- Fertility & Reproductive Systems
The best diet for fertility health
I have an acquaintance who is 42 and who is currently trying to fall pregnant. She has been trying for about two years now, and has even visited a fertility clinic to find out why she cannot conceive. She claims she has what is termed ‘unexplained infertility’, but this person also drinks heavily, smokes like a chimney ‒ as does her husband ‒ and is quite overweight. As far as I can tell, there is nothing ‘unexplained’ about her inability to conceive. But then again, I am no doctor… It just makes sense to me: if you’re trying to conceive, cut out the alcohol and cigarettes and get yourself in shape.
I have never been overweight or grossly unfit; nor do I smoke. I run; I go to gym and do yoga once a week. But, like most people, I do tend to overindulge sometimes (hence the gym). I have a glass of wine with dinner most nights, and if there is a social occasion, I am a sucker for a few glasses of Limoncello. I am by no means unhealthy, but I still saw the need to cut back on some things and start eating healthier foods when trying to conceive. I also changed what exercise I did and stuck more to yoga and brisk walking than strenuous gym sessions and running.
Optimal Diet for Fertility
An 8-year long study involving over 18 000 women showed how diet can play an extremely important role in fertile health. A healthy diet can prevent, or even reverse, ovulatory infertility, as the study proved. The study showed that the best diet for fertile health is one rich in proteins, healthy fats and whole grain foods. Here’s what was recommended:
Avoid trans fats. Trans fats clog the arteries. Need I say more?
Use unsaturated vegetable oils. Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats improve the body’s sensitivity to insulin, which is vital for fertility. Use more vegetable oils, seeds and nuts in your diet, as well as fatty fish such as salmon or sardines.
Use more vegetable proteins. Cut back on the red meat and go for Brazil nuts or soya beans. Eat more tofu, beans and peas.
Whole milks are better. Skim milk appears to promote infertility. While trying to conceive, switch to whole milk products or have full-fat yoghurt every day. A bowl of ice cream is even allowed. (You’re welcome)
Eat SLOW carbs, not NO carbs. ‘Slow carbs’ are carbohydrates that are digested slowly, thereby controlling insulin and blood sugar levels more effectively.
Take multivitamins. A good fertility multivitamin will contain folic acid (at least 400mg per day) as well as all the other minerals and vitamins you will need for fertile health.
Iron from plants. Extra iron from plants seems to improve fertility. Add whole grain cereals, tomatoes and spinach to your diet.
Water. Keep hydrated with water, not sugar-laden sodas or juices, or caffeinated drinks.
Control your weight. The best Body Mass Index (BMI) for fertility is 20 to 24. If you are below or above that, work towards achieving that by changing your diet and exercise.
As we know, even though fats have the same calories, not all fats are created equal in terms of being bad or good for us. We do need some fat in our diet.
Trans fats (also called hydrogenated fats) and saturated fats, found in animal products and processed foods, are bad for us, as they can raise our cholesterol and cause heart disease.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, derived from plant sources, are the GOOD fats.
Classified as a fat that is liquid at room temperature, but solidifies when chilled.
Monounsaturated fats are known to actually lower bad cholesterol and maintain good cholesterol.
As mentioned before, these fats, with polyunsaturated fats, also improve the body’s sensitivity to insulin.
This fat is found in plant substances such as:
These fats are also liquid at room temperature. They also lower bad cholesterol, but too much of these fats can also lower good cholesterol levels.
Polyunsaturated fats are found in:
Essential Fatty acids or Omega 3
Called ‘essential’ because they are good for our health, but our bodies cannot produce these fats themselves.
They are found in:
cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel or sardines
As stated above, try to eat more plant-based proteins than meat-based. This does not mean you have to become a vegetarian, but rather swap two or three meals per week from meat to vegetable, while trying to conceive. Become a Flexitarian!
Plant-based proteins have been associated with higher fertility rate in women, as opposed to red meat or poultry-based proteins.
Stick to fish (mackerel, herring, sardines and salmon for the fatty acids) and eggs, when eating animal proteins. Do check the source of your fish though, and make sure they are low in mercury levels and are from a sustainable environment.
Go free-rage when possible, when buying eggs.
If you do want to eat poultry, chicken or lean turkey are good choices – but keep it to a minimum. Again, opt for the free-range or organic options if possible.
If you still cannot cut out red meats or pork, then stick to the leanest cuts of those meats, and keep it to a once-weekly event. Also try and buy organic wherever possible, to avoid unwanted toxins.
The best sources of plant proteins are:
soybeans (not too much soy-based products as soy can have an adverse effect on fertility)
Studies have shown that skim milk products can affect fertility by causing an imbalance of hormones, which can cause failure to ovulate or to produce healthy eggs.
Lower fat milks land up containing more male than female hormones.
Studies proved that women who switched to full fat dairy products were 27% less likely to suffer from infertility issues. So rather switch to whole milk or full fat milk products as the healthy fats in milk are actually good for you.
This is not to say you can go ahead and indulge in high-fat ice cream and whipped cream on everything. Just drink a glass or two of full fat milk or have some full fat yoghurt every day.
This was a problem for me as I have only ever used skim milk in my diet. Anything more makes me feel slightly ‘liverish’. But I switched to full fat yoghurt and tried to use half full milk on cereal or porridge, and full fat cheese on bread. I still used skim milk in my tea though!
Go raw milk where possible. Most cows these days are pumped full of antibiotics to counteract infections they are constantly picking up. This obviously affects the milk they produce.
Cows are also treated with a growth hormone called Bovine Somatotropin, which has been linked to early puberty in girls and can cause hormone imbalances in older women.
Pasteurised milk has lost a huge percentage of the vitamins it is supposed to contain, through the heating process.
For this reason, it is essential to try and buy raw milk when trying to conceive. Do your research on raw milk in your area. Make sure it comes from free range, grass-fed cows.
For years, raw milk has been given a hard rap. It is still being drummed into us that soft cheeses, made from raw milk, need to be avoided when trying to conceive, and while pregnant.
However, most evidence these days is pointing to a very different picture, saying that there is absolutely nothing wrong with eating soft cheese made from raw milk, and that the idea that is bad for us is rather antiquated
I found this on realmilk.com :
“It is POSSIBLE for raw milk to harbour dangerous micro-organisms, but it is possible for ANY food, raw or pasteurized, to harbour dangerous micro-organisms. We do not advocate drinking unpasteurized milk from modern Holsteins, bred to produce high volumes of milk, injected with recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), and raised in commercial feedlots where they are crowded and stressed and given antibiotics to keep them from being sick. That milk DOES need to be pasteurized to lessen (not eliminate) the possibility of food-borne illness. We advocate the drinking of raw milk from old-fashioned breeds of cows raised on pasture, with plenty of green grass, sunshine, and room to move. Properly raised and milked in clean conditions, this milk is extremely unlikely to harbour dangerous micro-organisms…in fact, less likely than commercial, pasteurized milk. See our page Two Raw Milks for comparison. Also note the second comment below regarding the relative safety of ALL dairy compared to other foods.”
Do NOT eliminate carbohydrates from your diet. Carbohydrates are essential for energy and a host of minerals and vitamins in your diet.
Rather, choose SLOW carbs – carbohydrates that digest slowly, keeping your insulin at a controlled level, which is essential for hormone balance and fertility.
The same study listed above, involving over 18 000 women, showed that women who ate ‘fast carbs’ or carbs easily digested, such as potatoes, white bread and sugary cakes or sodas, were more likely to suffer from ovulatory infertility.
The women who ate carbs that were digested slowly and were rich in fibre had improved fertility.
Examples of slow carbs are:
whole wheat bread
Non-starchy vegetables such as spinach, tomatoes and asparagus
Fruits such as berries, apples and pears. Avoid tropical fruits such as mango, papaya and pineapple
Low GI (Glycemic Index) foods. Similar to slow carbs in that they raise your sugar levels slowly as they digest, rather than sending them sky-rocketing and then leaving you plummeting down into a sugar-low slump later.
Low GI foods are good for people trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight – which is also essential for fertility. The reason is that they keep you feeling full for longer ‒ so you are less likely to over-eat ‒ as well as giving you sustained energy levels.
Some examples of Low GI foods are:
soy and Linseed bread
whole wheat bread and pasta
For a full list of Low GI foods go to www.the-gi-diet.org
IRON FROM PLANT SOURCES
Adequate iron is needed for fertility health as well as placental development and brain development in the baby, after conception.
There is more iron in vegetables than you think, so don’t assume you need to eat steak every night in order to get your iron intake.
In the study involving those same 18 000 women I keep referring to, results showed that the women taking a daily plant-based iron supplement had a 40% lower risk rate of infertility due to ovarian failure. The same findings to not apply to red meat as an iron source.
So, do also take an iron supplement, especially if you have heavy periods.
Some plants rich in iron include:
A good multivitamin is important when trying to conceive. But some might contain lower amounts than you need of each vitamin, so add to it with extra supplementation if necessary.
For a full list and the benefits of each, see my article on what vitamins and supplements to take for fertile health here.
It seems ridiculous that water should be on the good diet list for optimal fertility health, but the fact is that most of us do not drink enough of it. I know I certainly don’t.
It is essential to remain hydrated – for all your organs, including the reproductive ones.
Water creates better mucus and cervical fluid, which is very important when trying to conceive.
Water is also a good way maintain a healthy weight, or lose weight, as it fills you up and stops you from snacking between meals. Often we are thirsty and not hungry. So when you feel hungry between mealtimes, try downing a large glass of water instead. You’ll be surprised at how easily your ‘hunger pang’ disappears.
I’m not going to wax on about drinking 8 glasses a day (which we all know already), but as long as you remain well hydrated, it is better than nothing.
Try and drink a glass of water after every pee, and before every meal, to keep yourself hydrated.
WHAT TO AVOID
Caffeine. There have been some mixed reviews on caffeine consumption and fertility health, but most studies show that you should curb your caffeine intake.
Studies have shown that about 300mg a day – equivalent to 2 small cups of coffee – will not be harmful to your fertility, but don’t have more than that, if possible.
Some people – me included – would prefer to cut out caffeine altogether when trying to conceive, as it really is healthier for you.
Others have a really hard time cutting out caffeine altogether. People who are used to drinking several cups of coffee a day might suffer withdrawal symptoms, so perhaps it is better for them to try and cut down their intake, rather than eliminate it altogether. Or at least start by slowly reducing the caffeine intake until you are down to a cup or two (at most) a day.
Note that caffeine can have a positive effect on men though, as it increases mobility of their sperm. So give your guy a cup of coffee before sex.
Alcohol. Drinking alcohol while trying to conceive – even one drink a day ‒ can literally halve your chances of falling pregnant. Do you need any more reason to stop?
Alcohol can inhibit the body from absorbing essential nutrients as well, so if you’re taking that multivitamin and drinking alcohol, you’re wasting all those vitamins and minerals, not to mention your money.
The occasional glass of wine or a beer is not going to be detrimental to conception, but rather keep your consumption to one glass at a birthday party, than an every day event.
The best time to cut out alcohol altogether, while trying to conceive, is between ovulation and your next period. The ‘best’ time to have a glass of vino, if you must, is on the first day of your period.
In men, alcohol can cause a decrease in sperm count, as well as less healthy sperm.
Saturated fats. A saturated fat is one that is solid at room temperature. They are directly responsible for raising bad cholesterol levels in our bodies, which can lead to heart disease. They can also harden the arteries, raise our blood pressure, and lead to coronary disease.
Additives and preservatives. MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) is just one well-known additive that causes problems in the body. I, for one, get severe migraines if I eat anything containing MSG or Sodium Benzoate.
Hormones such as oestrogen can be affected by additives and preservatives, which is detrimental to fertility health.
MSG is an additive found in many fast foods as well as flavoured foods such as chips (crisps), meat seasoning and packaged dry goods.
BHA is a preservative found in foods which is also detrimental to fertility health and should be avoided.
If you are a smoker and trying to fall pregnant, you may as well give up now; one or the other.
Smokers are at a much higher risk of infertility than non-smokers (almost twice as high). When you smoke, you are literally allowing thousands (more than 7000) of chemicals into your body. All of them are harmful to fertility, not to mention an unborn child.
increased risk of miscarriage and cancer
damage to the reproductive organs
Studies have shown that not just smoking, but second-hand smoke, can affect your fertility. It is, in fact, just as detrimental to your health as direct smoking.
Smokers have shown an increased chance of suffering a miscarriage, or having ectopic pregnancies.
Smoking can also lead to premature or early menopause in women.
Studies show that women who stop smoking at least two or three months before trying to conceive increase their chance of falling pregnant.
Smoking also causes fertility issues in men. They have a lower sperm count as well as sluggish sperm.
Smoking can even lead to erectile dysfunction in men.
Most importantly, smoking will harm your unborn child.
Hand-in-hand with good diet goes a good exercise routine. For the best forms of exercise to do while trying to conceive, see here
- Change your exercise routine for optimal fertility health
Whether you’re trying to conceive or not, exercise is good for you. Not just to keep your body in shape, but your mind too.
For further reading on fertility health, please see my other articles
- Homeopathic remedies for fertility
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- Using Chinese Herbs for Fertility
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- Crystal healing for fertility
Many people believe in the healing properties of crystals, and use the stones in their everyday life, for myriad reasons. So can crystals weave their magic for fertility issues too?
- Reflexology and fertility
Many women claim that reflexology helped them conceive, despite fertility issues or age-related problems. Here's how it can work for you.
- Progesterone and fertility
Using bio-identical progesterone can help with your fertility issues, before and during pregnancy.
- The Benefits of Acupuncture for Fertility Issues
Can acupuncture help with your fertility issues? In some countries, acupuncture has been used for centuries as a means to help women fall pregnant.
- Vitamins and Supplements for Fertility
Many vitamins and supplements have astounding benefits specifically related to fertility, for men and women.
- The 6 Best Yoga Poses for Fertility
Many fertility issues can be caused by stress. These yoga poses can relieve stress and be incredibly beneficial to your reproductive organs.
- DHEA for age-related fertility issues
For many years, DHEA has been heralded as an anti-aging supplement, but it is now also being used by many older women as a supplement to boost fertility. Here's why: