Boost Your Fertility Naturally

You have more control over your fertility than you think! While there’s a lot of focus on eating well during pregnancy and your diet and lifestyle before you conceive can be just as important–not just for conception but for your child’s future health too. Factors that can affect fertility include age, body weight, diet, tobacco smoke, stress, alcohol, exercise, chemicals in the environment, medications, and street drugs. And we’re not just talking for moms here-—dad’s diet and lifestyle count too.

Weight Matters

The female body is very protective of the unborn, even before conception. Conceiving is more difficult if you are underweight or overweight; in fact, 12% of infertility is thought to be due to weight issues. Body fat seems to be the synchronizing factor (or the conductor) for the harmonious hormonal symphony that must take place in order for pregnancy to occur and be carried to term. Because fat cells make estrogen, having too many or too few fat cells affects the amount of estrogen in the body, which therefore affects fertility. It’s best to get closer to your ideal weight before you seek help with fertility treatments since this simple change can often result in normal ovulation and pregnancy. It can also reduce your risk of pregnancy complications and of having a too large or too small baby.

Overweight

For women, excess body fat can affect the amount and types of circulating hormones, which affect fertility. It’s estimated that 25% of ovulatory infertility can be attributed to being overweight. Overweight can be considered both a cause and a result of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). Insulin resistance, which can result from having PCOS or being overweight, is also related to infertility. But there’s good news: just losing 5-10% of total body weight can dramatically improve ovulation and pregnancy rates.

Not to leave out the dads, it’s double trouble if both partners are overweight; it increases the likelihood that it will take more than a year to get pregnant. Overweight men tend to have lower testosterone and increased estrogen levels and decreased ejaculate volume. Men with a BMI >“ 35 are more likely to have a lower sperm count and higher numbers of sperm with DNA damage, compared to normal weight men.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

According to Angela Grassi MS, RDN, author of The PCOS Workbook: Your Guide to Complete Physical and Emotional Health, a healthy eating plan for PCOS often includes a diet comprised of a lower intake of carbohydrates (but not a “low-carb” diet); higher intake of lean protein and higher intake of monounsaturated fats; almost all grains should be whole grains; minimum of 25 g of fiber per day; avoidance of sweet beverages including juice, juice drinks, and soda; daily physical activity; and vitamin D supplementation.

Exercise

Regular exercise is important for good health, and can improve or control many conditions that lead to infertility, including overweight, emotional stress, and PCOS. However, if you or your partner take exercise to the extreme and are having trouble conceiving, you may need to slow down. In particular, men may need to focus on exercise that keeps the groin area cooler, like swimming instead of biking.

Cigarette Smoke: Yours and Theirs

For women, the hazardous chemicals in cigarettes are poisonous to ovaries by decreasing blood flow, interfering with estrogen production, and causing genetic abnormalities to eggs. In men, smoking causes lower sperm count and motility, sperm abnormalities. Smoking can also cause oxidative damage to sperm, which could be responsible for birth defects and other diseases. Second hand (sidestream) smoke can also snuff your fertility. Third hand smoke and ecigarettes both pose risks to health but their effect on fertility is unknown at this point.

A Balanced Diet

A healthy diet for at least three months before conception is recommended for women and men. The “Before Baby Diet” in Eating Expectantly is suitable for women with PCOS. The “Before Baby Diet” differs from MyPlate, in that starchy vegetables are considered in the same food category as grains, to insure that carb content of the diet is not too high. Slow carbs like whole grains, beans, vegetables and whole fruits are recommended as are a variety of lean protein sources like fish, chicken, lean beef, eggs, soy foods, dairy products, legumes, nuts and seeds. Healthy fats are also important-—from foods like avocado, nuts, seeds, olives; olive, canola and nut oils. Foods recommended specifically for the type of fat they contain include walnuts and cold-water fish like salmon. Foods that should be limited are trans fats found in hydrogenated oils and foods made with them like bakery goods and saturated fats.

Vitamin Supplements

Taking a general multivitamin-mineral supplement containing folic acid is not directly linked to improved fertility, but may cut the risk of birth defects and preterm birth. Vitamin D however, is an important nutrient for fertility and many men and women are lacking the “sunshine” vitamin. If you don’t spend much time in the sun, have dark skin or are overweight, you may need a supplement. Many women with PCOS don’t get enough vitamin D: it’s estimated that up to 85% could have vitamin D deficiency. While there is not a lot of evidence for antioxidant supplements and improvements in male or female fertility, it is always a good idea to eat more foods with antioxidants-—see list below. The use of myo-inositol and D-chiro-inositol supplements have been shown to help insulin resistance and hormone levels in women with PCOS-—these improvements could lead to improved fertility.

Alcohol

While many a babe has been conceived after a New Year’s eve party or other celebration, this is not a tradition you want to follow! Alcohol intake by men and women during the week of conception is associated with a higher risk of miscarriage. Alcohol can be found in semen shortly after drinking, thus it can interfere directly with conception, implantation, and it may impact early miscarriage. Even small amounts of alcohol increase the formation of free radicals and the amount of antioxidants you need. So if you were a regular drinker before, you may need to boost your antioxidant intake. For all these reasons, when you’re serious about trying to conceive, both men and women should avoid alcohol. If you choose to have that rare drink while trying to conceive, it’s safer for women to indulge during their period-—the time that ovulation and conception are unlikely.

Emotional Stress

You can’t control all the stress in your life, but you may have more control than you think. Lack of work-life balance can increase stress. Take an inventory of your stress and see how you can decrease it, or deal with it in a healthful way. Make your health and stress level a priority. “Slow” exercise, like yoga, tai chi and Pilates are good for your muscles as well as your mind.

Oxidative Stress and Antioxidants

The antioxidants in your diet play an important role in your fertility. Oxidative stress (the imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants) damage the reproductive system-—and have been linked to problems with sperm motility, number, and DNA damage. Free radicals can affect virtually every step in the reproductive process from egg maturation to pregnancy in women.

That’s why an antioxidant-rich diet, like the Eating Expectantly Diet, for both mom and dads-to-be, could improve your fertility. Examples of antioxidants include NAC, vitamin C, vitamin E, folate, and carotenoids like beta-carotene and lutein, as well as minerals like selenium, zinc, and copper. Folate and zinc have antioxidant properties that affect both male and female fertility.

Here are some antioxidant-rich foods; eat them often.

  • Black raspberries
  • Cranberries, fresh
  • Blueberries, wild
  • Artichokes
  • Pecans
  • Raspberries
  • English walnuts
  • Plums
  • Strawberries
  • Red delicious apple with skin
  • Cherries, sweet
  • Sweet potato
  • Brewed black or green tea

All culinary herbs and spices have antioxidants too, but these have the most: basil, cloves, oregano, rosemary, cinnamon, turmeric, and sage.

Clearly, nutrition and lifestyle play a critical role in fertility. The information presented here is just a small glimpse into how important diet is not only in the odds of conceiving but also in carrying a pregnancy to term and having a child who thrives. Before going through the expense and emotional roller coaster of fertility treatments, it’s wise for a woman who is trying to conceive to work on improving her diet and that of her partner first with the help of a registered dietitian.

bridget swinney

Bridget Swinney, MS, RD, is the mom of two, a freelance writer and author of the books Baby Bites, Healthy Food for Healthy Kids, and Eating Expectantly. The fourth edition of Eating Expectantly was published in 013. She spreads the message about health and nutrition through her consulting practice, speaking engagements, writing, and media. The Eating Expectantly Cookbook, containing recipes and menus, will arrive Fall 2015. You can find more information about Bridget and her books at www.healthyfoodzone.com. Contact her at eatingexpectantly@gmail.com.

eating expectantly

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