Vitamin C for Male Infertility and Lead Poisoning?

What is the clinical relevance of vitamin C among lead-exposed infertile men? Compared to controls, lead battery industry workers given 1,000 mg of vitamin C every workday for three months experienced “a significant increase in sperm motility and sperm count, as well as decrease in abnormal sperm,” and “a significant reduction in the incidence of sperm DNA fragmentation,” that is, damaged sperm DNA. Okay, but the ideal endpoint would be bouncing baby boys and girls. Enter this extraordinary little study from the University of Texas from more than 30 years ago.

Twenty-seven men with fertile wives had been trying to have kids for years to no avail. Twenty of them were given 1,000 mg of vitamin C a day for two months, and 7 acted as controls and didn’t get any vitamin C. The researchers followed up at the end of the 60 days. By then, every single one of the wives of each of the 20 men who had gotten the vitamin C had became pregnant—20 out of 20! After years of frustration, boom: 100-percent pregnant. What’s more, not a single one of the wives of men in the control group got pregnant. Rarely does one see these kinds of black-and-white results in the medical literature for any intervention.

Is the vitamin C lowering the oxidative stress from the lead, or is it actually lowering the level of lead? Sure, antioxidant supplementation can have antioxidant effects, but it may fail to actually lower lead levels in the blood. Now, this was in a group of workers who were breathing lead day in and day out, and the way vitamin C may work is by simply blocking the “intestinal absorption of lead.” An earlier study showed vitamin C supplementation apparently cut lead levels by a third within six months, but that was with a whopping dose of 2 g with added zinc. Another small study found the same 30 percent drop with just 500 mg a day, no zinc, and in only one month. But neither of those studies had a control group of subjects who didn’t take anything, so we don’t know if their levels would have fallen anyway.

Similarly, there is an almost too-good-to-be-true study on the role of vitamin C in scavenging lead toxicity from “biosystems,” by which they meant children. They got 250 to 500 mg a day of vitamin C for a few months, and shaved hair samples every month saw up to a 69 percent decline in lead levels. Researchers repeated it in two other small groups of kids and saw the same amazing kind of drops in every single child. But maybe lead levels were just dropping throughout the whole community during that time? Without measuring lead levels in a control group of kids not taking vitamin C, we can’t be sure.

As I illustrate from 3:17 in my video Yellow Bell Peppers for Male Infertility and Lead Poisoning?, with eight weeks of vitamin C, lead levels dropped in the blood and rose in the urine. One could conclude that the vitamin C was pulling lead out of the body, but the same thing happened in the placebo group: Blood levels dropped, and urine levels rose. So, it had nothing to do with the vitamin C at all. That’s why it’s always important to have a control group.

The same applies with studies that appeared to show no benefit. For example, 36 battery manufacturing workers were studied. Each was given vitamin C, yet there was no change in their lead levels. But, maybe their co-workers suffered a big increase in lead levels during that same time period, and the vitamin C was actually successful in keeping the subjects’ levels from rising. You don’t know without a control group.

That’s why studies like “The effects of vitamin C supplementation on blood and hair levels of cadmium, lead, and mercury” are so important. Vitamin C versus an identical-looking sugar pill placebo. The result? The vitamin C failed to help, which really put a damper on enthusiasm for using vitamin C for lead poisoning until a now-famous study was published in 1999 that showed that vitamin C supplementation could lead to a decrease in blood levels. As you can see at 4:32 in my video, after four weeks of taking a placebo, not much change occurred in blood lead levels in the control group, which is what we’d expect. In contrast, the vitamin C group started out at about the same blood lead level as the control group, but within one week of taking 1,000 mg of vitamin C a day, lead levels dropped 81 percent. So, supplementation of vitamin C “may provide an economical and convenient method of reducing blood-lead levels, possibly by reducing the intestinal absorption of lead.”

The urine lead levels didn’t change, so it’s not as if the subjects were excreting more lead in their urine to bring down their blood levels. However, most of the lead in our blood is in the red blood cells, which are recycled in the liver and discharged through the bile into the gut where the lead could just get reabsorbed—unless, perhaps, you’ve got a lot of vitamin C in there to block the re-absorption. But 1,000 mg is a lot of vitamin C. Would something like 200 mg, which is just about how much vitamin C you’d get in an orange and a cup of broccoli or strawberries, work? The researchers tested that, too. The 200 mg group started out the same as the control and the 1,000 mg group, but blood lead levels didn’t really budge. Bummer! So, 1,000 mg seemed to work, but 200 mg didn’t. Isn’t 1,000 mg of vitamin C a bit unnatural, though? The RDA is only 60 mg. Well, actually, we may have evolved for millions of years getting closer to 600 mg a day—ten times the current RDA—because we were eating so many fruits and greens. Okay, but could you reach 1,000 mg of vitamin C without having to take pills? Yes! That’s the amount of vitamin C, for example, that can be found in three yellow bell peppers.


Other videos in my series on lead include:

Note that there is nothing special about yellow bell peppers—other than their extraordinary vitamin C content, that is. I just used them as a practical way to get 1,000 mg of vitamin C in whole-food form. They’re certainly easier than eating ten oranges!

Though, remember my video Peppers and Parkinson’s: The Benefits of Smoking Without the Risks? So, one would expect to get all the benefits of the 1,000 mg of vitamin C with benefits. Why not just take vitamin C supplements? See Do Vitamin C Supplements Prevent Colds but Cause Kidney Stones?.

If hundreds of milligrams a day of vitamin C sounds like a lot, check out What Is the Optimal Vitamin C intake?.

You may be interested in my vitamin C and cancer series:

Finally, for more on male fertility, see:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Why Hasn’t Bisphenol A (BPA) Been Banned Completely?

“The number of new chemicals is increasing exponentially, with approximately 12,000 new substances added daily…”—yet data aren’t available on the hazards of even some of the high-volume chemicals. Bisphenol A (BPA) is one of the highest volume chemicals, with billions of pounds produced each year. Studies have raised concerns about its possible implication in the cause of certain chronic diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, reproductive disorders, cardiovascular diseases, birth defects, chronic respiratory diseases, kidney diseases, and breast cancer. Given this, BPA is the topic of my video Why BPA Hasn’t Been Banned.

A new study on the health implications of BPA comes out nearly every week. BPA was first developed over a hundred years ago as a synthetic estrogen, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that industry realized it could be used to make polycarbonate plastic, and “BPA rapidly became one of the most produced and used chemicals worldwide, even though it was a recognized synthetic estrogen” with hormonal effects. About a billion pounds are also used to line food and beverage cans, especially for tuna and condensed soups.

Today, nearly all of us, including our children, have BPA in our bodies, but not to worry: The government says up to 50 µg/kg per day is safe. Even those working in Chinese BPA factories don’t get exposed to more than 70 times lower than that so-called safety limit. Why then did exposure seem to affect male workers’ sperm counts? In the United States, the general population gets less than a thousand times lower than the safety limit, yet, even at those incredibly low doses, we still seem to be seeing adverse effects on thyroid function, weight control, blood sugar control, cardiovascular disease, liver function, and immune function. Indeed, “[t]he fact that there are significant adverse effects in populations exposed to BPA at concentrations [thousands of] times lower than the TDI [tolerable daily limit]…indicates that the safe exposure to BPA may be much lower than previously thought in humans.” Despite this, the limit hasn’t been changed. BPA has been banned from “baby bottles and sippy cups,” but nearly unlimited doses are still apparently okay for everyone else. What’s the disconnect?

It has to do with the fascinating world of low-dose effects of hormone-disrupting chemicals. “For decades, studies of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) have challenged traditional concepts in toxicology, in particular the dogma of ‘the dose makes the poison’”—that is, the concept “that lower exposures to a hazardous compound will therefore always generate lower risks.” Indeed, that is the core assumption underlying our system of chemical safety testing. Researchers start giving animals in laboratories a super-high dose and then keep lowering the dosage until whatever adverse effects that had occurred disappear. Then, they add a safety buffer and assume everything below that dose should be okay, assuming a straight line showing the higher the dose, the higher the effect. However, hormone-disrupting chemicals can have all sorts of curious curves. How is it possible that something could have more of an effect at a lower dose?

A study was done to see whether BPA suppressed an obesity-protective hormone in fat samples taken from breast reduction and tummy tuck patients. At 100 nanomoles of BPA, hormone levels were no lower than they were at 0nM of BPA. And, since most people have levels between 1 and 20, BPA was considered to be safe. But, although there was no suppression at 0 and no suppression at 100, at the levels actually found in people’s bodies, BPA appeared to cut hormone release nearly in half.

As the world’s oldest, largest, and most active organization devoted to research on hormones concluded, “even infinitesimally low levels of exposure—indeed, any level of exposure at all—may cause [problems].” In fact, it may come to nearly $3 billion in problems every year, counting the estimated effects of BPA on childhood obesity and heart disease alone. There are alternatives the industry can use. The problem, though, is that they may cost companies two cents more.


Related videos about BPA include BPA on Receipts: Getting Under Our Skin and Are the BPA-Free Alternatives Safe?

 BPA isn’t the only problem with canned tuna. Check out:

What can we do to avoid endocrine-disrupting chemicals? See, for example, Avoiding Adult Exposure to Phthalates and How to Avoid the Obesity-Related Plastic Chemical BPA.

Alkylphenols are another group of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. To learn more about them, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Foods that Affect Testosterone Levels

A number of studies suggest that exposure to industrial pollutants may affect sexual function, for example, loss of libido, sexual dysfunction, and impotence. This may be due to effects on testosterone levels. In a study of men who ate a lot of contaminated fish, an elevation in PCB levels in the blood was associated with a lower concentration of testosterone levels. These pollutants are found predominantly in fish, but also meat and dairy. The lowest levels are found in plants (see Dietary Pollutants May Affect Testosterone Levels).

Testosterone doesn’t just play a role in the determination of secondary sex characteristics like facial hair at puberty. It also regulates normal sexual functioning and the overall physical and psychological well-being of adult men. Abnormally low levels of testosterone can lead to decreased physical endurance and memory capacity, loss of libido, drop in sperm count, loss of bone density, obesity, and depression.

Endocrine-disrupting compounds that build up in fish may be able to mimic or block hormone receptors, or alter rates of synthesis or breakdown of sex steroid hormones. In children, these pollutants may actually impair sexual development. Boys who are exposed may grow up with smaller penises (although only by about two-thirds of an inch shorter at most). Researchers have tried exposing cells from aborted fetal human penises to these kinds of dietary pollutants, and gene expression related to genital development is indeed affected at real-life exposure levels. We’re not sure if the effects on penis length are due to the pro-estrogenic effects of the toxins, though, or the anti-testosterone effects.

You’ve heard of save the whales? Well, male reproductive organs may be at risk from environmental hazards as well.

I previously addressed how we discovered the endocrine disruptor phenomenon in Alkylphenol Endocrine Disruptors and Allergies, as well as where they’re found (Dietary Sources of Alkylphenol Endocrine Disruptors).

For more on sustaining male virility, see Male Fertility and Diet, The Role of Diet in Declining Sperm Counts, and Dairy Estrogen and Male Fertility.

I’ve talked about the role a plastics chemical may play in male sexual functioning (BPA Plastic and Male Sexual Dysfunction). But it’s not just toxins, it’s the total diet (Survival of the Firmest: Erectile Dysfunction and Death), and not only in men (Cholesterol and Female Sexual Dysfunction).  My latest on the topic is Best Foods to Improve Sexual Function

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. Image has been modified.