Foods for a Healthy Fertility Diet
In fertility diet is important for men and women preparing for pregnancy. In the UK, it is estimated that 1 in 7 couples have trouble conceiving, with poor diet and nutritional deficiencies being a fairly common contributory cause. A diet rich in specific nutrients can help to boost fertility and increase your chances of pregnancy.
The Benefits of a Fertility Diet
Eating certain foods has been shown to improve male and female fertility. The diet provides the building blocks for hormone production and the endocrine glands, which are responsible for fertility, and as a result, has been shown to:
- Improve healthy ovulation and egg production
- Improve sperm count and the motility and morphology (the size and shape) of sperm
- Provide antioxidants to protect eggs and sperm against damage
- Provide fats needed to maintain hormone production and function
- Help those who suffer from anovulation or PCOS
- Build important nutrient stores for pregnancy
- Support foetal development
- Boost energy levels
When planning for pregnancy, it's important to start following a fertility diet as early as possible. It can take three months for a significant change in the quality of sperm and eggs, and certain nutrients are needed before you detect pregnancy to support foetal growth and development.
What Does a Healthy Fertility Diet Involve?
A healthy fertility diet involves eating foods that are rich in specific nutrients, along with several lifestyle habits. A study from Harvard University found an 80% decrease in infertility with a combination of five or more of the following lifestyle factors and specific dietary changes:
- Eating fewer trans fats
- Eating less sugar from carbohydrates
- Eating more proteins from vegetables than from animal sources
- Increasing fibre and iron intake
- Taking a multivitamin
- Achieving a healthy body mass index (BMI)
- Exercising for longer each day
- Eating more high-fat dairy products and less low-fat dairy products
Which Nutrients Are the Most Important?
There are many nutrients and fertility supplements that can help to restore the body's natural balance and improve your chances of conception.
Female Fertility Diet
Healthy egg production and ovulation require proper blood flow and oxygenation, hormonal balance, and good nutrition. Important nutrients for women include:
- Omega 3 and 6: The essential fatty acids found in omega 3 and 6 help to regulate hormones and increase blood flow to the reproductive organs. These fatty acids also increase cervical mucus and promote ovulation.
- Folic Acid: A recent study of 18,000 women showed folic acid significantly improved a woman's chances of getting pregnant by reducing the risk of ovulatory infertility by 40%. Folic acid also supports the healthy development of the foetus in the early weeks of pregnancy.
- Vitamin B12: B12 aids the ovaries in releasing an egg around ovulation and boosts the endometrium lining in egg fertilisation, which reduces the chances of miscarriage. A deficiency increases the risk of irregular ovulation and, in severe cases, can stop ovulation completely.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C promotes iron absorption and improves hormone production. Taking 750mg of vitamin C each day has been shown to improve fertility rates.
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D controls genes involved in making oestrogen and embryo implantation. Studies have found that women with higher levels of vitamin D are more likely to achieve pregnancy with IVF compared to women with low vitamin D status.
- Iron: Low iron levels contribute to a lack of ovulation and iron supplements have been shown to improve chances of pregnancy by 40%.
Male Fertility Diet
Sperm cells have to travel further than any other human cell to reach the woman's egg and need to be mobile. They are particularly vulnerable to the oxidative damage caused by free radicals so men should eat plenty of antioxidants to counteract them. Important nutrients for men are:
- Zinc: Zinc is considered by many to be the most important nutrient for male fertility. Zinc improves testosterone production and boosts the quantity, quality and function of sperm.
- Selenium: This essential mineral helps to improve sperm function. Deficiencies in selenium are fairly common and result in low sperm count, poor motility and odd morphology (shape).
- Lycopene: Lycopene is a potent antioxidant found in tomatoes. Taking 2mg daily for three months has been shown to improve the condition of sperm by 67% and motility by 73% in infertile men.
- Omega 3: The omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA have been linked with increased sperm vitality, motility, and morphology. Supplementing with 1840mg of fish oils daily can improve sperm count and concentration.
- Acetyl L-Carnitine: This powerful antioxidant provides sperm with energy and ensures the mitochondria in sperm cells function properly. 1000mg per day has been shown to improve sperm count, motility, and straight-swimming ability.
- Folic Acid: Folic acid is just as important for men to support the development of new cells. Studies show that men with low folate levels have higher rates of chromosomal abnormalities in their sperm.
- L-Arginine: The testicles need arginine to produce sperm in, which is concentrated in semen and is responsible for increasing the volume of ejaculate and improving sperm count and motility.
Foods to Eat for Healthy Fertility
- Whole grains: Stock up on a variety of whole grain foods, such as whole wheat bread, brown rice, and oats. Whole grains are rich in complex carbohydrates, fibre, vitamins and minerals. Because they are digested slowly they have a gradual effect on blood sugar levels and insulin, which helps to keep blood sugar levels balanced and flushes excess hormones from the body.
- Beans: Protein-rich foods provide the building blocks for all cells in the body and are essential for the development of healthy sperm and eggs. But the type of protein you eat may play a role in conception so swap animal-based proteins for plant-based proteins such as beans. A study at Harvard University involving 19000 female nurses found that infertility was 39% more likely in women with the highest intake of animal protein, whereas women eating plant proteins were less likely to have trouble. Other plant proteins include nuts, seeds, and tofu.
- Fruits and vegetables: Eating your 5 a day (3 vegetable portions and 2 fruits portions) is the easiest way to ensure your diet is packed with antioxidants to protect DNA in the sperm and egg against oxidative damage from free radicals. Antioxidants also help to keep sperm strong and speedy. Leafy greens such as spinach are also packed in folate, which has been shown to improve ovulation in women and the production of healthier sperm in men, to potentially reduce the risk of miscarriage. Citrus fruits can also improve sperm count and motility.
- Nuts and seeds: Nuts are a valuable source of several important fertility nutrients. Brazil nuts are a fantastic source of selenium, almonds are rich in vitamin E, walnuts are packed with omega 3 fatty acids, and pumpkin seeds are one of the best sources of zinc. Snacking on a small handful of nuts and seeds each day can help to improve overall fertility in men and women.
- Full-fat dairy: Several large-scale studies have found that the more low-fat dairy in a woman's diet, the trickier it is to conceive, while more full-fat dairy in the diet increased the chances of getting pregnant. The reason for this is not yet fully understood, but it is likely due to the important role fat plays in hormone production. Consume one to two servings of full-fat milk or yoghurt per day - opt for Greek yoghurt for added protein.
- Fresh fish: Try to consume two portions of oily fish, such as salmon or sardines, each week. Fish is rich in the omega 3 fatty acid DHA, which is vital for healthy egg and sperm production. A deficiency in omega 3 can also prevent sperm maturation. When trying to conceive it's important to avoid sushi or raw fish and those with high mercury content, including swordfish and shark.
What to Avoid
- Red meat: Consuming too much red meat increases the level of ammonia in the body. In women, red meat can interfere with the implantation of the egg in the uterus, while in men it can negatively affect sperm activity.
- Soya: Foods rich in soya contain a compound called genistein, which mimics oestrogen and affects hormone balance. Studies have found that genistein sabotages the sperm as it swims towards the egg by prematurely kick starting a reaction that allows sperm to fertilise the egg, which normally occurs once the sperm is inside the egg. Genistein is found in all soya-containing foods, including soya milk and soya meats.
- Simple carbohydrates: The body digests simple carbohydrates (such as cakes, white bread, white rice and bleached flour) quickly and turns them into sugar, which causes spikes in insulin production. High insulin levels appear to interfere with ovulation and have a negative effect on fertility.
- Refined sugars: Even in small quantities, refined white sugar is bad for health. In order to digest refined sugar, the body has to rob other important nutrients that you've ingested, including calcium, chromium, magnesium and zinc. It also triggers a hormonal imbalance, causing certain hormones to become underactive and others to become overactive. If you're struggling to kick the sugar addiction, good alternatives include stevia and organic honey.
- Caffeine: Drinking less than 300mg of caffeine per day (around two mugs) probably won't prevent conception, but if you are having trouble conceiving try cutting it out altogether. High levels of caffeine affect hormonal balance, reduce ovulation and increase chances of miscarriage.
- Trans Fat: Trans fats interfere with cell receptors involved in inflammation, glucose metabolism, and insulin sensitivity, all of which are risk factors for PCOS. These fats are commonly found in commercial baked foods, snack foods, and some kinds of margarine.
- Non-organic meats: There has been much debate recently about the importance of eating organic meats. Many animals are fed non-organic feed containing hormones and antibiotics, which eventually make it into our food supply. Avoiding these non-organic meats may be particularly important when trying to conceive and during pregnancy.
- Certain supplements and herbs: While many herbs and supplements are safe to take during conception and pregnancy, other may be harmful at this time. Women are advised to avoid using ginseng, liquorice, and St Johns Wort during pregnancy. Please note, this is not an exhaustive list.
Adopting a Well-Rounded Approach to Fertility
- Eat a big breakfast: A recent study found that eating 900 calories in a fry up for breakfast could improve fertility rates in women. The study involved women with PCOS who were instructed to eat 1800 calories per day. Half of the women ate their largest meal at breakfast, while the other half ate their largest meal in the evening. Women eating a big breakfast began to ovulate more regularly and had improved fertility, compared to those who ate a big evening meal.
- Take a multivitamin: A complete multivitamin supplement can provide many essential nutrients to support male and female fertility and will help to prevent any nutritional deficiencies. If you have any specific nutritional concerns, add a single ingredient fertility supplement to your regimen.
- Stay hydrated: In men, semen is water based so dehydration can affect ejaculate fluid and sperm production. In women, dehydration can cause the cervical fluid to become sluggish. Opt for water to quench your thirst and avoid caffeinated beverages as these have been linked to lowering sperm counts.
- Control your weight: If you are struggling to conceive your doctor may advise you to gain or lose weight in order to reach the “fertility zone”, which is a Body Mass Index (BMI) between 19 to 24. The ovaries and fat cells regulate oestrogen so if you're underweight, you may not be producing enough oestrogen, and if you're overweight you may be producing too much.
- Axe alcohol: The occasional drink probably won't harm your chances of conceiving, but this should be limited to 1 to 2 units per week. Excessive alcohol consumption has a negative effect on fertility. A study at Harvard University of couples undergoing IVF showed that women who drank more than six units per week were 18% less likely to conceive, while men were 14% less likely.
- De-stress: High levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and catecholamines can suppress ovulation in women, reduce sperm count in men, and lower libido in both. Reducing the stress in your life is important, as is changing how you react to stressful situations. Make sure you get enough sleep to feel fully rested, talk about any concerns, and practice relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga.
Follow these simple tips to improve your fertility diet and increase your chances of conceiving.