Nutrition and Fertility
To be honest I have been a little daunted by writing this particular blog installment. Writing about nutrition and fertility is a monumental task. There is a lot of information out there, not all of it is clear or well researched, and some of it is controversial.
However, on the other hand, improving the quality of the fuel you put into your body is one of the easiest ways to improve fertility. What you eat forms the building blocks for optimal egg development and a healthy uterine lining - both of which are essential for conception and a healthy pregnancy.
Last week we discussed hydration. In this week’s blog about nutrition I’ve decided to focus on three specific food-related actions you can take right now to help improve your fertility. This is not a comprehensive nutritional plan but it certainly is a great place to start.
out down on sugar. Period.
I recognize that this is not a very popular recommendation but it is possibly the most important one. Maintaining stable blood sugar without spikes and dips might be the single most important fertility habit that you can implement.
Research is beginning to show that low intake of sugar is essential for both egg quality which affects the quality of the embryo, and for endometrial function which allows the fertilized egg to implant and for a pregnancy to develop.
The dangerous impact that elevated sugar has on fertility - specifically egg quality - has been shown in research done on Rhesus Monkeys. The researchers created two groups of monkeys. One group was fed low doses of sugar for 6 months, and the other received a regular monkey diet (without this additional sugar). Then both groups were put through a mock IVF cycle. Here’s what happened: 86% of the eggs that were retrieved from the monkeys who didn’t consume sugar matured and were of good quality. But only 18.5% of the eggs taken from the sugar eating monkeys were good quality. That’s a huge difference! And the sugar-eating-monkeys ate less sugar than many women consume.
The results from the Rhesus experiment might explain other research done on the connection between carbohydrate intake and blastocyst health in humans. In a recent study IVF patients with failed cycles who switched to a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet and then underwent another cycle increased their blastocyst formation rate from 19% to 45% and their clinical pregnancy rate from 17% to 83%.
In fact, as a result of the study, one of the authors of the study now requires his IVF patients to maintain a diet of 25 percent or more protein and less than 40 percent carbohydrates for three months prior to beginning in vitro fertilization treatment.
So cutting sugar is important for fertility, but how do you do it?
I recommend starting with cutting out processed sugar. Just stay away from processed foods with added sugar in them (for example cakes, cookies, muffins, granola bars) and instead turn to fresh whole fruits, nuts, seeds and vegetables.
Which brings us to the next rule...
#2 Aim to eat at least Five Vegetables a day
We are constantly being told to eat vegetables - so I’m sure this comes as no surprise. In fact the American Cancer Society advises eating at least five servings of fruit and vegetables per day for good health while the Harvard School of Public Health goes even further recommending nine servings of fruit and vegetables each day.
Why are vegetables so important?
Vegetables are high in nutrient content - they pack a lot of power in their punch. They are loaded with vitamins (like A and C) and minerals (like potassium and magnesium) that contribute to cellular growth and the maintenance of good health.
Vegetables also contain substances called antioxidants. Antioxidants are extremely important in helping our bodies fight the cellular damage that occurs on a day to day basis. Antioxidants can help prevent diseases like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
But antioxidants are also connected to fertility (surprise, surprise!) The oxidative stress that antioxidants fix is associated with conditions like endometriosis, PCOS, and unexplained infertility. It is believed that antioxidants can benefit fertility through mechanisms such as improved blood circulation in the uterine lining, decreased insulin resistance, and improved mid-cycle fertile cervical mucus. So ingesting foods that are high in antioxidants could boost fertility.
Be sure to choose richly colored vegetables. The different colors are really flavonoids which are naturally occurring pigments that give the vegetables their enticing color and that have antioxidant or cell-protecting qualities. Yellow and orange vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin are rich in carotenoids that supply your body with vitamin A. Red fruits and veggies like tomatoes have lycopene. Blue and purple vegetables and fruit are high in phenolic flavonoids which are potent antioxidants so be sure to include red cabbage, purple onions, blueberries and the like. And green vegetables have the added benefit of including nutrients such as calcium, iron, and folate. Folate is extremely important as it supports healthy cell division (important for egg quality) and it promotes proper fetal growth and development to reduce the risk of birth defects such as spina bifida.
Vegetables are also high in fiber. Fiber helps create the feeling of being full - which helps when we are trying to cut down on sugar. Fiber is also important for maintaining bowel regularity and health which allows for body detoxification. Ensuring that our bodies get rid of waste is actually an important way to support balanced hormones by allowing our bodies to get rid of the metabolic waste after it breaks down the hormones.
In 2007 Harvard researchers evaluated data from the famous Nurse’s Health Study which collected data over a number of years from over 18,000 women. In this 2007 study researchers examined the relationship between carbohydrate intake and fertility and they published their results in a book called “The Fertility Diet”. They concluded that a diet high in fiber (and low in trans fats) provides the best nutrition to optimize fertility. So eat lots of vegetables!
Lately the Mediterranean diet is getting a lot of publicity for its ability to enhance fertility. The Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional foods that people used to eat in countries like Greece and Italy around 1960. This diet focuses on eating lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, whole grains, seafood, and extra virgin olive oil.
A recent study examined if adherence to the Mediterranean diet (MedDiet) is associated with better IVF performance. They discovered that in women under age 35 a Mediterranean diet made a huge difference. Women who had the highest score on the Mediterranean diet score were around twice as likely to conceive and give birth than women with low scores. The study concluded that eating a Mediterranean diet may help increase the chances of a successful pregnancy and delivering a live baby for women undergoing IVF treatment.
# 3 Eat (organic) Eggs
There is a traditional Chinese saying: “Eat as many eggs as you can afford for a smart baby.”
It seems like they were right. After many years of eggs getting a bad rap they are once again reclaiming their well-deserved respect. In reality eggs are like a superfood.
They are packed with macronutrients like protein and fat and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) like B2,5,12, Vitamin A and selenium. Eggs actually contain small amounts of almost every vitamin and mineral required by the human body including folate which we know is important when preparing for pregnancy. They also contain the amino acid choline which improves follicle quality and like folate helps prevent neural tube defects and aids in brain development.
We know that eggs have cholesterol. But that’s good. Our bodies need cholesterol to manufacture sex hormones which is important for fertility. Cholesterol is also important for healthy brain development. To that end your body produces cholesterol every single day! But eggs can actually improve your cholesterol profile since studies show that the cholesterol in eggs raises the “good” HDL cholesterol in the body and transforms the “bad” LDL cholesterol into a less dense version which is relatively harmless.
While all eggs are egg-ceptional I recommend organic free-range eggs. These eggs are laid by chickens who are usually cage free, are allowed to feed from the land, and don’t receive hormones or antibiotics. In addition to supporting an industry with good values, you will get more nutrients since organic eggs are actually more nutritious than conventional ones. While all eggs contain similar amounts of protein, research shows that organic eggs have more vitamins and minerals. For example one study found that organic eggs have three times more omega-3 fatty acids, 40% more vitamin A and twice as much vitamin E.
So start your day with eggs - remember - most of the nutrients are in the yolks so make sure to eat them too!
So here’s the plan:
1) Cut out sugar
2) Eat at least five vegetables per day - preferably different colors
3) Eat (organic) eggs