Vitamin C and infertility

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Much debate is going on these days over the "infertility crisis" --whether there is one, how bad it is, and what can -- or should -- be done about it. Many questions pertaining to the prevalence of infertility remain unanswered.

In 1988, a publication by the Office of Technology Assessment provided the estimate that 8.5 percent of married couples with wives between the ages of 15 and 44 are infertile. In plain language, this covers approximately 2.4 million families in this country. Others say the number has climbed from 15 to 18 to 20 percent in the past decade.

Whatever the figures, it's a sad commentary that, in what should be one of the healthiest and happiest periods of their lives, one in 12 couples cannot have a baby.

It used to be that, as often as not, the woman was "blamed" for a couple's inability to have children. However, the medical literature is replete with evidence to suggest that male infertility is rising. One unusual and not frequently mentioned factor was discussed in the June 11, 1994, issue of The Lancet (343:1498). The point was made that organic farmers have more evidence of fertility in terms of the quality and number of their sperm than farmers who work with pesticides. Indications of relatively high rates of infertility have been noted in steel workers who do a lot of welding and shipyard workers who are exposed to ethylene glycol ethers (American Journal of Industrial Medicine 1989; 14:509-26).

What has received less attention than these "minuses" of infertility are the "pluses," the constellation of variables which encourage fertility. In this regard, let me call your attention to the role of vitamin C.

• Fact one: In 1941, researchers recognized that the concentration of vitamin C in a man's testicle was around 20 times higher than in the blood. This raised the question as to whether this tremendous amount might not be of some functional significance.

Fact two: Six years later, research investigators noted that a majority of infertile males exhibited a low testicular vitamin C level.

Fact three: Approximately seven years after that, the experts discovered that the stickiness of sperm was part of the cause of infertility.
Fact four: Within the next four years, we learned that making sperm less sticky reduced infertility and that vitamin C aided this process.
Fact five: We now know that ascorbate can increase sperm volume, count, and motility; it also reduces the number of abnormal sperm and their stickiness. Finally, improved sperm quality follows.
Based on these observations, W.A. Harris and his associates carried out a study of 20 men who were clearly classified as infertile (Fertility and Sterility 1979; 32:455-9). These otherwise healthy subjects were given one gram of vitamin C a day for 60 days, and a control group of 20 other infertile men were given placebos.

At the end of the two months, none of the control group's wives reported pregnancy. However, in all of the vitamin C supplemented group, there was conception!

This is certainly not to suggest that all male infertility can be "cured" by taking megadoses of vitamin C. However, the startling results of this study, along with other recent findings about male infertility, would surely seem to call for taking a closer look at the part that might be played by vitamin C, as well as other vitamins and minerals, in the treatment of some infertility problems.

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PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Emanuel Cheraskin, M.D., D.M.D.

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By Emanuel Cheraskin, M.D., D.M.D.

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