With cases of sub-fertility on the rise, many couples are trying to figure out what they can do to increase their chances of having a successful pregnancy. In last week’s blog post, I mentioned that there are many factors that can be contributing to sub-fertility. These factors can include damage to Fallopian tubes, ovulation disorders, endometriosis, and uterine or cervical issues in women and sperm concentration issues, sperm motility issues, varicoceles, or genetic conditions in men. It is important to note that sometimes, there is an unknown cause to why either person may be experiencing fertility challenges. While the structural difficulties are beyond my scope as a nutrition coach, improving nutritional and lifestyle imbalances is something that I focus on when working with those who are trying to conceive.
So where do we start? There are several things to take a look at when wanting to optimize your fertility. There is nutrition- are the foods you are eating regularly helping or hindering your fertility? There is your lifestyle- are you unknowingly exposing yourself to environmental toxins? There is stress- are you continually in flight or fight mode? All of these factors can take a hit on our hormonal balance, which ultimately impacts our fertility.
When optimizing fertility, you want to take a close look at what you are eating. While I personally prefer not to label foods as either “good” or “bad,” it is important to recognize if you are eating foods that are enhancing your fertility or impacting your fertility. Many folks are eating a typical Standard American Diet, which features highly processed and refined sugars and flours, low-quality fats, meat from animals raised in confined environments, artificial flavors and colors, and fast foods. Eating the Standard American Diet can lead to higher levels of inflammation, which can ultimately impact our organs and hormonal systems. Moving towards a mostly whole-foods diet can greatly reduce any inflammation within the body, while also giving your body’s nutritional reserves a boost. If you (and your partner) are hoping to conceive, it is often a good idea to take a high quality prenatal or multi-vitamin to help round out any deficiencies you may be having through diet. When sourcing a multi, it is important to look for one from whole food sources that is not using synthetic blends (which many low-quality vitamins unfortunately use).
When you are ready to start planning to have a baby, it is often recommended to give yourself at least three-to-four months to prime your body along with your partner’s (unless using a sperm donor). I once read a great analogy that perfectly described why this preparation time is so crucial. A growing baby was compared to a seed. We can plant that seed in the soil and hope that it grows into a healthy plant…but wouldn’t it make sense to ensure that the soil is rich in nutrients and is the ideal environment to help that seed thrive? We want to approach conception in a similar way. By nurturing our bodies to prepare for pregnancy, it gives our future baby the best chance to thrive.
As you removed processed and refined foods out of your cabinets and fridges and begin to make room for fertility boosting foods, there are some key foods/food groups to focus on. The first group of foods to focus on are dark green vegetables (think broccoli, bok choy, kale, spinach, collard greens, Swiss chard). Dark green vegetables are often missing from most of our plates, but they are chalk-full of nutrients and health benefits. When you examine various green vegetables, you will see that they are high in calcium, magnesium, non-heme iron, potassium, phosphorus and zinc. They also contain vitamins A, C, E, and K while also being a great source of fiber, folate, and chlorophyll. One of the nutrients found in green vegetables, zinc, plays a key role in both men and women’s fertility. Zinc, unfortunately, does not get stored in the body so it is necessary to seek out zinc-rich sources of food daily. For males, a zinc deficiency can impact sperm count and motility. In women, a zinc deficiency can be impact follicle stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, cycle lengths, and a handful of other issues. Zinc can also help with ovulation, too. Besides the dark green vegetables, additional sources of zinc include oysters, beef, shiitake and crimini mushrooms, sesame seeds, and pumpkin seeds.
Along with dark green veggies, another great food source to add to your diet is consuming bone broth which is full of collagen and gelatin. I vividly remember the first time I heard someone talking about bone broth. A former colleague of mine was sipping on a thermos full of broth and I was completely disgusted. The image that I conjured up of what bone broth was completely weirded me out. Fast forward four or so years later and bone broth is now a staple in our home and is something I actually enjoy simmering on the stove! But why is bone broth key for fertility? Besides treating leaky gut, boosting your immune system, reducing inflammation, and helping with sleep, it can also help with supporting digestion, balancing hormones, and is full of easy-to-absorb minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, and sulfur. Just a note, bone broth is quite different than the usual containers of stock you find at the store. Bone broth is made with a variety of well-sourced bones (usually either from chicken or cows) with some herbs/vegetables and filtered water. One of the nutrients found in bone broth (along with green veggies), magnesium, can help keep prolactin hormones low for women who are not lactating. Luteinizing hormone is suppressed by prolactin levels that are elevated. When prolactin levels are elevated, ovulation does not occur. Other sources of magnesium include kelp, almond, cashews, Brazil nuts, and dulse.
The last food group that I will focus on within this post are high-quality omega-3 fatty acids. This type of fatty acids cannot be created by the body, so it is key that we are consuming them in our diet. In women, omega-3s help improve the cervical mucus quality, increase the flow of blood to the reproductive organs (also helps in men), and helps with overall inflammation in the body. Other key benefits to consuming omega-3s in women include increasing concentrations of progesterone and DHA (which improves chances of ovulation), helps regulate hormones, assists with implantation, and can help prevent miscarriages. Sources of omega-3 fatty acids include wild salmon, mackerel, herring, and halibut. If you are not a fan of seafood, additional sources of omega-3s include freshly ground flax seed, chia seeds, and raw walnuts.
While some people might now feel the urge to supplement with these single nutrients I mentioned above, it is important that we try to source our nutrients from actual foods as often as possible. Foods come with a plethora of nutrients that work synergistically and are the most potent. There is definitely a time and place to supplement, and it is important to work with your health care provider or a trained nutrition coach to ensure you having the correct balance. Also, please keep in mind that the foods and nutrients above are not an exhaustive list on how to boost your fertility via nutrition. If you have additional questions, please do not hesitate to send me a message.
Next week, I will do a deeper dive into additional fertility boosters that are in relation to lifestyle behaviors. Thank you for taking the time to read this post!