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You’ve probably all heard that troubling statistic reporting that up to one third of women over the age of 35 will experience at least some problems getting pregnant, and that this number increases to two thirds once a woman reaches her forties. However, contradictory research argues that this is an exaggerated figure that is based on previous statistics when quality of life was very different.
Fertility is multi-factorial, meaning there are many influencing factors that can be contributing to a fertility problem. In cases where there is unexplained infertility rather than a defined problem many couples still seek assisted conception techniques before exploring the true extent to which the toxins, stress and the poor diet choices may be undermining their fertility.
A good diet is no guarantee of a baby. However, by optimizing chances of conceiving naturally, and, failing that, being physically well prepared for fertility treatment, optimizing nutrition becomes a win-win.
And remember that is takes at least 90 days of pre-conceptual nutrition care to have a meaningful impact on maturing eggs and sperm cells so prepare well-ahead of trying for a baby.
So which foods should you be eating?
Eating for fertility means maximizing the nutrient value of all food consumed. One of the easiest ways to do this is to increasing the proportional intake of vegetables across lunch and dinner to boost levels of natural fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. If a plate is half-full of vegetables, there is simply less room for refined low-nutrient carbohydrates.
For optimal fertility, your body needs to be stocked up on omega-3 fatty acids, the ideal source being oily fish such salmon and mackerel. These essential fats are helpful for hormonal balance and controlling inflammation. Semen is also rich is prostaglandins which are produced from these fats.
When it comes to the wider family of essential fats such as omega 6 and 9, the key is to balance the ratios between all three. Finger prick blood tests are now available through nutrition clinics to help individuals to balance ratios optimally.
Load up on iron, especially if you do fall pregnant your body will find it harder to maintain its levels. Seeds, red meat, beans, nuts and dark green leafy vegetables are a good source.
Some research has found boosted fertility amongst those who get their protein from a plant source rather than an animal one. To increase the ratio of plant-based protein such as beans, tofu and lentils, switch in a vegetarian meal for one or two of your meat-based meals each week. Vegetarian recipes often lend themselves to batch cooking which makes this even easier.
What should you be avoiding?
Alcohol. Drinking alcohol in excess has been linked to irregular periods, lack of ovulation and abnormal estrogen and progesterone levels, all of which can make it harder for you to conceive.
Alcohol will also affect your partner. Research has shown that alcohol causes a decrease in sperm count, a lower proportion of motile sperm and an increase in abnormal sperm. In general terms, alcohol also has a negative effect on zinc levels, an important fertility mineral. Ideally, both men and women should cut out altogether for the 3-month period before attempting to conceive.
Caffeine. Research is mixed on the effect of caffeine on fertility, but my advice would be to play it safe and cut back on the coffee, particularly if you drink more than 1-2 cups per day. Substitute for lower caffeine options such as herbal tea and bear in mind caffeine is also in chocolate and fizzy drinks.
Supplements to consider
Pre-conception is one time when supplements should be considered, even if the diet is already reasonable.
Folic acid is the best-known fertility supplement, used to prevent spina bifida. Folic acid is part of the B-complex group of vitamins that have many other vital roles to play. Take B vitamins in complex form, or as part of an overall fertility supplement.
Zinc and selenium also get top billing for fertility, this time for both men and women. These nutrients are notoriously deficient in a typical British diet. The other nutritional supplement area to consider is protective antioxidants vitamins E and C. One study has shown that women taking fertility drugs to stimulate ovulation will have a better chance of ovulating if vitamin C is taken alongside the drug.
Men could also benefit from amino acid supplementation from L-Arginine and L-Carnitine, helpful for sperm production.
Consider pre-conceptual, pregnancy and parenthood as a marathon. Advice on training and optimum activity levels vary depending on who you speak to and are tied in to your current level of fitness. Bear in mind exercise is also helpful for reducing stress. Elevated levels of stress hormones in women have been shown to slightly affect the speed at which couples conceive. Don’t overdo it though. Studies suggest that doing extreme amounts of physical activity can be just as harmful to your fertility as under-activity.
Quit smoking. Generally speaking, both male and female smokers have lower fertility levels than their non-smoking counterparts. It is believed that nicotine inhibits the levels of reproductive hormones, slowing down attempts to conceive. Smoking can also decrease sperm count in men and increase the number of abnormal sperm.
"After over a year of trying to conceive, and many previous gynaecological problems, I consulted Amanda regarding my current diet. After making the suggested changes, my husband and I conceived within 3 months. After previous months of medical examinations and fertility medication, it was great to discover something within my control that made such a huge difference."
BPS Associate Fellow & HCPC Registered Clinical Psychologist, Dr Rachel Andrew