How can tomatoes improve sperm quality?
Scientists from The University of Sheffield have discovered that sperm quality can be improved with a simple diet supplement containing a compound found in cooked tomatoes — a breakthrough that could transform the outlook for men with fertility problems.
Writing in the European Journal of Nutrition, the researchers noted that poor sperm quality is a major contributor to infertility in heterosexual couples, but at present there are few empirical therapies.
“Several studies have examined the role of dietary factors and data from randomized controlled trials suggest that oral antioxidant therapy can improve some sperm parameters,” the study authors wrote. One such antioxidant is lycopene, which has previously been proposed as a supplement to treat a number of health conditions.
Lycopene can be found in some fruits and vegetables, but the main source in the diet is from tomatoes. Dietary lycopene is poorly absorbed by the human body, so the researches decided to trial the use of a commercially available formulation called LactoLycopene, designed by FutureYou Cambridge to improve bioavailability.
Led by Professor Allan Pacey and Dr Liz Williams, the double-blind randomised controlled trial involved 60 healthy volunteers aged 19 to 30. Half took LactoLycopene supplements and the other half took placebos every day for 12 weeks; sperm and blood samples were collected at the beginning and end of the trial.
As expected, the level of plasma lycopene was substantially increased in the men randomised to receive lycopene supplementation. The researchers found there was no significant change in motile sperm concentration in response to LactoLycopene intervention; however, the proportion of fast progressive sperm and sperm with normal morphology did improve significantly — by up to 40%.
“We didn’t really expect that at the end of the study there would be any difference in the sperm from men who took the tablet versus those who took the placebo,” said Prof Pacey, a world expert in male reproduction. “When we decoded the results, I nearly fell off my chair.
“The improvement in morphology — the size and shape of the sperm — was dramatic. We used a computer system to make these measurements, which takes a lot of the human error out of the results. Also, the person using the computer didn’t know who had taken LactoLycopene and who had taken the dummy pills either.”
Prof Pacey said the work so far has not investigated the mechanism for lycopene’s beneficial action but suggested it is potentially inhibiting the damage caused by oxidation of sperm, which is a known cause of male fertility problems. He believes this antioxidant effect is key in producing the improvements in sperm quality seen in the trial, and is hoping to investigate this more.
“This was a small study and we do need to repeat the work in bigger trials, but the results are very encouraging,” said Dr Williams. “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.”
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