If you’re planning for a baby you may have found yourself inundated with well-meaning snippets of advice from friends and family, all with varying degrees of accuracy. “Just relax” anyone?! “Put your legs in the air”?! Please… One thing that actually can make a difference, not only to your fertility, but also to the future health of your unborn child, is your diet.
Studies in epigenetics (how behaviours and environment can affect the way that our genes work) have shown that the future healthof a child can be influenced by the diet, lifestyle and environment of their parents and even their grandparents.
A mind-boggling fact to consider is that girls are born with all of the eggs they will ever have. So, when your grandmother was pregnant with your mother, your mother’s eggs were developing in your grandmother’s womb – including the tiny egg that was eventually to help in the creation of you!
And it’s not just the ladies who can make a difference, but our male partners too. It takes two to make a baby and nutrition can have a huge effect on improving the quality and quantity of sperm.
So, how do we ensure that we’re nourishing our bodies with everything needed to support conception and a healthy pregnancywithout feeling under pressure to follow a regimented meal plan or spending a fortune on pills?
Increasing whole foods and reducing processed foods is a great place to start. The Mediterranean Diet has been shown time and again to have positive effects on both male and female fertility, and health in general. It also goes some way to reducing the risk of pregnancy complications such as gestational diabetes.
Abundant in the nutrients needed for fertility, and more of a healthy lifestyle choice than a prescriptive diet, it’s based around the traditional way of eating in the Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Spain, and incorporates a wide range of delicious healthy food groups. Here are a few simple ways to incorporate the Mediterranean diet:
Fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes (such as beans, lentils and chickpeas), olive oil, nuts and seeds. Think of the rainbow when you’re filling your plate and try to include as many different colours as possible.
Couple of times a week
Fish, seafood, poultry (chicken, turkey etc.), yoghurt and cheese
Red meat is still on the menu but on a less regular basis
In addition to the Mediterranean way of eating, you may want to consider eating organic fruit and vegetables, this has been shown to improve fertility in those who are experiencing infertility. This is likely due to a combination of a higher nutrient content of organic food, as well as the lower pesticide levels. However, if you are finding organic food prohibitively expensive, take a look at the Pesticide Action Network’s “Dirty Dozen” list to find out which fruit and veg to prioritise.
When choosing meat, try to find pasture-raised or grass-fed options as the meat from these animals has been shown to be higher in beneficial Omega 3 fats than grain fed animals.
What about alcohol?
Planning your family and making a baby should be a joyous time – we don’t want to eliminate everything that you enjoy however it’s wise to consider reducing your intake for a while at least. A recent Danish study found that drinking 1-6 alcoholic drinks per week may be linked with higher rates of infertility in women over 30 than in those who drank less than one drink per week. Excess alcohol for the guys can result in disrupted sex hormones which can have an effect on fertility.
The jury is out on this one. A recent study showed links between excessive caffeine consumption and miscarriage however showed little evidence to confirm a link with reduced female fertility. Caffeine can potentially have an effect on sperm quality however more research is needed. It may be wise to cut down if your consumption of tea, coffee or chocolate is high. As for soft drinks, they are known to be detrimental to fertility and should be avoided altogether.
What about supplements for fertility?
When it comes to supplements, here are just some examples of specific nutrients that are needed for optimal fertility for both women and men which a fertility nutritionist would likely ask you to take in addition to a healthy diet:
Most of us have heard of women planning to get pregnant taking folic acid, as it helps to prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida. It has also been shown to reduce the risk of preterm birth and to regulate ovulation. Did you know that folic acid is the synthetic form of folate which is found in nature, otherwise known as Vitamin B9? And it’s not just great for the girls! Higher folate levels in semen have been associated with improved sperm count and quality. Dietary folate can be found in dark green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, beans, lentils and citrus fruits. It’s worth noting that some people are unable to properly make use of the synthetic form found in folic acid supplements. A fertility nutritionist will be able to work with you to decide on the best supplement version of folate for you.
A large proportion of the population in the Northern Hemisphere is deficient in Vitamin D, as we are not able to make it from the sun’s rays during the months of September-April. Many people don’t absorb enough during the summer months either, due to sun safety practices such as covering the skin with clothing and a high SPF. Apart from the more widely reported benefits related to general health and immunity, Vitamin D also has a positive effect on fertility for both men and women. It is possible to overdose on Vitamin D, since this is a fat soluble nutrient. Your fertility nutritionist will work with you to check your current levels, in order to establish your individual need and personalise a supplement plan for you.
Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids
Omega-3 essential fatty acids are highly beneficial when it comes to fertility and have been shown to help with egg quality and also foetal brain development. For the gents, they can significantly improve the motility (or movement) of sperm. We cannot produce Omega-3s ourselves so we need to get them from the food we consume. They are abundant in oily fish (think SMASHT – salmon, mackerel, anchovy, sardine, herring and trout), flax and chia seeds and walnuts. However, most fish is now unfortunately contaminated with toxins so it is not advisable to eat oily fish more than a couple of times per week. This is where a very high quality supplement can come in handy, however it is not advisable to self-prescribe Omega 3 oils, since they may interact with prescription drugs or be unsuitable if you have a medical condition.
When it comes to supplements, it’s important to remember that it’s not “one size fits all”. Every person is an individual and what works for one person could be detrimental to another. There is also a huge range in quality standards across supplement companies. Cheaper brands often use undesirable fillers in their tablets along with suboptimal forms of nutrients which are not easily absorbed by the body. Excessive levels of some nutrients can be harmful so it’s always best to test and check that you are taking the correct dosage. Speak with your healthcare provider before starting a supplement regime or, even better, work with a fertility nutritionist to find out what is best for you and your partner.
There’s a lot to think about but it doesn’t need to be overwhelming. If you would like support with your preconception planning, or if you are facing challenges conceiving, working with a certified fertility nutritionist with the appropriate training will allow you to create a personalised plan that fits with your lifestyle and takes into account your individual circumstances.
The Fertility Nutrition Centre is a safe space for couples to visit and seek a trusted nutritionist who has trained with Sandra Greenbank on fertility for nutrition. For more, visit fertilitynutritioncentre.org