For many people, a bouncing baby comes along nine months or so after they decide to try for one. However unfortunately this is definitely not the universal experience and many struggle to conceive a baby or have multiple miscarriages.
A balanced diet and a healthful lifestyle can significantly enhance your fertility and optimise your preconception period. In this blog, I’ve outlined the key areas of nutrition to support either parent. I also explore some of the metabolic, immunological and environmental reasons why there might be fertility issues to consider. I hope these tips pave the way to help you conceive easily and have a healthy and straightforward pregnancy.
When I first starting practicing as a naturopath over 25 years ago, I specialised in working with couples during their fertility journey and some of these babies are now having babies themselves! At the time I carried out additional training with Foresight Preconception who pioneered the concept of personalised nutrition for fertility for over 40 years, as well as with Dr Gowri Motha who is a world-renowned pregnancy and childbirth expert and who leads The Gentle Birth Method.
In the time since I started, many things have changed and traditional couples are far from the only way of conceiving. The tips below are some of the key things that I have learnt over the years that I have found can make all the difference to fertility outcomes, whether you are trying naturally, via IVF, solo or in a same sex relationship. I cover considerations for couples and also for people of either sex or gender. Please take from this what is appropriate to your own situation and don’t assume too much of the roles of the people in the image above!
Very often a couple are in a rush to conceive, so it’s worth remembering that it takes approximately 100 days (3 months) for both an egg and a sperm to mature and to be released, and this is a time that is important to optimise your nutrition to ensure the egg and sperm are the healthiest and fittest they can be. Therefore, any changes you make to your diet and lifestyle should be as consistent as possible for at least three months, ideally six, to have a significant influence on your fertility.
Not all fertility issues can be solved by nutrition alone, so whilst this blog helps to spark up some hope to conceive more easily as a couple, you may also need additional input via medical fertility treatments. In my experience I have found that these nutritional foundations can help enormously to set up the right environment in the body to give fertility treatments a better chance. For instance one study found that greater adherence to the Mediterranean Diet prior to IVF meant that they were likely to obtain more embryos during the IVF cycle.
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Essential fatty acids
Essential fatty acids, such as omega-3, are found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies and shellfish as well as flaxseeds, chia seeds, hulled hemp seeds and walnuts. Essential fatty acids can help regulate hormones and enhance the quality of the uterine lining which is important for implantation. This uterine lining is essential for providing nourishment to an embryo. When the lining is thin, the body finds it harder to sustain an embryo and the growing foetus and a miscarriage may occur.
Professor Michael Crawford of Imperial College London is considered the “godfather” of omega-3 fatty acids and his research has found that consuming plenty of oily fish and seafood in the 3-4 months prior to conception not only enhances fertility but also sets up a healthy pregnancy with less likelihood of developing gestational diabetes, pre-term birth or low-birth weight. And even better, the baby tends to have an easier start to life with a trajectory of good intelligence, optimal neurodevelopment and is less likely to develop atopic diseases such as eczema, asthma and allergies.
Vitamins and minerals
Ensuring a diet abundant in vital nutrients is paramount for both men and women looking to conceive a baby. These nutrients act as building blocks and energy sources to prepare the body for optimal fertility. The essential vitamins for fertility include vitamin E, vitamin D, folate, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12.
If supplementing, choosing the right folate is very important for fertility outcomes. Around 60% of people carry genetic codes called MTHFR C677T or MTHR 1298C and others can inherit further genetic codes associated with compromised folate metabolism. This means that synthetic folate (known as folic acid) found in standard vitamin supplements and some fortified breakfast cereals are not synthesised or “methylated” properly and the folate has the potential to get stuck in the blood and therefore does not reach the important cells that need it such as within the reproductive organs. Ways around this include eating plenty of foods naturally rich in folate such as mixed salad leaves, leafy green vegetables, broccoli, cabbage, green beans and eggs, as well as pulses and legumes. If you need to take a folate supplement, then look for one which is labelled methyl tetrahydrofolate or calcium l-folinate and ditch the synthetic folic acid.
In terms of minerals there are a number that are important; in particular, zinc, selenium, iron and calcium play vital roles in promoting fertility. They contribute to the proper function of female reproductive hormones and sperm production. These are found in natural foods such as seafood, meat, mushrooms and pulses as well as seeds and dark chocolate. You will read later on that these are also important for optimal thyroid health.
Protein, fats and carbohydrates
Maintaining a balanced intake of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates is integral for fertility. Opt for natural proteins, healthy full-fat foods, and complex carbohydrates where possible and avoid ultra-processed protein sources, low-fat dairy or refined white flour and modified starches.
Protein sources can include grass-fed, wild or organic meats and poultry; fish, seafood and shellfish; eggs; cheese and live yoghurt; pulses and legumes; and also a mix of nuts and seeds.
For fats, focus on monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in avocados, olive oil, and fatty fish.
Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains (brown rice, whole wheat pasta, jumbo oats, pearl barley), pulses (lentils, chickpeas and beans such as kidney beans and cannellini beans), whole fruits, salads and vegetables can provide a steady supply of energy and fibre.
These guidelines loosely follow the Mediterranean Diet which is a keystone diet for fertility and overall health.
Optimal thyroid function in females is essential for fertility. Both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism can interfere with ovulation, causing problems with fertility. Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) levels should ideally be between 1 and 2 mU/L, any lower the thyroid is working too fast, and any higher the thyroid is working too slowly. In some countries, people are not accepted for fertility treatment if TSH is over 2.5 mU/L, even though in the UK the threshold for thyroid medication is 4.2 mU/L.
At NatureDoc we also suggest that thyroid antibodies are checked in case there is some autoimmune thyroid activity that needs supporting prior to conception. Testing for Thyroglobulin antibodies and Thyroid Peroxidase antibodies are not currently available on the NHS through a GP and you would need a referral to an endocrinologist to get them done. A full thyroid panel including thyroid antibodies can be done privately and relatively affordably through a NatureDoc practitioner.
Nutrients that help to support thyroid health include iodine which is in foods such as cod, dairy products and seaweed; selenium, which is abundant in Brazil nuts, fish, eggs and pulses; as well as zinc, which is in oysters and other shellfish, dairy products, meat, nuts and seeds.
A vital yet often overlooked factor for fertility chances is ruling out any chronic infections such as sexually transmitted diseases, rubella, toxoplasmosis and beta-haemolytic strep (Strep B) as these all play a role in infertility. It is important to check these in both partners as these infections can affect sperm quality just as much as egg quality. Other infections are thought to potentially affect fertility and some research has found that the Covid-19 virus can play a role in driving inflammation and altering hormonal balance. Many of these infections can all be checked and identified by your GP or a medical specialist in fertility. Once these infections are treated or the immune system is supported and the associated inflammation and oxidative stress are dialled down, then the chances for optimal fertility are likely to be much higher.
Our world is a toxic place to live in right now and the average person is exposed to multiple environmental toxins from microplastics, pesticides, heavy metals in our food chain and pollutants in our air as well as clothing and household cleaning products. Choosing green or natural options where possible will help to bring down the toxic load in both parents which helps with both egg and sperm quality. Aim to minimise plastic exposure, choose organic food or wash your produce well, filter your air or keep windows open and purchase natural clothing, natural personal care products and make-up. These are all things that can make quite a difference to fertility outcomes.
Avoiding harmful habits like smoking, alcohol consumption and recreational drug use, as well as managing stress and maintaining good personal hygiene can also help minimise environmental toxic stresses. Addictive substances such as tobacco, alcohol and drugs can particularly affect sperm count and quality. Many prospective parents choose the months leading up to trying for a baby to kick their negative habits and quit the addictive substances so they can start parenthood without these in tow.
Although it’s fair to say quite a lot of babies are conceived after a few drinks, if that hasn’t happened, then it is definitely worth trying a cleaner living approach. But don’t spoil the joy and romance of conception by getting stressed over too many rules. The same applies if you are solo because stress is not going to help conception. Nutritious home-cooked dinners full of conception-friendly nutrients is a great place to start.
All in all, the path to optimal fertility and preconception involves being mindful about what you eat as well as adopting a healthy lifestyle and daily habits. But remember, individual needs may vary and conceiving a baby can be far from straightforward. So, if you need some additional help with your fertility journey to give it the most positive footing possible, then do be in touch with one of our NatureDoc fertility specialists.
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