Although for many of us starting a family simply happens (surprise!), others among us take an intentional approach. Maybe we delay having children for professional, financial or relationship reasons. Maybe we begin trying when we’re young. Regardless of timing, facing our fertility (so to speak) is an intensely personal and often emotional passage. It can inspire joy and wonder in our basic human capacities – our deep-seated physical impulse and emotional expansion toward parenthood. For some of us, however, the journey takes on anxiety and disappointment. Although varied and nuanced factors define our reproductive health (some not fully understood even today in the medical community), experts agree that lifestyle factors contribute to overall fertility.
I get emails from time to time on the fertility question, and I appreciate these readers’ stories and interest. The growing science of nutrigenomics, the study of how diet influences gene expression patterns, will undoubtedly offer more insights in the future. Research, however, offers plenty of suggestions already for enhancing reproductive results through dietary measures – a briefing of sorts on what to eat, what not to eat, what to consider supplementing, etc. For everyone who’s tried, is trying or interested in trying somewhere down the line, here’s a Primal primer for fertility nutrition.
Achieve a Normal Weight. Obesity is a known factor in infertility for both men and women. Obesity early in life presents the most reproductive risk.
Reduce Oxidative Stress. Oxidative stress from a whole host of factors, including oxidized fats, intense physical activity, alcohol, illness and regular metabolic functioning, negatively impact conception success and pregnancy outcomes. For men, oxidative stress has been shown to damage sperm DNA and lower sperm count and motility. For women, oxidative stress impacts conception ability by decreasing the permeability and function of the egg, impairing successful implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterine lining, and decreasing the viability of the embryo. (image)
Up your antioxidant and fish oil intake. We know antioxidants and anti-inflammatory fatty acids like omega-3 fight oxidative stress elsewhere in the body. The same goes for reproductive functioning. Research has shown time and again that antioxidants support fertility in both men and women. Vitamins C and E and cofactors like selenium, zinc and copper, appear to be especially key. There are probably many other antioxidants that can benefit as well. As for fish oil, sperm actually depend on a generous polyunsaturated fatty acid supply for well-functioning, fluid membranes that are required for fertilization.
As already suggested, the onus is on both halves of a hopeful couple. Here are a few key recommendations for men.
Avoid soy. I’ve never been a fan of soy, and prepping for pregnancy is a good time to reassess your intake. The issue with soy of course is the estrogenic effects, which animal and human studies have shown decrease sperm counts. The inevitable question is raised why Asian countries where soy is prevalent don’t suffer a fertility crisis. It’s a perfectly valid point – one which research hasn’t fully addressed. From my own perspective, I’d venture to guess that at least part of the discrepancy might be traced to the consumption of unprocessed, often fermented soy in Asian cuisine versus the heavily processed versions in Western menus.
Supplement strategically. Studies of male infertility have shown that zinc and vitamin C levels correlated with sperm count and quality. Additionally, L-carnitine and L-acetyl-carnitine have been useful supplements for enhancing sperm motility and quality.
Female infertility that can be traced to hormonal disruption, as in polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or luteal phase deficiency, responds especially well to dietary intervention. A few years ago, a book called The Fertility Diet highlighted results obtained from studying 18,000+ women and the associations between their diets and respective fertility rates. Critics suggested that the study design was far from air tight and that the book’s findings were most useful for women with PCOS. The book, however, offered generally sensible recommendations for the most part. Somehow the findings related to carbs was re-spun to suggest “good carbs” as opposed to low carbs as the specific results suggested, but that’s of little surprise. Based on the bulk of research out there, here are a few recommendations for women.
Achieve Normal Insulin Levels. Excess insulin can impair ovarian function and increase hormone-binding globulin, which raises androgen levels and commonly decreases ovulation. Although getting insulin under control can help boost fertility, avoid chromium picolinate during the preconception period, since it has been linked to DNA mutation and sterility.
Supplement Strategically. Iron and zinc are particularly crucial for early cell division once the egg is fertilized. Folate (not folic acid) both pre-conception and in early pregnancy cuts the risk of neural tube effects. Higher iron levels have been linked to higher fertility.
Eat Clean Protein. The Fertility Diet authors suggests that balancing plant and animal protein corresponded with fewer fertility difficulties; however, no attention was given to the possible impact of livestock hormones, antibiotics, etc. If there’s any time to go organic, preconception is the time.
Eat Plenty of Good Fats. Trans fats are paramount in fertility impairment. One study showed that a 2% increase in trans fat intake resulted in a 75% increase in fertility risk. Full fat dairy showed a positive effect, but go for clean organic sources.
Go Low/No Alcohol and Caffeine. Both alcohol and caffeine have been shown to decrease fertility in women.
This has been sort of a brief, straight-to-the-point, text book overview of nutrition and fertility. Now it’s your turn. I know that many Mark’s Daily Apple readers have stories about going Primal and getting pregnant. Do you have recommendations and experiences for enhancing fertility? Share your thoughts and anecdotes in the comment board. Grok on!