By Kimberly Wong, RD, LDN
Pulling Down The Moon

Stress. There’s work stress, family stress, fertility stress…but now oxidative stress?

Oxidative stress is natural body process that is essential to physiological function. As we breathe, our cells produce energy, and our body uses oxygen in the process. As a result of these normal metabolic actions, Reactive Oxygen Species (also called free radicals) are produced. In layman’s terms, we can understand ROS’s as highly-reactive molecules that have lost an electron during a chemical reaction and roam around “stealing” electrons from other molecules. While this doesn’t sound particularly scary, this chain reaction actually causes a tremendous amount of trouble on a chemical level. Enter antioxidants.

Antioxidants are chemical compounds that happily give electrons to free radicals in order to keep chemical peace. Antioxidants are present inside the body and also come from food. Antioxidant vitamins include Vitamin E, A and C, alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) and other compounds found in fruits and vegetables. As long as our body’s antioxidant capacity is adequate to manage ROS production, all is well. But when the balance tips, and ROS production outstrips our antioxidant ability, free radicals begin to wreak havoc on DNA, cell membranes and tissues. This condition is called Oxidative Stress (OS). Oxidative Stress can cause damage to our cell membranes, alter protein and DNA and cause cell death. OS is implicated in chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease…and now fertility.

So, what about oxidative damage does a girlfriend need to know?

In general, our body knows what to do with free radicals. The body has abundant antioxidant systems that involve antioxidant substances like vitamins C and E, and their cofactors, selenium, zinc, and copper, which swoop through the body and dispose, scavenge, and/or suppress the formation of ROS. Yet it’s a delicate balance that our modern lifestyle with its pollution, over-processed/nutrient-bare foods and stressful pace is likely to upset.

“Oxidative Stress is increasingly recognized as a very important participant in many health disorders, including male and female infertility,” says Dr. Robert Stillman of Shady Grove Fertility. “Our understanding of oxidative stress and of Reactive Oxygen Species – and their reduction – can improve the overall quality of health of our patients – and their fertility”

In terms of fertility, when the bad stuff (ROS) begins to outpace the good stuff (our antioxidant defenses), our fertility may begin to suffer. Because sperm are basically “DNA torpedoes” with one simple mission (swim fast and fertilize egg), they don’t have extensive antioxidant defense systems and are vulnerable to ROS. In addition, they have a high polyunsaturated fat content, which makes them susceptible to lipid peroxidation (read: damage) in the cell membrane. Various environmental and life-style behaviors can tip the balance of OS for sperm, including STDs, automobile pollution, smoking and potentially diet. OS in sperm has been associated with deceased sperm motility, sperm number, and sperm-oocyte fusion (Desai 2009)

In women, the female ovary is the source of both oocytes (eggs) and the hormones that regulate reproduction. As such, the environment around the ovaries is of particular importance to optimal fertility. The ovaries are also “power houses,” and contain more mitochondria (cellular power plants) than any other cells, including muscles (Bentov 2010). For this reason, oocytes use lots of energy and oxygen, especially as they are maturing in preparation for ovulation, r oxidative stress.

Oxidative stress has been implicated in every stretch of the conception-to-birth cycle imaginable, including endometriosis and miscarriage, yet no direct research has been conducted on the effect of OS on female fertility. However, studies have shown that women with unexplained infertility show increased free radicals in the peritoneal fluid (the fluid around the egg) and, conversely, lower levels of peritoneal free radicals are associated with successful IVF procedures (Ruder 2008).

The good news is that there are simple strategies for coping with oxidative stress. Here’s the “need to know:”

  • Increase your dietary antioxidant consumption. A diet that is wholesome and rich in fruits, vegetables, tea, and healthy fats will improve our body’s defenses against oxidative stress. Be aware that many sources of healthy fats in the diet (fatty fish, flax seed) should be consumed intelligently to avoid excess intake of environmental toxins (fish) and phytoestrogens (flax).
  • Avoid high intensity/high impact exercise. The huge aerobic and mechanical demands of strenuous exercise can actually increase oxidative damage to cells in the body. On the flip side, moderate intensity/low impact exercise increases our body’s defenses against oxidative stress.
  • Consider an antioxidant supplement or insure your prenatal vitamins have adequate anti-oxidant levels.
  • Quit smoking and avoid exposure to second-hand smoke.
  • Limit alcohol consumption to < 3 servings per week. Choose red wine for its antioxidant benefits.
  • Learn to relax, practice yoga or meditate. Life stresses may elevate levels of ROS in the body.
  • Oxidative stress may also be higher where inflammation is present, so ensuring good digestion and gut health may reduce circulating levels of ROS. If you’re experiencing diarrhea, bloating, constipation, cramping or other digestive symptoms, it may be worthwhile to meet with a nutrition specialist to determine if food sensitivity or other digestive disorder is present.
  • Where possible, use organic cleaning products.

Now, with a firm basis in OS and its effect on fertility, a gal is ready to face the fertility journey. Always at your availability is the advice of a Pulling Down the Moon nutrition expert in this field, who can help you optimize your dietary intake. Our ART Recovery/Prep Nutrition program is specifically designed to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress as well as provide optimal nutrition for fertility. For more information please visit or call 301-610-7755.