Diet to support Fertility
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
There are many reasons why a woman cannot fall pregnant easily including hormonal imbalances, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), stress, poor or no ovulation, endometriosis, fibroids, fallopian tubes blocked, and partner’s sperm issues. But sometimes there doesn’t seem to be any known physical issues and you just can’t fall pregnant.
Whether you are having difficulty conceiving or simply want to best prepare your body for conception, a diet for fertility provides many healthy recipe choices specifically formulated to provide the best dietary conditions possible to make a baby.
Pre-conceptual time is most important as this is when you have the chance to ensure your levels of nutrients (e.g. folate) that are essential for a healthy baby are at optimal levels. It’s also an ideal time to ensure that you are clear of toxins, heavy metals and chemicals in your body, and most important to ensure your gut health is good as this will build the foundation for your child’s immune system.
Apart from giving you the best possible support to increase your chances of healthy conception and pregnancy, this diet is a great support for those on a fertility program (e.g. IVF).
Note: Click for information about a Diet for Endometriosis.
Following are foods and substances to avoid in your diet to support healthy fertility.
Soy foods contain estrogen mimicking properties, so it is best to avoid processed soy foods to avoid a negative impact on your hormonal balance, particularly if you have an underactive thyroid or endometriosis.
Dairy products can congest the reproductive system and the body in general. In cases of congestive fertility issues, such as PCOS and Endometriosis, dairy foods may aggravate these imbalances. There are many healthy alternatives to dairy such as fresh nut milks or coconut milk.
Avoid any processed, refined and artificial sugars and fruit juices, especially from a bottle, as these often contain concentrated sugar which can affect your blood sugar levels and negatively affect your immune system and hormones. Some great alternatives are stevia, honey or maple syrup in small amounts and whole fruits or blended fruit smoothies.
Gluten can react with your immune system and create potential fertility problems for some women. Sources of gluten are wheat, rye, barley and malt which can be commonly found in foods such as pastas, wheat based noodles, sauces and gravies (thickened with wheat flour), breads, cakes, pastries, crackers, biscuits, cereals, cookies, pies, cereals, traditional soy sauce, beer and packaged products.
The good news is that most of these can be substituted with delicious gluten-free options. There are many other preferable options including whole grains, seeds and nuts (more in the next section about chemical free options).
Studies have shown that caffeine can affect your hormonal balance, increase your chances of a miscarriage, and prevent you from ovulating.
According to some studies, genetically modified foods are postulated as a possible cause for infertility. Choose organic foods where possible, or at least spray free to help avoid this possibility. Farmers markets are worth visiting.
Foods which are promoted as ‘fat-free’ or have been altered to be reduced in fat are usually significantly processed and high in sugar. When you choose foods always select the foods nature intended for us. Our bodies need good fats to produce hormones. See further info about essential fatty acids in section 4 about important nutrients for fertility.
If you drank pure alcohol, you can die or go blind. So why drink a diluted substance that makes you sick and lethargic, let alone something that can affect fertility? Alcohol is toxic to the body and can deplete your body of B vitamins and zinc that can affect fertility & hormones. It’s a no brainer (literally).
Items such as facial products, shampoos, conditioners, sun-screens, repellents, toothpaste and perfumes are just a few of the personal care items that may contain toxic chemicals that can affect fertility and your unborn child when pregnant and later when you are breast-feeding. There are now plenty of great chemical free alternatives available. You may need to experiment to find the toxic free options that suit you.
Studies have shown that organic produce has more nutritional value than conventional produce, so that alone is a good thing. Where possible, chose organic or spray free fruits and vegetables that are fresh as possible, as conventional produce contains residues of harmful herbicides and pesticides which have been shown to negatively affect both male and female fertility. As well, these chemicals can be transferred in utero via mum’s blood supply (and during breastfeeding).
I’ve found that farmers markets are a great place to buy produce. The prices are great because several stalls compete for your business, there’s lots of organic and spray free options, and the produce is very fresh (super important) and lasts longer at home. If a farmers market is not accessible, talk to local fruit shops and find out when fresh produce is delivered (and whether it’s organic or spray free).
For a similar reason to the produce, it is best to buy organic meats or at least grass fed if possible.
Free-range grass fed animals
Conventionally raised cattle can contain high levels of added hormones and antibiotics which may contribute to estrogen dominated conditions such as endometriosis.
On the other hand, grass fed meats are a great source of essential fatty acids, low in saturated fat and a good source of protein. These have higher ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio of fats in their system, whereas grain fed raised animals have a higher Omega 6 pro-inflammatory ratio of fats. So for healthy hormones it is much better to eat meats richer in the Omega 3 fats.
If you have endometriosis you may want to reduce the amount of red meat you eat. Some researchers have found a connection between high red meat consumption and endometriosis. Other research shows that conventional raised grain-fed chicken can also contribute to elevating the excess estrogens found in endometriosis.
If you find free-range, organic or grass fed chickens (or other meats) too expensive, consider eating it less often or use smaller portions.
Fish is another tricky area when it comes to fertility, pregnancy and breastfeeding as we realise that a lot of fish are contaminated by mercury. But fish do contain good levels of healthy fats, proteins, vital minerals and vitamin A. These healthy Omega 3 fats aid the production of hormones, reduce inflammation and help regulate the menstrual cycle.
Avoid large deep water fish such as mahi mahi, tuna, swordfish, and Chilean sea bass due to their potential concentrations of mercury. Instead, focus on cold water fish such as wild Alaskan salmon, cod, and Alaskan halibut. Also, when choosing salmon, avoid farmed salmon and choose wild salmon or ocean trout if you can get it.
Farmed salmon contains antibiotics and food dyes and are fed pellets made from chicken feathers and bones. Chicken bones have been researched to be naturally high in lead, so if it’s farmed, forget it (however, some farmed fish are fed pilchards which is much more acceptable).
It pays to investigate the sources of your food.
Wholegrains such as buckwheat, amaranth and millet are filled with fibre, important vitamins and immune supporting properties which can help the body get rid of excess hormones and stabilise your blood sugar, which promotes healthy hormone levels.
Avoid gluten containing grains such as wheat, rye and barley. There are plenty of great seeds and nuts which contain all the nutrients that are in the gluten grains without the downside.
Also avoid white rice which is a starchy sugar producing carbohydrate. Instead, go for whole grain rice or whole grain rice pasta, quinoa and brown rice.
Purify your water
Purify and drink plenty of it. Un-purified water can contain a host of chemicals including chlorine, fluoride, bromide and many other chemicals used to balance the Ph of the water. Avoid water from inferior plastic bottles as some of these leach estrogen mimicking chemicals into the water.
My son refused to drink water from the water purifier as he thought it took too long and didn’t want to wash his glass after use, so he drank straight from the tap, believing it to be fine (even though I told him it wasn’t). That was until his first day on the job as an electrician for the water board when he came home after work and I caught him drinking the filtered water. I asked why he had changed his mind, and with a horrified look on his face, he said, “Do you realise what they put into our water?”
“Yes”, I replied and smiled
While all nutrients are important for health, there are some that are shown to have a direct impact on fertility. Following is a list of those specific nutrients and foods which contain them.
Vitamin D is needed for the body to create sex hormones which support ovulation and hormonal balance. Yale University School of Medicine conducted a study of 67 infertile women, where it was discovered that only 7% had normal Vitamin D levels. Over 90% of adolescents and adults are classified with suboptimal levels of Vitamin D. Some researchers found a link with maternal vitamin D deficiency and autism. You can get your levels checked with a blood test from your doctor. You owe it to yourself and your baby/child to ensure that you have optimal levels of this precious vitamin.
Food sources: Eggs, fatty fish and cod liver oil. You can also get vitamin D from the sun. For more about sunshine exposure to ensure adequate calcium absorption see my article The Benefits of Sunlight
Vitamin E has been shown in studies to improve men’s sperm health and sperm motility (movement). The meaning of the name for vitamin E, ‘Tocopherol’ literally means to bear young. Vitamin E is an important antioxidant to protect sperm and egg DNA integrity.
Food sources: almonds, sunflower seeds, papaya, olives, spinach, dark leafy greens.
Necessary for energy production, CoQ10 has also been shown to increase egg and sperm health and sperm motility. It is also an important antioxidant that helps to protect cells from free radical damage, protecting DNA.
Food sources: Found in seafood and organ meats, especially liver. It is quite difficult to obtain from the diet unless you have two serves of liver (think pate or stir fry liver) every week. CoQ10 supplementation is another option.
Vitamin C improves hormone levels and increases fertility in women with luteal phase defect and helps to reduce the chance of miscarriage and chromosomal problems. For men, vitamin C has been shown to improve the quality of sperm, protect them from DNA damage, and prevent sperm from clumping together so they swim better.
Food sources: Abundant in fruits and vegetables such as red peppers capsicum, broccoli, cranberries, cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, citrus fruit, goji berries and other red, blue and purple berries.
Lipoic acid is a very important antioxidant as it helps to protect the female reproductive organs and improves sperm quality and motility.
Food sources: Found in small amounts in potatoes, spinach and red meat.
Known as a hormone regulator, B6 helps to regulate blood sugars, alleviate PMS and may be useful to relieve symptoms of morning sickness. B6 has also been shown to support ‘Luteal Phase Defect’.
Food sources: banana, broccoli, tuna, salmon, cauliflower, kale, turkey, liver, cod, spinach, turnip greens, collard greens, bell peppers (capsicum), garlic, mustard greens, celery, cabbage, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and chard.
B12 can also improve sperm quality and production. B12 may help to boost the endometrium lining in egg fertilization and decrease the risk of miscarriage. Some studies have found that a deficiency of B12 may increase the chances of irregular ovulation, and in severe cases stop ovulation altogether.
Food sources: Clams, oysters, mussels, liver, caviar (fish eggs), fish, crab, lobster, beef, lamb, eggs and nutritional yeast.
This vitamin helps prevent neural tube defects such as cleft lips as well as congenital heart defects, limb defects and urinary tract anomalies in developing foetuses. Deficiency in folic acid may increase the risk of foetal growth retardation, low birth weight and preterm labour.
Deficiency may also increase the homocysteine level in the blood, which can lead to spontaneous abortion and pregnancy complications, such as placental abruption and pre-eclampsia. Folate is best absorbed via the foods we eat. In supplemental form you will often find it as a synthetic folic acid. If you have an MTHFR defect you may have trouble converting the synthetic form to folate.
Some studies suggest that synthetic folic acid may even block the absorption of natural folate. If you are taking a folate supplement do look at the more ‘active forms’.
Food sources of folate: liver, lentils, pinto beans, garbanzo beans, asparagus, spinach, black beans, navy beans, kidney beans, collard greens, strawberries and most leafy greens.
Studies show that women with insufficient iron may suffer anovulation (lack of ovulation) and possibly poor egg health – which can inhibit pregnancy 60% more than those with sufficient iron stores in their blood. Low iron can also affect your thyroid’s ability to function well. Low thyroid activity has been linked to increased risk of miscarriage. Low iron also means you feel more tired.
Food sources: Lentils, spinach, sesame seeds, kidney beans, pumpkin seeds (raw), venison, garbanzo beans, navy beans, molasses, beef, chicken legs (red meat), chicken livers, lamb, red fish.
Selenium is a wonderful antioxidant that helps protect the eggs and sperm from free radical damage. Free radicals can cause chromosomal damage, known to be one of the causes of miscarriages and birth defects. Selenium is also necessary for sperm creation. In studies, men with low sperm counts had low selenium levels.
Food sources: Liver, salmon, snapper, sardines, cod, halibut, shrimp/prawns, turkey, Brazil nuts (3 nuts gives you plenty of selenium – don’t overdo).
In women, zinc works with more than 300 different enzymes in the body to keep it running efficiently. Without zinc your cells cannot divide properly, your oestrogen and progesterone levels can get out of balance, and your reproductive system may not function optimally.
Zinc is needed for all hormonal actions and is very important for a healthy immune system. Low zinc levels have been directly linked to miscarriage in the early stages of a pregnancy, according to The Centre for Disease Control’s ‘Assisted Reproductive Technology Report’.
Zinc is considered one of the most important minerals for male fertility (along with selenium). Increasing zinc in men can boost sperm levels, improve the form, function and quality of male sperm, and decrease male infertility.
Food sources: oysters, liver, beef, lamb, venison, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, turkey, green peas, shrimp. Zinc can be damaged by cooking so it is important to eat some zinc rich foods in their raw state.
Essential Fatty Acids
Omega-3 acids are shown to help fertility by supporting the regulation of the body’s hormones, increase cervical mucus, promote ovulation, and overall, improve the quality of the uterus by increasing blood flow to the reproductive organs.
Omega-3 fats contains two acids that are crucial to good health: DHA and EPA. During pregnancy a deficiency of DHA may be associated with premature birth, low birth weight, and hyperactivity in children. The EPA part of the Omega 3 fats help to reduce inflammation. Inflammation in the reproductive organs can decrease fertility.
Apart from essential fatty acids with Omega-3, saturated fats and cholesterol are also very important for fertility and the development of the foetus. Cholesterol is a precursor to all hormones produced in the body, including progesterone.
Make sure your cholesterol is from the right foods such as coconut oil, grass-fed meats, fish, nuts and seeds. Avoid hydrogenated oils and vegetable oils cooked at high heat. But raw vegetable oil on salads or vegies in moderation is ok – and you can also use others e.g. rice bran oil, avocado oil, macadamia nut oil.
Food sources: Flax seeds, walnuts, salmon, avocadoes, sardines, halibut, shrimp/prawns, snapper, scallops, chia seeds, macadamia nuts and coconut oil (which is considered by many to be the only healthy saturated fat because there is controversy about animal fats).
The idea of a diet to support fertility is to include foods that support the body, and eliminate foods considered detrimental, so your body will be naturally fertile and receptive to a healthy pregnancy. Note: in order to do so, the diet is essential for both the male and female.
Removing toxins and chemicals from the diet and substituting them with nutrient rich healthy foods will help to improve insulin balance (shown to restore ovulation), reduce the risk of polycystic ovaries, improve healthy hormone levels and reduce inflammation (considered to be another cause of infertility).
Important: Before you commence a new diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
Note: During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Client name and identifying information changed
One of the great joys of being a naturopath is to help ladies who are having difficulty conceiving.
Many ladies just don’t seem to ovulate often. Sometimes anovulation is due to PCOS (polycystic ovaries) but other times, they just don’t ovulate. There are various reasons, but it’s frequently due to diet and lifestyle factors such as excessive exercise, poor eating habits, stress, being overweight or underweight and a condition called hyperprolactinemia. Basically, the result is no ovulation and you can’t fall pregnant.
Josephine came to me after trying to fall pregnant for several months. It wasn’t until she thought about why it was taking so long to fall pregnant that she realised that she wasn’t ovulating every month. She was ovulating once every 3-4 months and sometimes after 6 months. This was stressful for her as her partner worked away and they would only get brief moments together when they could possibly conceive, which made things worse.
Bordering on considering IVF, they visited me to see what could be done. Josephine’s partner had been tested and was fine, so we crossed that off the list. Josephine had many tests and there didn’t appear to be any reason why she wasn’t ovulating.
I wanted to make sure they were both getting plenty of the right nutrients to make conception as likely as possible, so we started by making some changes to their diet.
Rather than starting with the usual oestrogen increasing diet, I felt it was more important to sort out their ordinary diet. There was much room for improvement and they both had stress in their life.
I looked at Josephine’s vitamin and mineral levels and tests showed that she was low in nearly all of those needed for healthy hormones, such as vitamin D, B6, zinc, iron and her B12 was sub-optimal. We set up a diet that was rich in these nutrients as well as cutting out foods and drinks with the potential to cause problems such as gluten, dairy, sugar, alcohol, coffee, additives, most grains and white rice (whole grain rice is ok in small amounts).
Josephine’s vitamin D was so low that I also started her on a vitamin D supplement and encouraged her to get out into the sun a bit more and we also included vitamin D rich foods in her diet.
Within three months Josephine started to ovulate every month. Another three months later she was finally pregnant. Several months later, Josephine gave birth to a lovely, bubbly baby boy.