I’ve officially reached that age where most of my friends have had kids, are having kids or are desperately trying to have kids. And between them, or should I say us as I include myself in this group, we represent a fairly good cross section of society with many healthy births, some suffering miscarriage, some triumphant in IVF, others less so, some faced with difficult decisions during pregnancy, others still hoping to conceive and some facing the prospect of not realising their dreams of natural parenthood and instead looking to fostering and adoption.
None of it can be explained!
Nature is brilliant and cruel in equal measure and fertility is proving to be somewhat of a lottery in modern times but increasingly I hear friends talking about fertility diets and self-help methods to increase the odds of concieving. But do they work and what should we all be aware of when eating to concieve?
This article is intended as a guide for those interested in fertility nutrition and does not replace professional medical and nutritional advice. It provides a summary of general advice in the public domain with a few extra considerations that I have added as a Registered Nutritional Therapist and Dietary Educator.
The first interesting thing that emerges is how much of our reproductive health depends on our overall hormonal health, and the ongoing production and balance of important sex hormones known as steroids. This process effectively starts at birth and hormones such as oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone see us through all stages of growth, puberty, reproduction and in women into menopause. I mention the word balance as it is the levels and interaction between these hormones that ensure the body and our reproductive system function as well as possible.
So when we talk about eating to improve fertility, do we really mean eating to ensure our hormone balance and functionality are as healthy as they can be to facilitate the possible fertilisation of an egg by a sperm?
Yes. And in this sense it is equally important for the man as well as the woman as it takes “two to tango” as the saying goes.
Most people turn to the web as their go-to for information and if you google “fertility diet” this is an example of the definitions you might find ….
A Natural Fertility Diet is a way of eating that is supporting your body in its reproductive efforts. It includes foods which are dense in specific nutrients needed for hormonal function, production and balance, fetal development, egg health, sperm health, blood health, and much more. (http://natural-fertility-info.com/fertility-diet)
So how can we help our hormone health?
You might want to sit down as I’m about to launch the word “Fat” into the equation. The words diet and fat don’t tend to go hand-in-hand but there are many good and useful fats which the body needs to function efficiently.
Cholesterol is a key element in the development of steroid sex hormones oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone and is also the main component in cell membranes and yet it is constantly talked about negatively. A range of healthy fats is necessary for a) health and b) reproduction. These may include polyunsaturated fats (think oils and oily fish) as well as saturated fats (more solid fats) found in dairy products like butter, milk, eggs, as well as animal fats and vegetable fats such as coconut oil, nuts and seeds. The word balance is once again key. Too much cholesterol is often attributed to heart disease and other serious illnesses but on the flip side it’s a necessary fat in reproduction and the duplication of cells.
Women wishing to concieve are often advised to increase their “healthy fat” intake as the modern trend for low fat or fat free products can mean we’re not consuming enough good fats to aid this process. Once again I turned to the web to see how low cholesterol could effect fertility and here’s what I found.
For women, lack of adequate levels of cholesterol in the body can be a real issue of hormone imbalances, which may affect fertility. (http://www.portlandnaturalfertilityclinic.com/cholesterol-hormones-fertility/)
Fatty acids are essential in hormone and cell health and so the family of oils (olive oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, sesame oil etc) all have a role to play in the diet. These oils when consumed in their natural format, eg. not fried or used in roasting, but eaten cold such as when drizzled on salads etc, contain important health properties.
Essential fatty acids omega 3 & 6 are found in oils, nuts, seeds, cold water fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, trout and are essential as the body cannot produce them so they have to be consumed either in the diet or via supplements. Once again they perform a number of tasks in ensuring the smooth functioning of our sex hormones as follows:
- Regulate hormones
- Increase the blood flow to the uterus
- Reduce sensitivity to the hormone prolactin, which can suppress ovulation.
- increases egg white cervical mucus, which is needed to help the sperm reach the egg.
- Helps your cycle to become normalized.
Oestrogen itself prepares the body for pregnancy by increasing our fat reserves so that in times of fast or famine we have enough fat stores to keep an embryo well nourished. And progesterone, also known as the pregnancy hormone, (meaning pro-gestation) is responsible for the nutritional health of the embryo once pregnancy occurs by supplying vital vitamins and minerals throughout the pregnancy. But returning to this issue of balance, it’s important that these two hormones are balanced in the body to firstly enable conception and secondly aid the ongoing development of the foetus. High levels of progesterone in the body can actually inhibit conception. Our hormones work very closely together so the smallest of imbalances can make one overly dominant and shift this balance.
Most women are aware of the supplementation of folic acid pre and during pregnancy to aid the development of a healthy foetus, by significantly reducing the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs), such as spina bifida. However, little is ever mentioned about cholesterol and fatty acids.
For more info on folic acid:
Another consideration is the impact of stress on our reproductive system. Trying to concieve can often be stressful in itself especially if other factors are involved such as fertility treatment. We hear stories of unsuccessful IVF treatments where the minute the couple stop, (and most probably relax), they then concieve naturally. Stress has an overwhelming impact on all systems within the body and one of the things prolonged chronic stress can do is inhibit our growth and sex hormones whilst the body fights and reacts to the stressful situation. So relaxation combined with diet may help with stress management and ensure hormones continue to function as optimally and balanced as possible.
See the Kalila article on “Modern-day stress” for more information.
Eating a wide and varied range of foods whilst trying to conceive can help provide a balanced range of nutrients; vitamins and minerals. The body requires optimal levels of these micro-nutrients to perform everyday metabolic tasks, support out immune system, aid detoxification process and promote healthy growth. We’ll look at these in more detail in an upcoming article.
So in this brief article looking at fertility diets I discovered that balance is the key. Balance in our diet and balance of our hormones. There are some good fats out there that can certainly help us maintain healthy and balanced hormone functionality. And there are a wealth of experts in this field working towards a more functional approach combining traditional medicines, fertility expertise with nutritional know-how.
I am a BANT/CNHC Registered Nutritional Therapist. For further information or to book a consultation please visit clairesambolino.com