The Fertile Woman: Nutritional Advice to Help You Conceive
Many women are facing infertility problems. It is a problem that affects at least 186 million people worldwide, with an estimated 15.5% of women in the USA experiencing infertility. Medical advances such as In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) have increased the medical and alternative health community’s interest in understanding the causes and effects of infertility.
Functional medicine, a preventative strategy that takes an wholistic approach to managing wellbeing has looked at the role of nutrition in female fertility. Nutritional status has been found to play an important role in male and female fertility alongside pre-existing ovulation problems, spermatogenesis, presence of disease, age, weight and certain lifestyle choices (eg. smoking, alcohol, stress and sleep) which all play a vital role. Those that drink or smoke significantly reduce their chances of conception.
Before fertilisation even occurs the sperm and the ovum need to exist within a healthy and well-nourished parent environment. This is done by looking at reducing stress and eating well. Nutritional deficiencies during pregnancy can also contribute to risk factors around miscarriage and birth defects, so the emphasis on nutritional optimisation is essential at this stage.
There are several dietary changes that women and men alike can make to boost their fertility. Studies have shown that the most fertile women eat a nutritionally balanced diet devoid of trans-fats and sugars (including high fructose drinks and alcohol), consume more vegetable protein, have an increased multi-vitamin intake, increased iron intake and maintain an optimal weight. Weight has been shown to be a key factor in optimising fertility. Those women that are underweight are at risk of anovulation (cessation of ovulation) and in overweight women fertility decreases by 5% for each unit increase in the Body Mass Index (BMI) exceeding 29.
Studies have shown that adopting a Mediterranean diet can improve a person’s chances of conception, enhance foetal health and reduce the risk of preterm birth. Increasing evidence also shows that a balanced ratio of Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids can also improve reproductive success. Taking a supplement, upping your fatty fish or egg yolk intake or eating flaxseed can help with this.
In addition to making dietary adjustments, men and women are advised to ensure they are taking the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of multi vitamins and minerals. These essential micronutrients should be prescribed if necessary. A blood test can indicate a deficiency if you are not sure.
Vitamins D, E, C should be supplemented to enhance optimal nutrition and help maximise fertility. Supplementation of Vitamin D where exposure to sunlight is limited or where long periods of time are spent indoors is advisable. Supplementation is also beneficial in improving neonatal well-being and can be useful as a preventative for pre-eclampsia. Research also shows that folic acid enhances fertility and is recommended when a woman decides she would like to try for a baby. Other micronutrients such as B6 , B12, lipoic acid, selenium, zinc, essential fatty acids and Omega 3 are all important. A diet containing Coenzyme Q10 can increase sperm motility in males and increase fertility in ageing females.
Whilst infertility research is mainly focused on female health, much more attention is being paid recently to male fertility and semen health. Sperm quality is also affected by lifestyle factors and general nutrition so an optimal diet is also essential for men.
The role of soy in the diet is controversial. Research shows that the isoflavones contained in soy mimic natural oestrogen and can act as an endocrine disruptor. Comprehensive research on soy and its links with fertility is still lacking so couples trying to conceive are advised to avoid soy products.
A recent study has shown that there is increasing evidence linking male infertility to exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals and that exposure could start as early as conception. Opting for organic foods, reducing plastic and canned foods in everyday life and washing hands regularly are a few ways to decrease your exposure.
When the body is under acute stress, cortisol levels rise, compromising the body's immunity. A weakened immune system can affect fertility. A study conducted by the National Institute of Health has shown that women who have higher levels of alpha-amylase (an enzyme produced when the body is stressed) found it more difficult to conceive. Stress also affects male fertility by lowering the quality of sperm and semen. Both men and women need to manage stress effectively to increase the likelihood of conception.
Sleep deprivation also has detrimental effects on the body, including the menstrual cycle, so a good night's rest enhances fertility. Research suggests that lack of sleep causes activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and abnormal circadian rhythms that are linked to infertility.
Optimising nutrition and cellular micronutrients is a fundamental starting point for maximising fertility. The most important advice for couples trying to conceive is to maintain a well-balanced diet focused on increasing vegetable protein, optimising vitamin intake (especially D, E and C) and ensuring that the diet contains sufficient iron, fibre and other useful micronutrients such as Omega 3, Coenzyme Q10 and folic acid. Eating organic where possible to reduce chemical exposure and opting for a Mediterranean diet is also recommended.
In summary, lifestyle and nutrition play a fundamental role in maximising fertility. They are amongst the most promising interventions and strategies for improving fertility for both men and women.