A new study has shown that sperm quality – but not quantity – may be improved by an antioxidant related to the red pigment in tomatoes.
Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant naturally found in tomatoes. It has been previously linked to male fertility, but previous studies lacked a control group, making findings uncertain. Because lycopene is difficult for the human body to absorb, the researchers used the more bioavailable lactolycopene, which was specifically developed as a supplement.
The study was led by Allan Pacey, professor of andrology reproduction, and Dr Liz Williams, a specialist in human nutrition, both at the University of Sheffield and published in the European Journal of Nutrition.
'When we decoded the results, I nearly fell off my chair. The improvement in morphology - the size and shape of the sperm - was dramatic,' said Professor Pacey.
The study looked at sperm in 60 healthy men over 12 weeks. The volunteers, all aged between 19 and 30 were randomly assigned to receive either lactolycopene or a placebo – neither the volunteers nor researchers knew which were which.
The volunteers provided sperm samples at the beginning of the experiment, halfway through and at the end of the 12 weeks.
Analysis of the samples revealed that among the men who took lactolycopene the results did not show an increase in numbers of sperm. However, the proportion of sperm that were able to swim fast increased by 40 percent by and the proportion that were a healthy shape and size also increased significantly.
'The next step is to repeat the exercise in men with fertility problems and see if lactolycopene can increase sperm quality for those men and whether it helps couples conceive and avoid invasive fertility treatments,' said Dr Williams.
It is estimated that one in six UK couples are affected by subfertility, and that around 40 percent of these are due to problems with sperm production.
Professor Richard Sharpe from the University of Edinburgh's MRC Centre for Reproductive Health, welcomed the research, calling it a 'methodical small ray of sunshine' in a field where 'our understanding of the causes of poor semen quality (and consequent poor fertility) in men is lamentably bad' which 'explains why there are few if any treatments to offer affected men.'