertility, they can be supported and potentially made more effective by increasing levels of naturally occurring nutrients, especially glutathione and selenium, as new research has been done into the viability of antioxidant supplementation in supporting fertility for both men and women (2).


What is oxidative stress, and how does it contribute to infertility?

There are numerous possible causes of infertility, yet oxidative stress accounts for the development of nearly 15% of explained and unexplained infertility cases. Oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants — this reaction can alter the entire reproductive lifespan of men and women.

In men, the most commonly defined cause of infertility is sperm dysfunction. In 25-40% of men with this condition, tests detected heightened free radical levels and low antioxidants. These findings demonstrate the fundamental role of free radicals and their antioxidant counterparts in normal sperm function. (1)

In women, oxidative stress has been shown to obstruct the function of the endometrium, disabling it from supporting the embryo, which can cause numerous failures throughout conception and pregnancy, such as:

  • defective fertilization
  • embryo fragmentation
  • implantation failure
  • congenital abnormalities
  • pre-eclampsia
  • free induced birth defects
  • miscarriage (1)

Generally, antioxidants such as glutathione and selenium work within the body to support the natural processes and systems and neutralize harmful free radicals so they are unable to damage the tissue and function of the organs. When the free radicals are neutralized, they are no longer a threat to our body as they cannot damage our cells. Glutathione is especially important in these processes because it not only neutralizes free radicals, but it recycles other antioxidants to build a greater bodily defense against oxidative stress.

It is not surprising then that researchers have found low levels of glutathione and selenium to have adverse effects on both gender’s fertility. Selenium can be incorporated through dietary supplements efficiently, while dietary glutathione presents a different challenge, as it is not easily absorbed by the cells.


Why are glutathione levels so variable, yet so vital to bodily function?

Glutathione is known as the master antioxidant, capable of quickly and effectively defending the body against oxidative stress by neutralizing free radicals, minimizing the damage caused to the reproductive system by these reactive molecules. While glutathione is vital to protecting bodily functions, it is also easily depleted by factors such as:

  • poor diet
  • pollution
  • toxins
  • medications
  • stress
  • trauma
  • ageing
  • infections

In addition to excessive exposure to oxidative stress, the real limiting factor of our body’s production of glutathione is our level of the amino acid cysteine. When glutathione levels are depleted by these factors we experience in daily life, the body is unable to replenish its glutathione levels on its own without a sufficient supply of cysteine. This leaves us vulnerable to damage caused by oxidative stress, and consequently susceptible to reproductive system damage. (1)

While incorporating nutrient-rich foods or molecular supplements into your diet may seem like a simple method of increasing glutathione, it is not the most effective way, as many of the processing and cooking methods used in food production destroy a majority of performed glutathione (3,4). To increase glutathione, there is an alternative method to straight supplementation that may be more efficient: to encourage your body to produce its own glutathione by providing it with the building blocks to from the molecule inside the cells. This means increasing your dietary levels of cysteine, glutamate and glycine, the amino acids required to manufacture glutathione. These are abundant in different food sources separately, and all together in certain types of protein — especially in undenatured whey (1).


How does selenium deficiency contribute to infertility?

Selenium also plays a key role in supporting healthy reproductive function. Selenium deficiencies have presented in correlation with:

  • gestational complications
  • miscarriages
  • low birth weight
  • fetal nervous system damage
  • fetal immune system damage
  • deterioration in sperm quality (5)

Studies by the Department of Food Science and Dietetics at Wroclaw Medical University and by Acta Veterinaria Scandinavia have concluded that selenium is essential for normal sperm development, and that deficient men and women should ensure their selenium levels are adequate during the procreation period to protect against these harmful effects. (6) A balanced diet of nutrient rich fruits, vegetables and varied sources of protein will help maintain selenium levels. (7)


Undenatured whey protein as part of a healthy conception care plan

Undenatured whey is packed full of the essential amino acids your body needs to produce its own glutathione, rather than providing your cells with ready-made glutathione, which the body cannot easily absorb. (3) Undenatured whey is also a source of selenium, making it one of the most effective methods of protecting yourself from excessive oxidative stress that may result in difficulties when trying to conceive. (7)

While the glutathione and selenium in undenatured native whey provides important benefits for reproductive health, undenatured whey has countless other health benefits as well, many of them surrounding glutathione’s antioxidant, anti-ageing, and immune support qualities.

It’s important to keep in mind when choosing a whey protein that many of the commercial brands of whey have been processed using a heat treatment that denatures both glutathione and selenium, impairing their function. Understanding the concept of denaturation is key, especially if you are supplementing with whey protein for the benefits of glutathione and other amino acids because it’s likely the nutrients in the whey protein you are using are not at their peak functionality. Supplementing with undenatured whey makes your body more effective: it kickstarts your body’s natural defenses against oxidative stress, encouraging your body to fight the effects of aging, organ function deterioration, and protect you from developing countless chronic diseases as you age. (3)



  1. Adeoye, O., Olawumi, J., Opeyemi, A., & Christiania, O. (2018). Review on the role of glutathione on oxidative stress and infertility. JBRA Assisted Reproduction, 22(1), 61–66.
  2. National Health Services 2017, Infertility: Treatment, National Health Services, viewed 20 May 2019
  3. Patel, S. (2015). Emerging trends in nutraceutical applications of whey protein and its derivatives. Journal of Food Science and Technology, 52(11), 6847.
  4. Jones, D. P., Coates, R. J., Flagg, E. W., Eley, J. W., Block, G., Greenberg, R. S., … Jackson, B. (1992). Glutathione in foods listed in the national cancer institute’s health habits and history food frequency questionnaire. Nutrition and Cancer, 17(1), 57–75.
  5. Pieczy´nska, J., Pieczy´nska, P., & Grajeta, H. (2015). The role of selenium in human conception and pregnancy. Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology, 29, 31–38.
  6. Hansen, J. C., & Deguchi, Y. (1996). Selenium and fertility in animals and man--a review. Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica, 37(1), 19–30.
  7. Marshall, K. (1996). Therapeutic Applications of Whey Protein. In Alternative Medicine Review  (Vol. 9).

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