Nutrition to Help Infertility
By Britni Thomas, RD, LD
October 9, 2018
I’ve had many clients and friends struggle with infertility— it is stressful, emotional and often very complex. Infertility is commonly defined as the inability to get pregnant, or maintain a pregnancy, after adequately trying for 12 months (and in some cases just six months) without medical assistance. According to the Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), infertility affects about 12% of women ages 15-44.
It’s known that Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is the number one cause of infertility in women. I found out about four years ago that I have PCOS, and since then I’ve taken a special interest in learning more about hormones and what I can do, along with how I can help my clients nutritionally to keep their hormones balanced. Additionally, although not talked about as often, in 40% of couples struggling with infertility, the male partner contributes to, or is the cause of infertility, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. To learn more about PCOS, check out our PCOS articles and podcasts.
While we have helped couples get pregnant through optimizing their diets and balancing their hormones through diet and proper supplementation, nutrition is just one piece in the fertility puzzle. Couples often have a team of health professionals supporting them along the long road that ultimately leads to pregnancy because fertility is a very complex topic, and many other factors are often contributing.
How Food Impacts Fertility
Over the last 50-80 years, our food supply has changed a lot. In short, we are eating less healthy fat, more refined, inflammatory fats and much more sugar. For generations it’s been known how important foods are to fertility. In fact, many traditional cultures have sacred fertility foods such as organ meats, egg yolks, raw dairy products, and fish eggs— which are all nutrient-dense foods that provide us with healthy fat. Switch to the present where many women and men have dieted throughout their lives, which likely means they have reduced their fat consumption and calories for years or decades. If your body senses starvation, it will recognize that now is not a good time to conceive because you can’t provide adequate nutrition to yourself or for the fetus. You need a nutrient-rich diet for hormone production and for healthy egg and sperm production.
What does a nutrient-rich diet look like? Here are some ideas.
Unfortunately, the low-fat message is still out there, and many individuals still believe that eating low fat is healthy. Fortunately, more and more people are realizing that a low-fat diet is not the healthy way to go, but many people still don’t think about adding enough healthy fats to their diets, which is where a nutritionist can help.
A Harvard study found that women who drank skim milk and ate low-fat, non-fat dairy products had 85% higher rates of infertility than women who ate and drank whole milk dairy.1 What if you don’t love milk or are dairy sensitive? Healthy fats come in a variety of delicious options like avocado, raw or dry roasted nuts and seeds, olive oil, grass fed butter, olives and coconut oil. Pick your favorite form and enjoy because we recommend including healthy fat every time you eat.
Beyond the healthy fats listed above, omega 3 fats EPA and DHA are also extremely important for fertility and for growing babies. The best sources of EPA and DHA are fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines and mackerel. If you’re not a fan of fish or you’re not eating it multiple times per week, you may want to consider supplementing with an omega 3. For fertility, I would recommend that both men and women supplement their diets with 4,000 to 6,000 mg of omega 3s daily. Often times (but do your product research to confirm) you should get enough DHA (helps build a baby's brain, nervous system, and eyes) through a prenatal vitamin, which you can start taking well before conception since it’s crucial to have stores of nutrients ready for a baby from day one of conception. Start taking a quality real-food prenatal now to be ready for your future pregnancy.
There are also fats you’ll want to avoid. Stay away from refined oils like canola oil, soybean oil, corn oil and cottonseed oil (come on, cotton is not even a food!). These refined oils are high in omega-6 inflammatory fats and offer little to no nutritional value. Studies have shown that men who have a higher omega-6 (bad kind of fat) to omega 3 (good kind of fat) ratio have lower sperm counts and more infertility.2
Animal sources of protein provide many different essential nutrients for optimal hormone production, such as iron, zinc and B vitamins. When you’re trying to get pregnant, optimal hormone production is crucial. Many women only get one or two servings of protein each day, which is just not enough. Studies have shown that women who don’t get sufficient amounts of iron may suffer anovulation (lack of ovulation) and possibly poor egg health, which can inhibit pregnancy at a rate 60% higher than those with sufficient iron stores in their blood.3 Meat is the best food source of iron. Zinc, another important mineral, has numerous significant functions during reproduction for both men and women. One meta-analysis found that the zinc level in the seminal plasma of infertile males was significantly lower than that of normal males, and zinc supplementation could significantly increase the sperm quality of infertile males.4 Some of the best food sources of zinc include meat, eggs and seafood. Eating about 4 ounces (for women) and 6 ounces (for men) of protein at each meal will provide B vitamins, zinc, iron and many other nutrients.
As I mentioned earlier, Americans are eating more processed carbohydrates and sugar than in years past. Yes, these foods can taste good, but they create inflammation and don’t provide the nourishment our bodies need. Over time if you’re eating too much sugar and too many processed carbohydrates, your body will develop insulin resistance. It’s important to remember that you don’t need to be overweight to be insulin resistant. If your body is producing too much insulin in response to the abundance of carbohydrates you’re consuming, that will often throw off production of other hormones, including your sex hormones. For example, when insulin is high, testosterone in males is usually low, which can affect sperm production. High insulin in females can affect egg quality and ovulation. Begin to replace bread, pasta, crackers and baked goods with more veggies. You’ll get way more fiber and nutrients, and your body won’t need to produce as much insulin because you’re not eating as many processed carbohydrates and or as many carbohydrates in general. Having protein and fat along with your carbohydrates will create more stable blood sugar, also leading to a reduction in insulin resistance. Put some butter or another fat on those veggies and you’ll actually absorb more nutrients; plus of course it tastes way better, and you’ll likely eat more of it. Try spaghetti squash instead of pasta, sweet potato instead of bread, or chili loaded with veggies instead of a sandwich. For more ideas, check out our delicious recipes.
Our environment also plays a role in our fertility. Xenoestrogens, which are chemicals that mimic estrogen, are found in plastics, beauty products, cleaning supplies, pesticides and the list can go on and on. These chemicals can contribute to estrogen dominance in both men and women, which can affect fertility amongst other things. You can learn more about estrogen dominance by checking out previous podcasts and articles. Other tips to get you started are to ditch your plastic and purchase glass containers and check into the Skin Deep database before purchasing beauty products and cleaning supplies.
Lastly, we’d be remiss without mentioning stress and sleep. When your body is stressed that can affect hormone production, and your body can recognize that now is not a good time to conceive. Similarly, sleep or lack of sleep has a huge impact on hormone regulation. If you’re not getting enough sleep that can affect your cycle and ovulation. Individuals who don’t get enough sleep have higher stress hormones. One study5 showed higher levels of stress as measured by salivary alpha-amylase are associated with a longer time-to-pregnancy and an increased risk of infertility.
Overwhelmed at this point? There is a lot to consider when it comes to fertility, and nutrition is often just one aspect of a couple’s journey. If you feel like you may need additional support, consider making a one-on-one appointment (by phone/Skype or in-person) with one of our nutritionists.
- Chavarro, J., Rich-Edwards, J., Rosner, B., & Willett, W. (2007). A prospective study of dairy foods intake and anovulatory infertility. Human Reproduction, 22(5), 1340-1347. doi:10.1093/humrep/dem019
- Aksoy, Y., Aksoy, H., Altınkaynak, K., Aydın, H. R., & Özkan, A. (2006). Sperm fatty acid composition in subfertile men. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, 75(2), 75-79. doi:10.1016/j.plefa.2006.06.002
- Sasikumar, S., Shyam, J., Sundar, Dakshayani, D., Prabavathy, R., and KarthikaInt, M. (2014). A study on significant biochemical changes in the serum of infertile women. Journal of Current Research and Academic Review, 2(2): 96-115.
- Zhao, J., Dong, X., Hu, X., Long, Z., Wang, L., Liu, Q., Li, L. (2016). Zinc levels in seminal plasma and their correlation with male infertility: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Scientific Reports, 6(1). doi:10.1038/srep22386
- Lynch, C.D, Sundaram, R, Maisog, J.M., Sweeney, A.M., Buck Louis, G.M. (2014) Preconception stress increases the risk of infertility: results from a couple-based prospective cohort study—the LIFE study. Human Reproduction, 29(5): 1067–1075. doi: 10.1093/humrep/deu032