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Nutrition for Fertility

This article takes a look at the issues many couples are experiencing with falling pregnant and gives some solid nutrition and lifestyle advice to help both men and women boost and preserve their fertility levels.

Although today, as many as 1 in 7 couples has difficulty conceiving, it is reassuring to know that in most cases, infertility is a temporary condition, often caused by nutritional deficiencies or toxin accumulation. Many couples resort to IVF treatment without first considering natural infertility treatments which are often cheaper, less invasive, safer, generally more effective and often offering better health outcomes in the long run for both mother and baby.

The good news is that more and more research has been identifying modifiable risk factors that may impact fertility. Understanding these modifiable risk factors, recognising the extent to which one or more may be affecting your chances of falling pregnant and addressing them is the first step to improving your fertility naturally.

Fertility in decline

Over the last 60 years, fertility rates have been on the decline in the UK, and around the world, and even more so in more recent years. Setting aside the ageing population factor, why have fertility rates fallen, despite advances in medicine and technology? On one hand, women are deciding to have children later in life when their natural fertility rate may have started to decline. On the other hand, environmental factors are thought to be affecting both the quality and quantity of sperm in many men. A 2017 study found that over 21% of men may be in need of fertility treatment, up from just 12% in 2004.

More and more research indicates that increased radiation exposure from men keeping mobile phones in trouser pockets, or using their laptops on their laps, is one possible culprit for suboptimal sperm quantity, morphology and motility. Some of the other factors that may contribute to this fall in fertility include:

  • Chemicals, including paint, solvents, pesticides which can have an adverse effect on the quality of sperm.

  • Poor quantity and quality of sleep

  • Alcohol, drugs and tobacco

  • Depression and stress

  • Eating junk, processed food

Nutrition and lifestyle factors affecting fertility

Weight – Body fat affects fertility in both men and women. Being too overweight or underweight can adversely impact one's chances of conceiving.

Exercise – Exercise has been found to be an effective way of balancing your hormones, managing PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome), reducing sugar cravings and overall improving fertility. Exercise does not mean over-exercising as this can be a stress on the body and raised stress hormones are known to impact fertility. 15-20 minutes exercise a few times a week is sufficient when trying to fall pregnant, combining cardiovascular and weight training. Find ways of increasing your general movement throughout the day.

Stress – Stress is unavoidable and can even be helpful when experienced for a short duration of time and in the appropriate situation. However, chronic, ongoing stress not only adversely affects health, but also impacts fertility. The reason for this is that the sex hormones are made from the same precursors (cholesterol and pregnenolone) as the stress hormones. Stress hormones are our survival hormones and are always prioritised. When people are stressed all the time, they do not have enough of these precursors to produce sex hormones. Stress affects both male and female fertility. If you are planning a pregnancy, learning stress coping mechanisms to restore hormonal balance is as important as exercise and good nutrition. This is why people often find that going on a relaxing holiday results in a successful pregnancy. Stress management includes deep breathing techniques which can be done anywhere and at any time and which have a profound effect on the stress response. Meditation is another stress coping mechanism. Apps such as Headspace, Calm or Buddify can help you get started and offer free trials. Even 10 minutes a day can make a difference. This article goes into more detail on how your body reacts to stress and what you can do to cope with it.

Drugs and alcohol – Drugs and alcohol both contain toxins that harm your eggs and sperm. Cutting them out will give your body a greater chance of performing its natural reproductive functions.

Nutrition – Good nutrition is essential for maximising your fertility. Your body knows when it is malnourished and will try to prevent a pregnancy from occurring in anticipation that it will not have the resources to support both mother and baby for the next nine months. Try to shape your diet to include as many natural, organic, unprocessed foods as possible.

  • Healthy Fats – Despite recent efforts to educate people about the role fat plays in our health, many still believe that fat is bad and should always be avoided. The truth is that healthy fats are essential to our health and are the most important macronutrient for fertility, not only providing our bodies with the energy stores required to sustain a pregnancy, but also acting as the building blocks for our sex hormones. This article goes into greater depth about the 'big fat fraud'. Heathy fats include those found in foods such as: butter, cheese, full-fat natural yoghurt, eggs, ghee, coconut oil, olive oil and oily fish.

  • Sugar, refined carbohydrates and trans fats – A diet that is high in these can lead to insulin resistance. It is well known that insulin resistance can cause PCOS (one of the leading causes of infertility), and can lead to type-2 diabetes. Insulin resistance can also cause oestrogen to be converted to testosterone, which prevents ovulation. Sugar and trans-fats are lurking in most processed foods, but also in some natural ones. Foods like fried fast food, crisps, biscuits, cakes, crackers, frozen pizza, fizzy drinks and pastries have little or no nutritional benefit and can cause havoc with your hormones. Cutting or limiting them is a very good starting point for getting your sex hormones back in working order.

  • A diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables has been found to both increase fertility hormones in women and increase sperm production in men. Be careful not to overdo sugary fruits, such as bananas and oranges, opting instead for lower sugar options, such as berries, kiwis and avocados.

  • Supplements - Various supplements have been found to be helpful for supporting fertility. These include: Vitamins B12, C, D and E, L-carnitine, N-acetylcysteine, coenzyme Q10 and selenium. Always make sure that you consult a doctor or qualified nutritional therapist before beginning a course of supplements as individual people may have individual requirements and responses.

Drinking water - This is probably the most simple factor to take care of right now. Water plays many roles in fertility including creating plump egg follicles and a strong blood supply to the womb lining. Cervical fluid is important for helping sperm to find your eggs and when you are dehydrated, this fluid dries up, affecting the ability of the sperm to travel. We should all be drinking 1 1/2 litres of filtered water each day. Gut health - More and more research is highlighting the important role that gut health plays in many aspects of health, including fertility. Poor gut health and an imbalanced gut microbiome can lead to obesity, PCOS and hormonal imbalances, all of which have an impact on fertility. Including gut-friendly foods such as kimchi, kefir, high-fibre foods and taking a good probiotic can help to restore gut balance. Environmental toxin exposure - Many people do not realise just how prevalent toxins are in our environment. Toxins are present in the air, in your water, in cleaning products and in food containers. When drinking bottled water, avoid soft plastics as these often contain bisphenol A and phthalates, which are thought to increase infertility. Instead favour glass or hard plastic containers.

Acupuncture for fertility

Acupuncture, the practice of inserting tiny needles at specific points in the body, has been used in Chinese medicine for millennia. One of its many reported applications is for increasing fertility. It is thought that acupuncture can mediate the release of chemical messengers in the brain that control the release of pregnancy hormones. It may also stimulate blood flow to the uterus, making embryo implantation more likely, and lower stress hormones. While the evidence for a direct impact on fertility is mixed, acupuncture's effect on stress is well documented, which makes it a viable supplementary treatment for anyone hoping to fall pregnant.

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