Infertility is an increasingly common problem in Australia; it affects one in six couples. Trying to conceive can be a stressful time for many couples, especially when there are factors involved such as endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, hormonal problems, repeated miscarriage, uterine fibroids, infections, low sperm count, and abnormal sperm. Even without these factors, there are many diet and lifestyle factors that need to be addressed before trying to conceive to optimise your chances of falling pregnant.
- Eat more vegetables –Vegetables are high in fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. It is recommended to consume seven serves of vegetables a day. A serve equates to half a cup of chopped vegetables. The fibre in vegetables will help regulate bowel movements and act as food for good bacteria in your digestive tract. Vegetables and fruit are also high in phytochemicals which are highly anti-inflammatory antioxidants. We recommend eating a lot more vegetables than fruit as most vegetables are far lower in sugar than fruit.
- Consume enough protein – Protein is essential in your diet for tissue repair, muscle function, hormone and enzyme production, immune system function and several other reasons. Animal foods such as fish, poultry, eggs, and red meat are the richest sources of protein. Protein is also found in smaller quantities in nuts, seeds, legumes and grains but in an incomplete form as none of these foods alone contain all eight essential amino acids. Protein should be consumed at each meal to stabilise blood sugar levels, reduce cravings and promote satiety.
- Feed your body fats – You need to consume adequate amounts of the right fat as fat is a building block of sex hormones and some fats have anti-inflammatory actions. Individuals require omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids as they are essential for our bodies. Omega 6 fats are easily obtained as they are found in many foods such as nuts, seeds and vegetable oils. Most people consume too much omega 6 fat in comparison to omega 3 fat which is a problem as omega 6 fat in excess is a building block to the manufacture of inflammatory chemicals. The best dietary source of omega 3 fats is oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, anchovies, herrings and salmon, as well as olive oil, avocado oil and coconut oil. Omega 3 fats are extremely powerful anti-inflammatory substances and need to be taken in the correct dose.
- Eat plenty of nuts and seeds – Nuts and seeds should be regular staples in your diet as they are high in beneficial fats, fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and are also anti-inflammatory. Make sure to only purchase raw nuts as opposed to roasted or salted nuts. Many studies have indicated that people who eat nuts are slimmer and less likely to get diabetes and heart disease than people who don’t eat nuts. Good nuts and seeds to have in your diet include: almonds, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, pecans, walnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds and flaxseeds. Flaxseeds must first be ground into a powder in order to be digestible.
- Consume a variety of herbs and spices – Herbs and spices are an excellent source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Fresh herbs you should consume regularly include parsley, rocket, coriander, basil, oregano, sorrel and mint. Try to grow some herbs at home as they don’t take up much space, are easy to look after, and you know your herbs are fresh and organic. Spices have many health benefits, and some good ones to include in your diet are turmeric, cumin, paprika, coriander, mint, oregano, rosemary and thyme.
- Stay hydrated – Filtered water and herbal teas are healthy fluids you should consume in ample doses. Increased fluid intake will elevate energy levels, boost metabolism, cleanse the bowel and aid weight loss. Aim to have at least 2L of water a day.
- Exercise regularly – This doesn’t necessarily need to be vigorous exercise but moderate exercises such as swimming, walking, yoga or cycling. Regular exercise is the best way to reduce stress, improve your mood and increase energy levels.
- Get enough sleep – Sleep has a powerful restorative effect on our immune system and nervous system. Lack of sleep is linked to fatigue, depression, sugar cravings and stress, making adequate sleep critical to a healthy pregnancy and conception. Aim to get seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
- Avoid gluten, dairy, sugar, food additives and processed food – We recommend all women avoid gluten and dairy products for at least three months before conception and all throughout pregnancy. These foods can promote excess mucous production in the fallopian tubes and make cervical mucous less receptive to sperm. Gluten is found in wheat, rye, oats and barley. Sugar intake suppresses the immune system and leaves you more susceptible to infections. It also causes inflammation and free radical damage in your body. Food additives such as artificial colours, flavours, preservatives and artificial sweeteners can cause cancer and increase the occurrence of birth defects. You can easily avoid food additives by eliminating processed foods from your diet.
- Folic acid/folate – Folic acid is also known as B9. It is required during the earliest stages of pregnancy so it is recommended to take it 3 months before planning to conceive. As it is a water-soluble vitamin it doesn’t stay in the body for long, therefore it is essential to have plenty of this nutrient each day. Folic acid is known to reduce the risk of neural tube defect, congenital heart defects and childhood cancer. Folic acid is found in green leafy vegetables, but supplementation will ensure you are receiving the correct amount of this vital nutrient.
- Selenium – Is a vital mineral that is required to protect the DNA inside your cells from damage. If you are deficient in selenium you have an increased risk of miscarriage, and genetic abnormalities and congenital disorders in offspring. It is vital to have adequate selenium levels during pregnancy as it is an anti-viral and will protect you against colds and flu. Selenium is also important to male fertility as it reduces the numbers of abnormal sperm and reduces the chance of a male passing on genetic defects to his children. As most soils around the world are so deficient in selenium, supplementation is recommended to ensure you have adequate selenium to protect your child and enhance fertility.
- Iodine – Is critical to the thyroid gland and sub-optimal thyroid function is a common cause of infertility and ovarian cysts. Iodine deficiency can be disastrous for pregnant women as during pregnancy higher levels of thyroid hormone are required for the baby before its thyroid gland has developed. The main role of thyroid hormone for the foetus is nervous system development, therefore deficiency during pregnancy can increase the risk of brain damage, learning difficulties, lowered IQ and hearing loss. It can be very difficult to receive adequate iodine from diet alone, as seaweed is the richest source but this is not commonly consumed in large amounts. Iodine requirements increase during pregnancy so women should take this in supplement form to ensure they’re getting the correct dose.
- Zinc – Deficiency in this mineral is very common among women, and being deficient while pregnant can increase the risk of contracting an infection, and later make the baby more susceptible to infections. Zinc deficiency increases the risk of pregnancy complications such as early labour, low birth weight, delivery difficulties and congenital abnormalities in the baby. Zinc is also essential to male fertility as it is required to produce testosterone and increase the amount and quality of healthy sperm. Food sources of zinc include oysters (cooked not raw), red meat, poultry and nuts. Fixing a zinc deficiency through diet alone can be a tedious process so we recommend zinc supplementation.
- Iron – Although iron requirements increase during pregnancy, adequate iron intake is critical to increase the chances of falling pregnant in the first place. Iron deficiency can prevent you from ovulating and if you do manage to conceive while iron deficient you have a greater chance of having a miscarriage. Iron deficiency is very common in women, especially women with heavy periods and those who don’t eat a lot of red meat. Good sources of iron include red meat, fish, egg yolks, poultry, apricots and green leafy vegetables. Iron absorption is increased when taken with vitamin C.
- Vitamin D – Despite our sunny climate, Vitamin D deficiency is a common occurrence in Australia and can greatly affect fertility and inhibit ovulation. Vitamin D deficiency increases the risk of pre-eclampsia and increases the risk of birth complications that make a C-section necessary. Vitamin D deficiency increases the risk of immune mediated infertility as deficiency is associated with high levels of inflammation and allergies. It is vital to take a vitamin D supplement for three months before conception and all through pregnancy unless you spend the majority of your time outdoors.
- Magnesium – Is essential during the conception period as it helps insulin to work more efficiently, therefore women who are overweight, have insulin resistance, have diabetes or have PCOS can benefit greatly from magnesium. Sources of magnesium include green vegetables, brown rice, nuts and several others, however it is difficult to obtain enough through diet alone. Magnesium is required in substantial amounts to properly utilise vitamin D, as all the enzymes that metabolise vitamin D require magnesium. Magnesium significantly reduces the chances of genetic damage to your offspring by correcting DNA replication. Magnesium also has a relaxing effect on the body and significantly reduces stress which is very important when trying to conceive.
Do males need to pay attention to their general health when they are ready to father a child?
The health of the male partner is a huge determinant to a successful pregnancy. A male provides 50% of the DNA that makes up a child, therefore his diet and lifestyle are all relevant to a successful pregnancy and a healthy child. Several researchers believe that male factor infertility is rising faster than female infertility. Therefore, male partners need to go on a health kick with their female partner to improve the chances of conceiving and fathering a healthy baby.