While it’s common for women to avoid certain foods once they find out they are pregnant, making changes prior to conception can be even more beneficial – particularly if you are having trouble conceiving. While most people readily associate age and certain medical conditions with fertility problems, it’s less well understood that day-to-day lifestyle factors such as diet, weight, smoking and alcohol intake, can also impact how fertile we are. In this article, I focus on how diet affects fertility.
Food and drink can play a role in your ability to fall pregnant.
The impact of diet on ovulation
The main way diet affects fertility is through ovulation. Problems with ovulation – the process by which a woman’s egg becomes available for fertilisation each month – represent around a quarter of all infertility cases. Adequate hormonal function is essential for successful ovulation. Unfortunately, a poor diet can play havoc with our hormones, which in turn, can lead to ovulatory issues. This means that eating certain foods and avoiding others can actually improve our fertility. Indeed, when the Harvard School of Public Health asked women with irregular or absent ovulation to change their diet (and exercise) habits, those who changed five or more aspects of their diet (and exercise), reduced their risk of infertility by 80 percent!
Food-led hormonal imbalances
Most women are familiar with hormones like oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone but when it comes to diet and fertility, the hormone we tend to be most interested in is insulin. Excess insulin in your body can interfere with ovulation by stopping eggs from maturing properly and increasing ovarian cyst formation. A woman will often have high insulin levels if she eats a carbohydrate-dominant diet with lots of sugar and starchy foods, e.g. white bread, white flour, white potatoes, white rice. This type of diet forces the pancreas to release a lot more insulin than usual to help the body metabolise the large amount of carbohydrates being consumed.
So what kind of dietary changes will aid ovulation?
The simplest rule is to limit your intake of anything containing sugar (refined carbohydrates), along with foods high in ‘trans fats’ (e.g. commercial baked and snack foods, french fries and some margarines), which can all raise insulin levels and impair ovulation. The best way to avoid these kinds of foods is to just eat ‘real food’, i.e. foodstuffs that have not been processed but have simply been grown or farmed, like vegetables, eggs and animal meat. Increasing your intake of fatty acids like omega-3 (found in flaxseed, fish oil, salmon, sardines and walnuts) is also recommended, as it contains hormone pre-cursors, therefore helping to stimulate ovulation. Patients are sometimes surprised that I don’t recommend intake of fruit at all. Fruit is not essential and is very high in sugar, and therefore intake should be minimised. In terms of what you consume, don’t forget about what you drink. One of the most common causes of insulin excess is the regular intake of sugary soft drinks and sports drinks. Eliminating these drinks from your diet is a great strategy for reducing the amount of sugar in your diet. Water, herbal teas and full-cream milk are a much better choice.
It’s not all about excess
Food is an important source of vitamins and minerals. Unfortunately, some foods have very little nutrient value. If you haven’t been prioritising the ‘good stuff’, you may be lacking in one or more vitamins or minerals. Deficiencies in iron, vitamin D, selenium and iodine are all linked to lower ovulation rates. While a pregnancy-specific daily multivitamin is recommended for all women trying to conceive, it should not be used in place of a wholesome diet. Choose spinach, beans, pumpkin, tomatoes and beetroot to improve your intake of iron and other important nutrients.
What about him?
While men don’t ovulate, they do need to provide their partners with healthy numbers of healthy sperm – a process also ruled by our hormones. A healthy weight and diet can also improve a man’s ‘hormonal milieu’. Therefore, men can also follow the dietary and lifestyle advice provided for women above. This will aid sperm number and quality, further enhancing a couple’s chances of conceiving.