How to maximise your fertility naturally through nutrition
Making the decision to have a child is a wonderful, life-changing moment in life. Having made that decision, the last thing you want is to have difficulty conceiving. Equally, you want the pregnancy to be as smooth, and the baby as healthy, as possible. In the modern world that means reducing your exposure to toxins, getting the appropriate nutrition, and getting your life in order. This blog post will specifically be focusing on the nutrition aspect of fertility.
Overconsumption of sugar, junk and refined food, caffeine, and alcohol, indoor, sedentary lifestyles, and weight issues all contribute to poorer reproductive health. “Being over and under-weight (either parent), can affect the ability to conceive, have a healthy baby and pregnancy, and successful birth,” according to fertility expert Dr Francesca Naish.
Fertility issues are far from just a female concern. According to Swisse Wellness Expert, Dr David Cannata, “It is very important that both parents undertake a preconception health program. It is fairly well established that the health of a woman during preconception not only influences the ability to conceive but is also directly linked to a healthy pregnancy and healthy development of the baby. However, men’s preconception health is also important.”
Cannata adds, “Male sperm health is easily influenced by diet and lifestyle and poor health can be a common factor in couples struggling to conceive. Furthermore, male preconception health can also influence early pregnancy development, so it is important for both parents to undertake in a health program during preconception.”
Research shows that those who follow a program of good preconception care have an increased pregnancy success rate, healthier babies, better births and less complications in pregnancy. A successful outcome is most likely when both parents are involved, and adhere closely to recommendations.
In a 1995 UK study of 367 couples by Foresight and Surrey University, 81 per cent of previously infertile couples who followed a preconception program, successfully conceived a child. Of total births occurring over the two-year research period, there were no miscarriages, perinatal deaths, malformations, or babies admitted to intensive care. According to the study authors, a normal expected outcome for a sample of its size, would have been 70 miscarriages and six malformations. In fact, prior to undertaking the health program, 38 per cent of the participating couples had previously been impacted by miscarriage, 11 per cent by therapeutic abortion, three per cent by still birth, two per cent by malformations, and one per cent by SIDS.
The following dietary changes are recommended, preferably four months or more before trying to get pregnant. Raw, steamed, stir-fried and dry-baked are the healthiest cooking methods. Adequate daily dietary protein (either plant or animal), fatty acids and the rainbow of antioxidant, vitamin and mineral rich vegetables, are particularly integral to embryo development. Organic foods are recommended. A number of studies show these are higher in nutrients. They are also free of genetically modified (GM) ingredients, and endocrine-disrupting pesticides and herbicides.
– Alcohol (poisonous to foetal health, eggs and sperm). Mineral water can be used as a replacement.
– Coffee and caffeine-containing foods and beverages.
– Junk food.
– Trans fats (found in some margarine, deep fried foods, heated oils, snack foods, crisps, crackers, cookies, frozen foods like fish fingers and spring rolls, commercial pastries and pies, pastry). Trans fats play havoc on your hormones and are toxic to human health.
– Processed meats (contain carcinogenic nitrate preservatives).
– Organ meats (if not organic). Organs store toxins such as pesticides and heavy metals. If organic, organ meats are highly nutritious.
– Sausages and mince meat (if made from organs).
– Cow milk and cheese (irritates the mucosa, including the gut and reproductive organs. Goats’ and sheep’s milk and cheese (organic only) are generally better tolerated. Soft cheeses may also contain bacteria.)
– Sugar, honey, sugar substitutes, fruit juice, soft drinks.
– White flour and refined carbohydrate products, cakes, biscuits. (Sugar and refined carbs sap your body of nutrients including zinc and folate).
– Pre-prepared sauces.
– Peanut butter (high in unhealthy fats and sugar).
– Dried fruit (contains sugar and preservatives, and potentially, mould).
– Saturated fats (found in meats, dairy products). Too many can negatively impact the very essential fatty acids, and are pro-inflammatory. Trim off excessive fat on meat. Toxins accumulate in fat if the animal is not organically raised.
– Salt. (Too much salt negatively impacts fluid and mineral balance.) Use sparing amounts of high quality sea or rock salt.
– Soy products (Too much soy may inhibit mineral absorption and disrupt the endocrine system, and is often genetically modified. Fermented tempeh, tamari or miso are okay in small amounts.)
– Purified water – six to eight glasses daily. (Tap water may contain heavy metals, pesticides and other toxins).
– Dandelion, chicory and herbal teas.
– Organic, naturally low-caffeine, black or green tea (2 cups daily maximum).
– Healthy fats from avocado, tahini, nuts, nut spreads, cold-pressed oils such as virgin olive and flaxseed. The latter should always be kept in the fridge. Avoid heating oils, especially do not use flaxseed for cooking.
– Raw juices and salads, especially based on vegetables, greens and herbs.
– Vegetables in a variety of colours. (These should make up at least 40 per cent of your diet).
– Fruit (No more than 2 to 3 pieces per day, due to fructose content, and eaten whole rather than juiced).
– Fresh herbs (like parsley, watercress, basil, coriander, thyme and mint) for additional minerals.
– Protein foods in each meal. If you’re vegetarian look to nuts, legumes or pulses, grains and seeds for your amino acids. Quinoa and buckwheat are good examples of high-protein grains.
– Eggs (free-range, certified organic).
– Fresh, raw and unsalted nuts (stored in the fridge, or the freezer if longer than two weeks, to avoid the oil going rancid and triggering a free radical cascade). Bitter tasting nuts are rancid and should be discarded. Walnuts, high in antioxidants, and almonds, high in calcium, minerals and fibre, are particularly valuable.
– Legumes and pulses, such as lentils, chickpeas, split peas and beans.
– Certified organic red meat up to three times a week.
– Fish three times a week. Avoid large fish (often high in mercury) and farmed fish. Choose smaller, deep-sea, wild-caught fish, such as sardines, anchovies, herring, flatfish, haddock, and mackerel, and (only if verified wild-caught) salmon and rainbow trout.
– Wholegrain, organic grains.
– Organic, sugar-free yoghurt.
Dr David Cannata sums it up, “When trying to conceive, both men and women may benefit from reducing the intake of processed foods, trans-fats, sugar and caffeine (though one coffee a day is fine). You may also want to avoid or restrict the consumption of alcohol and smoking. Heavy metal (mercury and lead) contamination of food may also impair reproductive health, so you may want to opt for alternatives with less heavy metal contamination risk.”
Since you are trying to be as toxin-free as possible when conceiving, it makes sense to think about the utensils you use when preparing and eating your food. Use stainless steel, ceramic, glass or cast iron (unless you have raised iron levels) cookware, and beeswax or paper food wrappings. Avoid microwaving food and try not to use plastic containers, plastic utensils, plastic wrap (chemicals in plastic can leach into food and drinks), and aluminium or non-stick cookware that may contain toxic metals and chemicals.
Key nutrients and helpful supplements.
In addition to a healthy, balanced diet, some level of supplementation is recommended, given the high demands of pregnancy, and the prevalence of nutrient deficiency in our population.
When asked to recommend his top two nutrients for conception Dr David Cannata says, “If I had to recommend two key nutrients to support male fertility they would be zinc and Coenzyme Q10. Low zinc levels can be common amongst men so it is important to take Zinc because it supports testosterone levels and sperm production. Coenzyme Q10 is an antioxidant which can protect sperm from free radical damage and also plays a role in cellular energy production, which is important for sperm motility.”
When it comes to women Cannata indicates, “Folic acid and iron would be the obvious recommendations for women trying to conceive to support early development and healthy fertility. After these two, research is showing the importance of selenium in egg maturation and early development.”
Dr Francesca Naish says, “Folic acid and zinc play a key role in closure of the neural tubes (on day 27 or 28 of your pregnancy). Deficiency can result in your baby being born with a neural tube disorder, such as spina bifida. However, folic acid only works effectively in the presence of the other B vitamins, so should be taken as part of a B complex. Zinc plays a primary role in male and female reproductive health generally and is our most common deficiency.
Antioxidants especially should be taken by the male, as they minimise the effects of free radical damage. However, all nutrients, essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins and minerals, and all antioxidants, are important in preconception and beyond as building blocks to make a baby.”
Francesca Naish’s recommended key daily nutrients for prospective parents
Note: This is a guide only, not a comprehensive list of all nutrients required. Where a specific health issue or deficiency is being treated, higher dosages may be required. Anyone considering supplementation should consult a qualified GP/dietitian. Overly high doses of some vitamins and minerals (such as iron, iodine, copper, vitamin A and D) can be toxic while certain nutrients are best taken apart or at specific times of day. Vegetarians may need to take supplemental iron and B12. Confirm with a blood test first.
Beta-carotene: 6mg of mixed carotenoids
Vitamin B complex with inositol, choline and biotin
– B1, B2, B3: 50mg
– B5: 100mg
– B6 – 50-250mg (More may be required for progesterone deficiency or PMS)
– Folic acid (B9): 800-1000 mcg
Vitamin C: 2-3g plus bioflavonoids
Vitamin D: best acquired by daily, safe exposures of the skin to sunlight. Only supplement if you’ve had a blood test to assess need.
Vitamin E: 500-1,000iu (mixed tocopherols)
Essential fatty acids (Omega 3 EFAs and DHA): 2-6g from mercury free fish oils.
Calcium: 800 mg increased to 1200mg in the second trimester of pregnancy. Avoid caltrate forms.
Magnesium: 400mg, increasing in second trimester. (Magnesium should be at least half the dose of calcium)
Iodine: As potassium iodide: 10mcg. Important for thyroid function and the baby’s cognitive development. A deficiency in pregnancy can cause cretinism, however high doses of iodine are toxic.
Iron: Dependent on ferritin iron stores.
Zinc: 25-60mg. Greater demand in pregnancy and breastfeeding.