Mitochondrial function and male fertility

Mitochondria are organelles inside every cell which are responsible for energy production, they are essential for all living processes. In this week’s article, we are discussing the importance of mitochondria for male fertility. It is thought that infertility, or subfertility, affects 6% of men aged between 16 and 50. This blog will explore the factors which contribute to low fertility and how you can support mitochondrial function to promote sperm production.

Male infertility can be defined as the inability to conceive after 12 months of unprotected intercourse (two times per week), with the same female partner, in the absence of female causes or sperm abnormalities, confirmed by two analyses of sperm count, morphology, motility or other aspects. Infertility occurs in 5-10% of couples trying to conceive, this is thought to be due to one third female causes one third male causes and one third combined causes.

Low fertility can be due to many factors and is often considered by health professionals to be idiopathic, meaning there is no known cause. Some of the factors that can contribute to poor fertility include; obesity, smoking, environmental toxins, inflammation and nutritional deficiencies. These can all interfere with hormone signalling, sperm production or normal sperm morphology and motility or a combination of these.

Some of the most important factors when considering male fertility are:

Sperm count – the amount of sperm

Sperm motility – ability to move correctly and sufficiently

Sperm morphology – form, shape and structure of the sperm

On average a man can produce 100 million sperm per day. This means there is a very high rate of cell replication and therefore an increased energy requirement, particularly to ensure that healthy sperm are produced. Sperm also have a unique role to play compared to almost any other cell; they have to make a long journey against a current to the oocyte in the female fallopian tube – this is a distance of over 1000 times their own length. Once the sperm reaches its destination it then has to penetrate the oocyte for fertilisation to occur. All of these processes from production to fertilisation require a huge amount of energy (as ATP). Mitochondria, the energy production powerhouses in our cells, are fundamental to the ability for these processes to occur. It has been shown that mitochondrial function plays a pivotal role in fertility and it is interesting to note that all of the factors linked to low fertility have the ability to affect mitochondrial function.

Mitochondria are also the main source of reactive oxygen species (ROS) also known as free radicals. ROS in excess can lead to damage and loss of function to any cell including sperm cells. However, in appropriate, controlled levels ROS have been shown to be required for proper sperm function particularly motility and fertilising ability, as well as for capacitation, the acrosome reaction and hyper-activation (all essential for oocyte penetration). However mitochondrial dysfunction can increase ROS and excess ROS can lead to damage to mitochondria inhibiting their function by causing membrane peroxidation and loss of motility, therefore it is essential that oxidative stress is managed and only occurs at appropriate levels.

Furthermore, studies have found a direct relationship between the activity of sperm mitochondrial enzymes and sperm parameters including concentration, vitality and motility. Therefore, the higher the activity of the mitochondria, the more energy is produced resulting in improved sperm count and motility.

Sperm mitochondria may also serve as intracellular calcium (Ca²⁺) stores. Although their role in signalling is still unclear, it is thought that Ca²⁺ is utilised in the acrosomal head and it may be of importance for oocyte penetration.

As mitochondrial energy metabolism is a key factor supporting several sperm functions, these organelles host critical metabolic pathways during sperm development and fertilization.” – Piomboni et al, 2011.

How can we support mitochondrial function?

You may be thinking that this is all very well, but how can you support mitochondrial function and therefore sperm production? Supporting mitochondrial function involves providing mitochondria with the nutrients required for energy production, and reducing damage caused by oxidative stress from ROS, by providing antioxidant support and reducing factors which can lead to excess oxidation.

Nutrients that support chemical energy production by mitochondria:

Thiamin (B1) – Co factor in the essential step which converts pyruvate in to acetyl CoA.

Riboflavin (B2) – Also known as FAD, accepts electrons and donates to the electron transport chain (ETC) in order to produce ATP (energy).

Nicatinamide riboside (B3) – Also known as NADH (similar to FAD) accepts and donates electron to ETC in order to produce ATP.

Pantothenic Acid (B5) – carrier of Coenzyme A, essential for Acetyl CoA and therefore energy production.

Iron – is an essential cofactor in the Electron Transport Chain (specifically Complex I and III).

Sulphur – works in conjunction with iron – essential for Complex I of ETC.

Copper – Important cofactor in complex IV of ETC.

CoQ10 (Ubiqinol) – utilised as a carrier in complex II of ETC. CoQ10 also has antioxidant properties and is found in high concentrations in the head and mid-piece of the sperm. It is considered to promote motility, foster sperm survival and provide optimal energy.

Alpha Lipoic Acid – a coenzyme of pyruvate dehydrogenase and a-ketoglutarate; enzymes responsible for reactions involved in the breakdown of fat and carbohydrate within the mitochondria.

Magnesium – binds to ATP and affects its structure making energy more easily available.

All of the above nutrients are directly involved in metabolism reactions which occur in the mitochondria in order to produce energy. Any deficiencies of the above nutrients can affect the rate of energy production and will have a direct impact on the ability to produce sperm effectively, as well as the function and motility of the sperm.

There are other nutrients that are not directly involved in the chemical pathways of metabolism but are however important for energy production and maintaining mitochondrial function, such as;

L-Carnitine – plays a vital role in fatty acid metabolism, transporting fatty acids into the mitochondria to be converted into energy and again a deficiency can lead to reduced energy production. Carnitine concentrations have been found to be very high in the epididymis and testes.  Studies which have compared fertile and infertile men have found that fertile men have statistically significantly more carnitine in their seminal sample than infertile men. Also, low levels of plasma carnitine are associated with infertility.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids – can be incorporated into the mitochondrial membrane, which aids fluidity of the membrane and therefore signalling. Omega 3 fatty acids are also very important for the cell membrane of the sperm, ensuring adequate fluidity of the membranes to support motility and the ability to penetrate the oocyte of the sperm.

It is also important to consider the effect that oxidative stress plays. As mentioned above, the production of ROS is essential to sperm production. However, if oxidation occurs in excess it can cause damage and result in reduced mitochondrial function and therefore, reduced energy and sperm production. Hence reducing oxidative stress and ensuring adequate intake of antioxidants is essential for healthy mitochondrial function.

Factors that contribute to oxidative stress include:

  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Inflammation
  • High stress levels
  • High sugar diet
  • Consumption of trans and hydrogenated fats
  • Pollution
  • Chemicals from household products, toiletries and cosmetics

Reduction of exposure to the above can help reduce free radicals and oxidative stress.

We can also help to protect our mitochondria by ensuring that we are consuming adequate levels of antioxidants. The antioxidant of particular importance for the mitochondria is glutathione, which is our own intrinsic intracellular antioxidant. Although we are able to manufacture our own glutathione, when oxidative stress is in excess it can become overwhelmed or if nutrients that are required to manufacture it are deficient this can lead to reduced levels. Nutrients that support production of glutathione are:

N-Acetyl Cysteine – regulates synthesis of and is an effective precursor to glutathione.

Alpha Lipoic Acid – has the ability to induce enzymes required for glutathione synthesis.

Selenium – constituent of glutathione.

Vitamin C – an antioxidant in its own right but also has the ability to regenerate glutathione. Studies have also shown that supplementation can lead to an improvement in viability and motility, reduced numbers of abnormal sperm and reduced sperm agglutination.

Other antioxidants have the ability to reduce oxidative stress by neutralising free radicals and could be considered to support mitochondrial function in doing so. These include carotenoids, flavonoids, vitamin E, vitamin A and zinc, this list is not exhaustive. You can ensure that you are obtaining good levels of antioxidants in the diet by:

  • Eating a rainbow (different colours of fruit and vegetables contain differing phytonutrients which have antioxidant properties)
  • Consuming herbs and spices including turmeric, garlic and ginger
  • Including polyphenols found in olives, 70%+ dark chocolate (1-2 squares)
  • Consuming antioxidant containing teas such as green tea and rooibos

All of the above really help to support mitochondrial health which has be found to be pivotal for healthy sperm production and function and hence male fertility. Very important factors as mentioned above should be investigated when looking at supporting male fertility. The overall health of the individual should be considered and imbalances of any system in the body including the gut, adrenals and thyroid as well as nutritional deficiencies should be addressed.

Other nutrients that are important for fertility are:

  • Vitamin D, zinc, protein and cholesterol which are required for the production of testosterone
  • Folate and B12 essential for adequate DNA and RNA synthesis

Before trying to conceive it is advisable to carry out a preconception programme in order to optimise the health of both parents and the gametes that they produce, which can contribute to improved fertility, a healthier pregnancy and a healthier baby. See our blog, Preconception Care.


Relevant Cytoplan products

Cyto-Renew – Contains CoQ10, Alpha Lipoic Acid, N-acetyl L-Carnitine and N-acetylcysteine.

Foundation Formula 2 – Comprehensive multivitamin and mineral containing Methyl folate, B12, vitamin D, zinc, selenium, vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene.

Phytoshield – Phytonutrient and antioxidant supplement containing a variety of flavonoids and carotenoids.

Krill Oil – Omega 3 supplement containing DHA and EPA.

Liposomal glutathione – Available soon. Contains Liposomal Glutathione, N-acetyl L-Carnitine and Alpha Lipoic acid.


Related Cytoplan blogs

Preconception care – optimising health of mother and baby

The importance of detoxification for preconception care 

Preconception planning

Fertility and pregnancy – The importance of nutrition 

Focusing on fertility

Planning a pregnancy? Both eat lots of Brussels sprouts!


If you have any questions regarding the topics that have been raised, or any other health matters please do contact me (Clare) by phone or email at any time.

amanda@cytoplan.co.uk, 01684 310099

The Cytoplan editorial team: Helen Drake, Clare Daley, Amanda Williams and Joanna Doverman.


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