One in six couples in Ireland face problems with fertility, but a new area of science called 'epigenetics' teaches that certain environmental factors such as diet can effect the likelihood of conceiving.
Fertility issues are multifactorial, but what we eat is one thing that certainly has a massive impact on fertility. Having a healthy vessel to carry a baby into the world is essential. If you are struggling to conceive, the first things you need to look at are diet, stress, sleep, alcohol and activity levels. There may be other factors outside your control that affect your fertility, for which you may need medical assistance, but these are a good start.
A woman is born with a full complement of eggs in her ovaries. The condition of the female body and the lifestyle behaviours she has been engaging in, have a profound effect on egg quality and number of eggs. As we age, our eggs become more prone to assault from various factors such as environment, alcohol, stress, sleep, inactivity and, fundamentally - diet.
Food and its impact on health outcomes has now emerged as one of the major players in achieving a pregnancy. The new area of science, termed 'epigenetics', is now considered one of the most informative sources when shaping a healthy environment to conceive.
Epigenetics simply means that our DNA is not static but in a constant state of flux and change. Genes are being switched on and off in the presence of certain environmental factors. This is particularly apparent when we see damaged sperm in the male. This is referred to as DNA fragmentation, whereby the sperm may not be formed properly. It is relatively easy to treat as new sperm is generated in the body in approximately 74 days. This information gives great hope to couples who are experiencing difficulties as changing dietary and lifestyle behaviours have been shown to be hugely effective at changing the environment the egg and sperm are inhabiting.
When I see a client/couple, I will tailor my advice according to their particular issues - PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) and autoimmune issues are a big factor in women as well as endometriosis , low progesterone, absence of periods and with men I look at motility, mobility and fragmentation, and I will address these in upcoming features, but the following diet and lifestyle factors apply to anyone trying to conceive, either naturally or with assistance.
Cleaning up the diet
Consume five to seven portions of vegetables per day. Vegetables provide antioxidants and plant chemicals to enhance cell health. They also are a great source of fibre for gut health.
These guidelines will help clean up your diet:
* Aim to include green vegetables every day. Folate is a vital nutrient in pre-conceptual health and as it's a water soluble nutrient, it needs to be consumed daily
* Increase fish in the diet with a specific emphasis on oily fish. Omega 3 exerts positive effects on sex hormones which are made from fats. It is also involved in immune-regulation
* Two to three pieces of fruit is plenty and always include an apple. Fruit provides a slow release of glucose, it is the ideal snack, full of fibre, vitamins and minerals
* No long gaps between eating as this disrupts blood sugar balance. Hormones are very tightly controlled, they require a steady supply of fuel to balance their production
* Always eat something for breakfast. This is imperative to prevent energy dips during the day and balance blood sugars, also shown to prevent weight gain and cravings in the evenings
* Include protein and fats with each meal, to regulate blood sugar and provide the raw materials to make sex hormones
* Drink two to three litres of water daily
* Don't eat meat for both lunch and dinner - choose different sources of protein. Consuming excess meat impairs the digestive function and drives inflammation in the body. Excess inflammation is associated with endometriosis and PMT
* Increase protein from the plant kingdom such as pulses. Pulses are a great source of protein which stimulate digestion. They are low in calories and filling, a great choice for those on a weight-loss regime
* Consume brightly coloured fruit and vegetables which are packed full of antioxidants. Beetroot, berries, orange and red vegetables are particularly good.
The nutrient that is showing most promise in increasing your chances of getting pregnant is omega 3. Omega 3 is an essential fat because the body cannot make it, therefore, it must be taken in through the diet.
This nutrient is essential for mood, sex hormones and its role in regulating the immunity. Therefore it is important to consume oily fish three times per week. Oily fish is the most bio-available source of omega 3 to the body. Vegetable sources come in the ALA format and are poorly converted to EPA/DHA, the active components of omega 3.
If oily fish doesn't appeal to you then both the male and the female can take a good quality fish oil supplement with a minimum of 500mg of EPA/DHA daily.
Primary sources of omega 3:
Ireland has a northerly latitude of approximately 53 degrees north of the equator. We do not get sufficient sunshine. The lack of vitamin D is associated with problems in the immune system. Immune dysregulation is now emerging as a major player in conception.
Women in particular can be affected by the lack of vitamin D. The World Health Organisation recommends 20 minutes arm and leg exposure per day. Alternatively, ask your GP to test your vitamin D levels and, if low, supplement with a minimum of 400iu per day or 1000iu per day.
Birth defects occur within the first three to four weeks of pregnancy. So it's important to have folic acid in your system during those early stages when your baby's brain and spinal cord are developing.
It is recommended that you start taking folic acid every day for at least a couple of months before you become pregnant, and every day while you are pregnant.
Folate is a B vitamin and is water soluble so you need to replenish the body daily. Emerging research is showing it is more bioavailable to the body from foods.
Aim to include green vegetables daily, pulses such as peas, green lentils are a very rich source as is lambs liver.
The recommended dose for all women of childbearing age is 400 mcg of folic acid each day. Many women take a pregnancy multivitamin every day, which will contain the RDA recommended daily amount and there is no need to supplement it separately.
Is it a good idea to take a pre-conceptual supplement or not?
Unfortunately there is no single multivitamin shown to increase your chances of conception. No individual supplement has the magic bullet. Many couples take mega doses of antioxidants and multivitamins in the hope that they can reverse cellular damage.
This may not be a good idea, as they can become free radicals.
There is insufficient information on this type of protocol and it is always better to get your nutrients from food as they work synergistically in the body. Yes there is a role for supplements but one must be mindful of where one is getting one's advice from and must ask if they are really lacking in specific nutrients.
For men, general advice on supplementation for sperm quality is Omega 3 1gram per day, 30mg zinc and 1gram of vitamin C per day. Always consult a trained professional when supplementing at high levels.
Possibly the biggest anti-nutrient consumed in Ireland is alcohol. Alcohol is detrimental to sperm and female eggs and it can create havoc on the very delicate female hormone orchestra. Alcohol causes cellular damage to the body and increases free radical damage.
Male sperm is particularly affected by the amount of alcohol consumed.
Also, alcohol is a sugar and therefore, it is hugely associated with weight gain which is a big factor in fertility issues for both sexes.
Furthermore, alcohol destroys a vital B vitamin called folate in the body - this vitamin is necessary for a healthy baby and involved in DNA replication.
My Top five foods for a woman
1 Green vegetables for their naturally occurring folate content
2 Pulses and beans for folate and hormone regulation
3 Eggs for protein
4 Super greens for the iron content, but not if you have under active thyroid
5 Oily fish rich in omega 3 which supports hormone regulation
Top five foods for a man
1 Oysters and shellfish contain the highest amount of zinc
2 Pumpkin seeds for their zinc content
3 Nuts, in particular Brazil nuts for selenium and L'arginine
4 Beetroot for its antioxidant content
5 Brightly coloured vegetables for their carotenoids which are powerful antioxidants
For information on my Natural Fertility Program, please click here