How to Boost Fertility the Natural Way
By: Simone Gisondi, RHN
While about 90% of couples conceive successfully within a 12-month period of trying, fertility issues do affect 10% to 15% of normally fertile couples of reproductive age.
Fertility is defined as the ability to conceive children. Conversely, infertility is defined as the inability to conceive children. More specifically, it’s the inability to conceive after 12 months of unprotected sex between couples of reproductive age, or after 6 months if the woman is 35 years or older.
Though it seems insignificant, approximately 2% of women of reproductive age sought medical help related to infertility in the US alone in 2002. That’s 1.2 million women. That figure has increased since then, primarily as a result of couples delaying to have children after they’ve established their education and careers and therefore attempting conception at a later age.
According to the CDC, currently in the United States, about 12 to 13% of couples have trouble conceiving. According to the same source, currently 6.1 million women (in the US) ages 15–44 have difficulty becoming or staying pregnant. In Canada, 16% of couples are unable to conceive. This figure is twice what it was in the 1980s.
Infertility is expected to continue to increase with an estimated 10 million couples having issues becoming pregnant by 2025.
Men don’t like to talk about the fact that they may have an issue with fertility because it’s viewed as an attack on their virility, so it’s typically assumed that infertility is the woman’s problem. In reality, infertility can be just as much a man’s problem as it is a woman’s and is usually the problem of either one or both.
Female infertility is attributed to:
- Weight – being obese or underweight
- Sluggish liver and liver disease
- Chronic stress
- Food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances
- Nutritionally deficient diet
- Blood sugar issues; insulin resistance and diabetes
- Ovulation issues – typically caused by hormonal imbalances that lead to menstrual abnormalities
- Fallopian tube issues – typically caused by a blocked fallopian tube. The fallopian tube is typically blocked as a result of infection, surgery, or other issues like endometriosis.
- Delayed puberty
- Physical issues such as problems with the uterus such as uterine fibroids (non-cancerous tumors made of fibrous tissue on the walls of the uterus).
- Environmental and/or occupational exposure to toxins such as radiation, smoke, heavy metals, chemicals (i.e. solvents) and hormones found in water and food. It’s worth noting that environmental factors are playing an increasingly significant role as the planet becomes more polluted and things that disrupt the endocrine system find their way into the food and water supply.
- Drugs – both pharmaceutical and recreational
- Exposure to chemicals and toxins
- Early menopause 9 (Primary Ovarian Insufficiency)
- Kidney issues
- Thyroid issues, Thyroiditis – Hashimoto’s or Grave’s Disease
- Celiac disease
Male infertility is attributed to:
- Erectile dysfunction – the inability to get or keep an erection
- Retrograde Ejaculation
- Decreased sexual desire
- Varicocele – the enlargement of the veins in the scrotum; these veins heat and cool the testicles. Too much heat damages and therefore creates abnormalities in the sperm.
- Endocrine disorders such as Type 1 & Type 2 Diabetes
- Thyroid dysfunction
- Congenital defects
- Adrenal issues
- Cystic Fibrosis
- Physical issues of the reproductive tract such as blocked tubes that prevent the sperm from traveling out of the penis
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Sperm development and sperm production abnormalities
- Antisperm antibodies
- Abnormal sperm motility – sperm inability to move properly through the female reproductive tract
- Psychological stress and anxiety before sex
- Environmental and/or occupational exposure to toxins such as radiation, smoke, heavy metals, chemicals (i.e. solvents) and hormones such as androgens and estrogens found in water and food
- Low sperm count – too few sperm or none at all
Age of course also plays a very significant role and is related to the quality of both the egg and the sperm. For example, with age, both the eggs of women and the sperm of men who become parents at an older age is at increased risk of DNA damage, thereby decreasing the likelihood of fertilization.
There are also causes of infertility that are referred to as “unexplained infertility.”
Unexplained infertility is established only after all tests — for the woman and the man — for things thought to be responsible for the inability to conceive have generated negative results. 20% of the couples who are experiencing infertility deal with unexplained infertility. At this point, typically other avenues are sought, such as IVF, IUI and ovarian stimulation.
Tests that assess both partners are run to identify where the issues lie. This usually takes place after the partners have been unsuccessful at conceiving for 12 months (or 6 months in the event that the woman is over 35 yrs old).
A thorough medical history, physical exam, hormonal panel and genitourinary infections (referred to as sexually transmitted infections or sexually transmitted diseases) are conducted for both the man and the woman.
Women have a more comprehensive initial evaluation that looks for thyroid and immunological disorders and assesses the cervix (via what is commonly known as the PAP smear test). Sometimes second and third analyses are conducted when a cause of infertility is not uncovered by the initial tests. These subsequent tests are more in-depth and also more expensive, invasive, and painful.
Once they have had the initial tests alongside their partners, men are also tested for heavy metal toxicity, male hormonal issues and adrenal stress.
If needed, further fertility tests are run for both partners that assess other potential issues like the pH balance of cervical secretions which affects the sperm’s ability to survive.
AT HOME TESTS
In addition to being invasive and painful, medical tests are expensive and quite traumatic. However, assuming that no issues exist, there are free, non-invasive tests and old-fashioned methods that women can use right at home to see when they are ovulating and therefore within that window of opportunity for conception. The ability to conceive goes beyond the tracking of the menstrual cycle. These tests and methods involve the monitoring of basal body temperature and cervical secretions.
The basal body temperature does not predict ovulation, rather it confirms it by showing the increase in the body’s core temperature which happens when adequate amounts of the hormone progesterone is produced. Consistency is most important when it comes to tracking the basal body temperature so taking it every morning at the same time, either vaginally or under the arm (stick to one method only) , before becoming active is crucial. During ovulation, the body’s core temperature should be between 36.1C – 37.7C or 97F – 98.2F Progesterone production happens during ovulation. The temperature remains elevated for about 10 days and drops back to pre-ovulation levels when menstruation starts. However, if conception has taken place, the body’s core temperature continues to climb.
Cervical secretions are monitored for texture, quality and quantity, all of which vary throughout the woman’s reproductive cycle. A clear, watery fluid is secreted by the uterus and cervix during the first part of the cycle, followed by a pasty, creamy, milky white secretion which becomes stretchy, mucus-y, with an eggwhite-like consistency during the most fertile time of the cycle. It is the latter that in most women is produced in the largest quantity and helps with conception as it nurtures and helps the sperm survive for its trip to the egg.
An additional test that is available to women and can be done to predict ovulations is one that reveals the luteinizing hormone levels in urine, however there is a cost associated with it.
These at home tests take real commitment and require a basic knowledge of the body’s cycle and an awareness of the body’s fertility signs. In fact, the longer a woman tracks her fertility — ideally 4-6 months, the more she will understand the body’s cues and its ovulation patterns, which include certain sensations in the ovaries, increased appetite, mood changes and increased libido.
Despite the advancement of medicine, technology and knowledge about fertility, only about 50% of those looking to have a baby achieve childbirth with the help of reproductive technologies such as IVF (in vitro fertilization), IUI (Intrauterine Insemination), Intrafallopian transfer and intracytoplasmic sperm injections. That figure becomes smaller as a woman’s age increases.
What most don’t usually consider are the costs incurred over and above the financial costs of reproductive technology treatments, namely emotional and physical costs. Sadly, treatments are often unsuccessful, so before going down this uncertain and very costly path, couples need to be fully aware of the potential price of all treatments vis-à-vis the benefits they offer such as the high likelihood of and implications associated with multiple pregnancies which is very common when technology is involved.
Though technological approaches and treatments are plentiful and often sought out first and foremost, the fundamental requirements for fertility such as good nutritional habits, a healthy lifestyle and emotional balance are often overlooked. Fertility doctors simply don’t have the time, nor the qualifications to address their patients’ emotional needs or to thoroughly assess their diets and lifestyles.
Eating is something we do multiple times every day, so it goes without saying that everything we ingest leads either to health or sickness. A healthy lifestyle and a good diet are vital for a healthy body and therefore a healthy reproductive system.
Studies have shown that a healthy lifestyle and a nutritious diet helps boost fertility and prepares the body for pregnancy. In fact, lifestyle and dietary choices made today will affect egg and sperm quality three months from now, so the importance of a good diet and a healthy lifestyle starting now cannot be emphasized enough.
While there is no particular fertility diet that couples looking to conceive could consume to ensure conception, the overall, everyday diet does matter. Food is very powerful. Studies have shown that unhealthy eating habits can be detrimental to fertility. In fact, there’s evidence that weight impacts fertility — being overweight or underweight can lead to infertility.
To think that having a bagel with cream cheese alongside a coffee with sugar and milk for breakfast, a sub with a diet drink for lunch, and pizza and wings with a beer for dinner won’t affect the chances of conceiving is not only irresponsible, it’s also ridiculous. What is (and isn’t) found in those foods affects the body at cellular level and therefore affects the quality of both egg and sperm and the condition of the body where the baby would grow and develop for 9 months. In fact what mom and dad eat leading up to and while conceiving, will affect the health of the baby well into adulthood — lower quality eggs and sperm contain damaged genes that are passed on to the baby.
Healthy food = health = healthy body = robust fertility = healthy pregnancy = healthy baby = healthy adult
Poor food = poor health = unhealthy body = decreased fertility = poor genetics = poor baby health = unhealthy adult that will likely repeat the cycle
Will a specific food “cure” infertility or increase fertility? No, of course not. But a healthy diet sure does lead to a healthy body and therefore a robust fertility. A healthy diet goes beyond occasionally eating a few veggies, drinking a glass of water here and there instead of the usual sugar laden fizzy drinks and taking prenatal vitamins alongside the burger and fries or wings at dinner. Throwing in some OJ to erase those constant burger-and-fries sins is not going to help. A healthy diet involves eating nutrient-dense foods every day, on a consistent basis. Not only does this increase the chances of conceiving, it also ensures the health of both parents and baby. So, it goes without saying that before taking the huge step of conceiving, the best thing you can do (both you and your partner) is take charge of your health by implementing good lifestyle and nutritional habits. Did you know that diet and lifestyle changes improve fertility by up to 69%?
The body does an incredible amount of work to sustain the health as well as the physical and physiological changes that occur during pregnancy for both mom and baby, so it deserves to be supported with the highest quality foods and a healthy lifestyle that consists of regular exercise and adequate sleep among other things.
Implementing these changes into your lifestyle on a permanent basis is the best investment anyone can make for their health (long term), for their longevity and their chances at conceiving. Studies confirm this fact. Though making these changes may seem like hard work, being healthy yourself and having a healthy baby should be enough incentive to start now.
Fundamentally, the organs use nutrients found in foods to perform their functions, so it makes sense that those foods should contain the highest levels of quality nutrients that the reproductive system can use to perform its functions on the journey to conception. Those nutrients are found in real, whole, fresh foods, not in the highly processed, refined and pasteurized ones. So, since many fertility superfoods contain nutrients that are important to fertility health, that’s a good enough reason to add them to your diet.
Before we dive deep into what foods support health, fertility and a healthy baby, let’s look at what you should NOT consume as you are trying to conceive.
Healthy fat is important for overall health and it also boosts fertility. Trans fats, on the other hand — also called hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils — are found in processed and fried foods used to enhance their flavour, texture, and shelf life (i.e. baked goods) and are typically listed on labels as “partially hydrogenated oils.” They increase the risk of ovulatory infertility due to their negative effects on insulin sensitivity. They also increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and Type 2 Diabetes. Consuming trans fats may increase the risk of ovulatory infertility by 31%.
Work with a nutritionist who can demystify nutrition labels so you can be sure to avoid trans fats. Why, you ask? Well, trans fats increase insulin resistance. Insulin is the famous hormone produced by the pancreas, that helps move glucose from the bloodstream into the cells. Insulin resistance refers to the fact that it’s harder to shuttle that glucose into the cells. The pancreas keeps producing and secreting more insulin as it attempts to help stabilize blood sugar levels, which of course leads to more insulin flowing in your bloodstream. High insulin levels trigger a host of metabolic disruptions that affect ovulation. There you have it — that’s how trans fat will put obstacles in your way of conceiving.
Trans fats should not be part of anyone’s diet, much less someone’s who is trying to conceive. So, get your fats the healthy way. More on that later.
Oh, that C word. The type of carbohydrates is more important than the amount. Refined carbs are an issue because they absorb very quickly and spike blood sugar and insulin levels. PCOS, a leading cause of infertility in women, is associated with high insulin levels.
Refined carbs also have a high glycemic index and studies have found that high glycemic index foods are associated with an increased risk of ovulatory infertility. Refined carbs include foods made out of processed grains such as pasta, bread, rice, pastries and other sugary foods and drinks.
Studies show that replacing protein from meat, fish and eggs with protein from plant sources such as nuts, seeds and beans is linked to a reduced risk of and protects against infertility. In fact, that same study showed that when 5% of total calories came from plant-based protein instead of animal protein, the risk of ovulatory infertility decreased by more than 50%.
Caffeine — typically consumed via one of the most addictive beverages, coffee — can and does negatively affect female fertility. A study found that women who consume in excess of 500 mg of caffeine per day take up to 9 months longer to conceive.
Studies have also found that excessive caffeine consumption prior to conception is also linked to a higher risk of miscarriage.
To err on the side of caution, especially because we don’t know what our unique and individual body deems excessive amounts, the best thing to do is avoid caffeine altogether, especially since caffeine is also dehydrating, causes digestive issues, insomnia and rapid heart rate.
Much like caffeine, it’s not known how much alcohol is too much for each individual person, so to be safe, it’s best to avoid it altogether. In fact, this study found it “reasonable to encourage women to avoid intake of alcohol when they are trying to become pregnant.”
Another study involving 7,393 women found that a high alcohol intake was associated with more infertility examinations at hospitals and reports that “it is important for the female partner in an infertile couple to limit alcohol intake or to not drink at all.”
There is ample proof that alcohol can decrease fertility, so it’s best to avoid it altogether, especially since it’s addictive and also causes liver damage, sexual dysfunction, lack of mental clarity, behavioural changes, diabetes and birth defects.
Though soy in its most natural state or at least fermented is considered safe to consume — as it is in countries like Japan where miso is a staple, the phytoestrogens (literally translated to plant estrogens; phyto means plant) found in North American soy are endocrine disruptors and cause fertility issues. More precisely, it is the estrogen mimicking properties of soy that disrupts our hormonal balance. This is the case in both women and men. In men, testosterone levels are affected, while in women, it’s their estrogen levels.
Some studies conducted on rats have linked soy with lower sperm quality in males and reduced fertility in females, while another one found that even small quantities of soy products cause sexual changes in male offspring. The study states that “exposure results in transient and lasting alterations in masculinization of the reproductive system” and “may have implications for human health in terms of potential relationships of endocrine disrupters and urogenital abnormalities thought to be increasing in incidence in boys and men.”
Did you know that pro-inflammatory foods supress ovulation? Since ovulation is required for fertility, it’s crucial that pro-inflammatory foods be completely eliminated from your diet. They not only create inflammation in the body and wreak havoc on the immune system, they also disrupt the delicate balance of the endocrine system due to the hormones, antibiotics and pesticides they contain. Which foods contain these? Conventional animal farmed meat, dairy, gluten and refined carbohydrates. Fast food is a common culprit that contains all of the above and is the leading pro-inflammatory food that’s consumed. Fresh fruits and vegetables are both the #1 foods you should consume to increase your fertility.
This study shows that “lower intake of fruit and higher intake of fast food in the preconception period were both associated with a longer TTP” (Time To Pregnancy or the number of months it takes a woman to conceive).
In fact, it should be the first step in the transition to a better diet. When it comes to toxic foods — especially of the natural kind — mercury is a key toxin to avoid at all costs. And where is mercury found in the food supply? Most often it’s found in unsustainably-sourced fish. It’s therefore crucial that if this is something you consume, it be eliminated immediately and replaced with organic, wild caught fish. Fish that contain higher levels of mercury include, tuna, mackerel, shark, marlin, swordfish and orange roughy. Many of these are used in sushi.
Signs of mercury toxicity include but are not limited to impaired speech, muscle weakness, memory loss, impaired hearing, impaired walking, numbness in hands and feet, skin rashes and most worrisome, neurological damage.
While fish is known to be of greatest concern for mercury contamination, some studies have pointed to other foods that may contain this toxin, namely some soups, breakfast bars, yogurts and lunch meats. I’m sure you are wondering how they could possibly be contaminated with mercury of all things. It’s through the additive high fructose corn syrup, that they all contain.
High fructose corn syrup is a manufactured (read: not natural) sweetener used in packaged foods — also not natural and highly detrimental to health. While efforts are made to ensure that this toxin is no longer added to high fructose corn syrup, as someone who is trying to conceive and have a healthy baby, your best bet is to consume clean home cooked meals — it’s the only way for you to know what exactly goes into your food.
So how do you pack your diet with foods that optimize your fertility so you can get pregnant faster you ask?
Well, since research shows that fertility IS affected by what you eat, filling your plate with clean, natural and nutritious foods will definitely help you get that baby faster — and by doing so, will get you healthier in the process, too. Ultimately, you are fueling your fertility with the very foods you eat. So, fuel it with the following foods and nutrients:
Whole foods — foods left untouched and whole, as nature made them — contain all the nutrients that work synergistically and act together to provide what the body needs to function and what the body needs for optimal health and thus a healthy fertility. Studies prove that consuming a whole foods diet lowers infertility related to lack of ovulation as well as other causes. In fact, “diets high in unsaturated fats, whole grains, vegetables, and fish have been associated with improved fertility in both women and men.”
Examples: Foods left as made by mother nature — organic, fresh fruits organic, fresh vegetables, healthy fats from cold pressed oils like olive and flax oil, avocados and raw nuts and seeds (these are great in salads), beans, and whole grains such as steel cut oats (whole oats that have been chopped into two or three pieces with steel blades. Uncut, they are known as oat groats.) Also, nothing processed, where nutrients are removed, modified, added, or affected by the processing.
DID YOU KNOW that watermelon and asparagus (in addition to other raw fruits and vegetables of course), provide the body with an abundant supply of the powerful antioxidant glutathione, which is important for egg quality?
Pesticides (including gardening pesticides), insecticides and herbicides are all endocrine disrupting chemicals that are also linked to hormonal imbalance, cancer, birth defects, ADHD and poor sperm quality.
Examples: Ideally consume all foods organic in order to prevent pesticide, insecticide and herbicide toxicity. Organic is especially important for fruits, herbs like parsley, cilantro and dill, as well as vegetables that do not have peels like blueberries, strawberries, apples, grapes, spinach, kale, celery, Romaine lettuce, etc. Fruits and vegetables like oranges, grapefruit watermelon, bananas, pineapple, avocado, onion, squash, etc. are safer when consumed conventional because they have peels that can be removed.
Inflammation creates hormonal imbalance, disrupts ovulation, affects sperm quality, sperm function as well as implantation and is associated with PCOS, endometriosis, ovarian cysts, inferior egg quality, uterine fibroids and pelvic inflammatory disease.
Examples: Turmeric, ginger, beets, dark leafy greens, broccoli, tomatoes, avocado, bell peppers, all berries (blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries), oranges and grapes.
HEALTHY FAT FOODS
Omega-3s regulate hormones and are important for the health and function of both eggs and sperm as well as baby’s neural development. Higher levels of Omega 3s are linked to improved sperm size and shape, as well as movement through the female reproductive tract. For women, Omega-3s improve ovulation and increase progesterone, the hormone that controls the condition of uterine lining, necessary for the attachment of the fertilized egg to the wall of the uterus.
Healthy fats also help reduce the inflammation in the body, which in turn promotes regular ovulation and therefore fertility.
Examples: Fatty fish such as Alaskan Salmon, Arctic Char, Atlantic Mackerel, Sardines, Rainbow Trout and Herring, chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, avocados, cold pressed oils such as olive oil, flax oil (both must always be consumed raw to maintain their nutrients), grapeseed oil and avocado oil.
Folic acid (Vitamin B9) is important for DNA and egg health. DNA is required for organ and tissue formation in the developing baby. Folic acid helps prevent neural tube defects only during the first weeks of pregnancy, typically before the woman knows she is pregnant.
Examples: Legumes, leafy greens, mustard greens, rice, asparagus, brussels sprouts, avocado, papaya, banana, all citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit, lemons, clementines, limes, tangerines)
COMPLEX CARBS-RICH FOODS
Complex carbs such as fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains, are slow digesting and contain natural fibre and because they digest slowly, they maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Unrefined whole grains are chock full of fertility-friendly B vitamins, vitamin E, and fibre.
Examples: Steel cut oats, quinoa, brown rice, amaranth, millet, barley, sorghum, and buckwheat
DID YOU KNOW that buckwheat contains the compound d-chiro-inositol that improves ovulation?
PLANT PROTEIN FOODS
Unlike animal derived protein, plant protein contains healthy fats and is lower in calories which also happens to help with weight loss. This study showed that consuming even “5% of total energy intake as vegetable protein rather than as animal protein was associated with a more than 50% lower risk of ovulatory infertility.”
A Harvard Public Health study also found that infertility was 39% higher in women with the highest consumption of animal protein. So how do you get your protein instead?
Examples: Tofu, chia seeds, kale, broccoli, beans, nuts, seeds, lentils and chickpeas.
Certain natural supplements have been linked not only to improved immunity but also to improved overall health and therefore improved fertility. A win-win-win.
So what are the best supplements that will support fertility?
- A good quality multivitamin that contains at least 60 mg of iron and 400 mcg of folic acid.
- Bee pollen because it contains many vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, known to decrease inflammation and boost the immune system.
- Bee propolis. This study found that women with endometriosis that took bee propolis twice daily had a 40% higher chance of becoming pregnant after 9 months. This nutrient boasts very high anti-inflammatory properties, so it’s beneficial for fertility issues involving inflammation such as reproductive trauma or surgeries, endometriosis, blocked fallopian tubes, uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts and Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. Bee propolis also has immunomodulating properties that are beneficial for autoimmune related fertility issues, such as recurrent miscarriage and anti-sperm antibodies (these can be present in women who have allergic reactions to sperm, thus triggering an immune response against the sperm).
- Royal jelly which contains a whopping 29 amino acids — the building blocks of protein, Vitamin B6 which boosts progesterone, natural sugars, fats, iron, calcium and fatty acids, supports the endocrine system and therefore helps balance hormones. It also increases libido and supports egg and sperm health. Now you know why we need to save the bees.
- Vitamin D — a hormone, not a vitamin — is best obtained by letting clean skin be exposed to the sun for about 15-20 minutes a day (avoid the times when sun is the strongest — 11 am to 3 pm). In the winter, supplement with a good quality Vitamin D.
- Probiotics since a healthy gut is needed for a healthy period. And since the gut is the home of the immune system, it goes without saying that this supplement is an absolute must-take for those looking to conceive.
- CoQ10, one of the most powerful antioxidants improves both egg and sperm quality and therefore pregnancy success rates — especially in women over 35 who are looking to conceive.
While there are no quick fixes, sustainable change goes a long way. Changing your diet while trying to include all nutrients necessary for conceiving is daunting. So, what can you do to secure not only your health so you can conceive that beautiful baby, but baby’s health well into adulthood? Work with a nutritionist who can get you started on that path the right way.
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