One out of eight couples endures the agony of infertility, often in silence. This April, we are commemorating Infertility Awareness Month and I cannot think of a better time to encourage you to be proactive about your ‘fertility health’. This awareness campaign encourages people to increase dialogue about fertility issues that affect both women and men, across the globe.
Infertility is defined as when a woman under age 35 cannot conceive a baby despite having regular unprotected heterosexual intercourse for 12 months, without the use of birth control or when a woman age 35 or older cannot conceive a baby despite having regular unprotected heterosexual intercourse for 6 months. Possible reasons for infertility may be that one partner (male or female) is unable to contribute to conception, or that there are underlying reasons that impede a woman’s ability to carry a pregnancy to viability.
In the United States, around 10 percent (6.1 million) of women aged 15 to 44 years are unable to conceive or get pregnant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Worldwide, infertility has been a concern for 8 to 12 percent of couples and it is also a significant clinical problem today. Although most people assume infertility to be a female issue, the truth is that between 45 to 50 percent of infertility cases involve a“male factor” and not just a female reason. Causes for this often are due to one or a combination of poor sperm motility, abnormal sperm morphology, or low sperm concentration which may be related to other underlying medical conditions in the man.
Another survey conducted by the CDC demonstrated that infertility also adversely affects 9 percent of married women who are of childbearing age. While it is true that many of the underlying causes for infertility are not modifiable, patients who are trying to conceive can help themselves by managing their eating habits and diet. In fact, a holistic approach to one’s nutrition, plus healthy body weight, can have a significant impact on increasing one’s odds of conception (i.e achieving pregnancy).
What is Fertility Diet?
In preparation for pregnancy and to boost fertility, eating a fertility diet is a crucial health change that you can make. Multiple studies and research have demonstrated the positive effects of a fertility diet in decreasing recurrent miscarriage, supporting a healthy pregnancy, and of course, promoting fertility.
To begin your journey to a healthy pregnancy, I generally recommend assessing your eating habits and removing foods that are generally considered to be ‘junk food’ or ‘processed food’, from your diet. Before we go further, I need you to understand and appreciate that the building blocks for hormones are found in the food that we eat. These include healthy fats, vitamins, water and antioxidants. Therefore, it is important to ask yourself ‘what am I eating?’ and ‘where did it come from?’. Many foods, and even our water, can have additives which have a negative impact on our body’s ability to make and use hormones which are essentially your body’s biological messengers that talk to all of your organs, glands and especially, your reproductive systems.
So, what really is a fertility diet? A fertility diet is your diet choice that is aimed at supporting your body, in its reproductive efforts. It includes foods which are compact in specific nutrients necessary for general health and maintenance, balance or homeostasis, hormonal function, egg health, fetal development, sperm health, blood health, and more. This diet is designed to help your body balance fertility issues, build up nutrient stores, and provide all of the building blocks needed for developing a healthy child.
Research from the Nurses’ Health Study II has shown that diet adjustment, from fats to beverages, can increase ovulation and improve the chances of fertility. This research began in 1976 and grew to include female nurses aged 30 to 55 in a total of 238,000 participants. The fertility diet seeks to solidify this wisdom, to help women conceive.
An important question to ask yourself, if you’re trying to conceive, is whether your diet is packed with foods that increase fertility? Researchers from Harvard Medical School published a review examining the impact of diet on fertility and showed that consumption of certain foods while avoiding others is something you can do to help improve your ovulatory function.
For women trying to get pregnant naturally, eating foods rich in folic acid, vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, and other healthy diets such as a Mediterranean diet were linked to positive effects on fertility.
On the contrary, this review out of Harvard Medical school, also noted that dairy products, soy, caffeine, and alcohol seemed to have slim to negative chances of boosting fertility. In fact, unhealthy diet and trans fats (e.g., potatoes, sweets, sweetened beverages, and processed meats) were found to have negative effects.
For men suffering from infertility, studies have shown that healthy diets (as described above) can improve semen quality. However, it is important to note that quality of semen is not a singularly excellent predictor of male fertility, and most studies did not actually investigate the impact of paternal diet on the success rate of pregnancy or live births.
For patients undergoing assisted reproductive technologies, such as in vitro fertilization, conception may be more likely for women who take folic acid supplements. Meanwhile, men can boost fertility through antioxidants that help protect sperm from free radicals.
Benefits of Eating a Fertility Diet
- This diet is generally healthy and boosts overall health and wellness.
- It promotes energy and vitality.
- It boosts and supports a healthy reproductive system.
- Steers clear of trans-fats which are widely linked to heart disease.
- Helps the body maintain hormonal balance.
- It provides vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants which help boost egg and sperm health.
- May decrease the chances of miscarriage by decreasing insulin resistance and damage from free-radicals to the sperm, eggs, and DNA.
Your fertility nutrition starts with eating a lot of organic fruits and vegetables. Conventionally grown products may contain harmful herbicides and pesticides which have been shown to have a counter effect for fertility, in both men and women. This claim has been backed up with an extensive meta-analysis in 2014 by the British Journal of Nutrition, which found that organic crops have higher concentrations of a wide array of antioxidants and other potentially helpful compounds, and tend to have lower pesticide residue.
Here is a guide for your fertility diet journey:
- Eat Cold-Water Fish — They are rich in Omega 3 or essential fatty acids which help to boost hormone production, reduce inflammation, and help regulate the menstrual cycle. Salmon, tuna, and sardines are the best recommended cold-water fishes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that women trying to conceive can safely consume up to 12 ounces per week of low-mercury fish.
- Consume Organic, Grass-fed, Whole Fat Dairy, if you must — These are the best choices for dairy sources if you are unable or unwilling to eliminate dairy from your diet. Dairy that is not organic should be avoided as it can often contain added hormones and antibiotics which act as hormones and can contribute to increased estrogen levels or estrogen like effects in the body. Fresh almond or hemp milk are recommended as better alternatives to dairy, if you fancy.
- Grass-Fed and Organic Meat — Conventionally raised livestock animals contain high quantities of hormones and antibiotics which act as hormones that can contribute to estrogen dominant conditions in the human body. On the other hand, grass-fed meats are a great source of natural fatty acids and protein.
- Add high fiber foods on your meals — Reduction of fertility issues associated with conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is one of the benefits of fiber as it helps to regulate blood sugar levels. It also promotes a healthy hormonal balance. Great fiber-rich foods for your meals are fruits, vegetables, and beans. Important note, with a high fiber diet, is that it is key for you to also drink lots of water.
- Avoid artificially flavored fruit juices and refined sugars — Sterilized juices such as bottled fruit juices contain concentrated sugar which can spike your blood sugar levels and negatively affect your immune system. Some great alternatives to consider are eating more fruits directly or consuming home squeezed or freshly pressed juices. If you must have a sweetener consider more natural options like maple syrup or honey.
- Eat grains in whole, natural form — Important vitamins, fiber, and immune-supporting properties are present in whole grains. Fiber is known to help the body eradicate excess hormones and toxins. It also helps to keep your blood sugar stabilized and boost satiety (i.e keep you from feeling hungry too soon). During the period of trying to conceive, you may want to rethink consuming refined white foods and grains like semolina pasta, white rice, and white bread. Instead, consider having more whole wheat bread, pasta, quinoa, and brown rice.
- Avoid Soy unless fermented — Estrogen-mimicking properties are present in soy foods. It is best to avoid processed soy foods like soy burgers, soy protein powder, soy chips, soy meats, and soy milk. These foods may have a negative impact on your hormonal balance, especially if you’re suffering from hypothyroidism.
- Drink lots of water — Apart from flushing body waste and regulating body temperature, drinking an adequate amount of water could stimulate circulation and improve the health of your eggs or sperm. It is best to avoid bottled water as some plastic containers can have chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) which can leach into the water and cause disruptions in your hormonal balance due to its estrogen-mimicking chemicals.
Diet is an integral aspect of boosting fertility and the immune system. Regardless of fertility issues, location, age, and time, eating a fertility diet is something valuable that you can do with much control. We all eat for good nutrition and lifestyle, so why not consume foods that support your fertility?
Although your taste buds may miss indulging daily steak and cold soda pop, your body will surely thank you for introducing healthy yet hearty dishes that are friendly for your fertility and your general health. All the best for your conception!