What food optimises fertility?
By Juliana Kassianos, Transformational Fertility Coach, Yoga Teacher and Founder of The School of Fertility
HOW WILL YOU BENEFIT?
Get you in optimal health for conceiving
Provide you with a nourishing environment for a baby to grow
Optimise the quality of your eggs or sperm
Support your digestive system
Enhance your body’s ability to get rid of toxins
Provide you with more energy
The food you eat plays an important role in your fertile health. By making sure you have a healthy balanced diet, you can optimise the quality of your eggs or sperm, enhance your body’s ability to get rid of toxins and provide a nourishing environment for a baby to grow.
If time’s on your side, ideally you want to start becoming more conscious of your food choices three months before you start trying to conceive. This is because it tends to take around 90 days for eggs and sperm to mature, and in this time the quality of them can be affected by nutritional factors. Furthermore, you want to develop optimum conditions for conception to take place and, thereafter, an embryo to thrive.
It’s always best to have a varied diet so you get the nutrients your body needs from the food you eat, but when it comes to trying to conceive, it’s good to also take a pre-pregnancy supplement. These tend to vary in price and ingredients, whichever you choose, just make sure it has 400 micrograms of folic acid.
Proteins aren’t used as they are found in food, but are broken down into amino acids. These amino acids are vital for manufacturing reproductive hormones, as well as for healthy egg and sperm production. Therefore, it’s important to have a diet high in protein when trying to conceive.
Animal proteins, such as eggs, meat and fish are ‘complete proteins’ as they contain all the essential amino acids your body needs. Eggs also happen to be a very good source of vitamin B12, of which deficiencies have been linked to infertility and miscarriage. If you’re from the UK, choose those with a British Lion Quality Mark. This is a symbol on the egg shells and packs that show the eggs have been produced to high food safety standards, so your risk of contracting salmonella poisoning for example is low.
Red meat can trigger inflammation in the body and has been linked with increased risk of endometriosis. For men, however, it’s a good source of L-carnitine and L-acetyl-carnitine. One study showed administration of L-carnitine and L-acetyl-carnitine to sperm samples led to improved sperm quality and chromatin quality. If you choose to eat red meat, quality is important, try to make sure it’s grass-fed and lean cut.
Eat fish that are high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids: Salmon, Mackerel (not King Mackerel), Anchovies, Sardines and Herring. Make sure they’re wild caught, as farmed fish may contain residues of antibiotics. Try to avoid or restrict consumption of deep-sea dwelling fish such as tuna, swordfish and Marlin as they tend to contain high concentrations of mercury; a toxic heavy metal linked to infertility.
Many non-animal protein sources such as vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds are ‘incomplete proteins’, as they don’t contain all the essential amino acids your body needs.
You may not eat animal protein because of health concerns or environmental and ethical factors, in which case plant proteins are a good alternative.
Beans, legumes and wholegrains are the richest vegetable sources of protein, but can lack in one or two essential amino acids. But those lacking in beans and legumes are normally supplied in wholegrains. Therefore, having a combination in your diet can ensure you get all the essential amino acids your body needs.
There are a whole variety of beans and legumes you can choose from, but be aware that chickpeas and soy beans contain high amounts of phyto-oestrogens; plant compounds that have an oestrogen-like effect in the body.
Heathy wholegrains include oats, buckwheat and quinoa. Not only do they contain protein, but also complex carbohydrates, providing you with a steady stream of energy. Think Bircher muesli, buckwheat pancakes and quinoa salads. Take note that rice may contain low levels of arsenic; it’s naturally found in water and soil, and can be absorbed by rice crops as they grow, so as always, eat in moderation.
Nuts and seeds are not only a good source of protein, but also healthy fat, vitamins and minerals. For women, almonds are rich in riboflavin (vitamin B2) of which deficiencies have been linked to sterility, miscarriage and low birth weight. Brazil nuts are rich in selenium, which help with the development of healthy ovarian follicles. Sunflower seeds are rich in folate (vitamin B9), which can help to increase progesterone levels, as well as reduce the risk of anovulation and birth defects. For men, walnuts are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, which help to improve sperm quality and pumpkin seeds are rich in zinc, which help to improve sperm motility and quality.
Carbohydrates are divided into two types: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates such as sucrose (table sugar), fructose (fruit sugar) and lactose (milk sugar) are digested and absorbed quickly, which means you get a burst of energy, normally followed by a slump.
Excess refined sugar can contribute to inflammation and insulin resistance, which can impact your fertile health. Try sweet natural alternatives like: dates, which are a rich source of fibre and vitamin B6; Lucuma powder, a caramel-flavoured Peruvian fruit rich in potassium, iron, zinc and fibre, which back in the Inca Empire was viewed as the symbol of fertility; and raw natural honey, which can help to boost your immune system.
Complex carbohydrates found in wholegrains, beans, legumes, vegetables and fruit, are digested and absorbed much more slowly, providing you with a steady stream of energy, keeping your batteries running throughout the day. These are the type of carbohydrates you want to make sure you have in your diet. Take note that vegetables and fruit containing vitamin C are particularly good for men, as it assists in the prevention of sperm agglutination (clumping together) and absorption of iron.
Fibre is a complex carbohydrate found in plant foods like wholegrains, vegetables and fruit. It can’t be digested by the body, so it doesn’t provide us with energy. This is because the body doesn’t have enzymes that are able to break it down. However, fibre has many health benefits, including helping the body to get rid of excess oestrogen and controlling blood sugar levels, as it slows the absorption of sugar. Oatmeal, sweet potato (with the skins) and bananas are packed full of fibre.
Fats are important to have in your diet as they provide the necessary precursors for healthy hormone levels needed for optimal fertility. There are four types of fats: trans fats, saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats. Not all fats are the same; some are healthier than others. The trick is to learn to separate the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’ and mindfully moderate intake.
Trans fats are the lowest in quality as they’re produced artificially in a process known as hydrogenation. The food industry loves them as they increase the shelf-life of produce, but unfortunately so do we as they give taste and texture to processed, fried and baked foods. Read the ingredients list before purchasing and check for hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which you want to avoid.
Saturated fats are found in butter, cheese and biscuits and are also ones to avoid. There is one exception though and that’s coconut oil. Coconut oil actually contains lauric acid, which converts in the body to monolaurin, which has antiviral and antibacterial properties, and so helps to strengthen the immune system.
Monounsaturated fats are ‘good’ fats found in avocado, oils such as olive oil, as well as some nuts like almonds. These are the healthy fats we want to make sure we’re getting in our diet. Just be mindful on portion control.
Polyunsaturated fats include Omega-3 fatty acids found in oils such as linseed and oily fish, and Omega-6 fatty acids found in nuts and seeds. They’re both ‘essential’, which means we need to get them from the food we eat or in supplement form as our body can’t make them. Whilst Omega-3 is anti-inflammatory, Omega-6 is pro-inflammatory. For this reason, we need to make sure we try to have a balance of the two in our diet.
Researchers believe walnuts, comprised of predominantly polyunsaturated fatty acids reduce peroxidation; a process that damages sperm cells. Omega-3 has also been shown to enhance sperm count, motility, and morphology. Research shows 75g of walnuts a day are beneficial for men’s fertility.
Fermented foods are rich in ‘good’ bacteria, which fortify the gut microbiome and help to support your immune system. A healthy balanced gut bacterium is necessary for lowering inflammation, processing toxins and reducing toxin exposure to a developing foetus. Some examples of fermented food include: Sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), Kimchi (fermented vegetables), Kefir (fermented milk drink) and yoghurt (fermented milk product).
Sea vegetables are rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, providing a natural nutritional source of iodine, which is important for healthy thyroid function. An underactive thyroid can affect ovulation and increase the risk of pregnancy complications. Edible seaweeds include: wakame, nori, kombu (kelp), arame, hijiki and dulse.
Cinnamon and ginger both help to regulate blood sugar levels, increase blood circulation in the uterus and have anti-inflammatory properties. Turmeric, otherwise known as the ‘golden spice’ has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antibacterial properties. It’s also been shown to inhibit the growth of endometriosis endothelial cells by reducing the production of estradiol (a form of oestrogen).
Maca is a small Peruvian root vegetable rich in riboflavin, iron, calcium, zinc, fibre, thiamine and vitamin B6. There is evidence that it has fertility-enhancing properties and in men and women. Spirulina is a blue-green algae, which is 65% protein and rich in calcium, iron, vitamin B12, magnesium and fibre. In one study, rats that were fed a diet containing spirulina produced significantly higher litter size than those that weren’t. They’re both great to add to smoothies.
A list of nutrient dense food to include in your diet to optimise your fertile health. These are just suggestions and various options have been provided. Eat for your unique body. If a food does not agree with you, don’t eat it. Always eat food in moderation.
Lean red meat (men only / restrict women)
Walnuts (especially for men)
Avocado oil (high temp cooking)
Unrefined coconut oil (mid temp cooking)
Extra virgin olive oil (low temp cooking)
Mackerel (not King Mackerel)
Salmon (wild caught)
Sardines (wild caught)
Mild chilli (especially if you’re of a cold consitution)