Ms Salma S. Khan, Nutrition Consultant & Health Writer talks about fertility health, and offers some valuable advice.
Whether you’re planning on conceiving soon or simply wish to improve your pre-conceptual health you can never start too early, and there’s plenty that you can do. Taking care of you’re pre-conceptual health is not just for women, but for men too – “It takes two to tango” as they say. It’s a myth that infertility is only due to women, studies suggest that 40 to 50% of couples who seek medical help regarding infertility cannot conceive due to issues with sperm.
Factors that may impact fertility health include; being overweight or underweight, genetic factors, consumption of a poor diet, exposure to chemicals, prescription medications, smoking, alcohol, too much caffeine, extreme exercise, thyroid disorders, hormonal conditions and stress.
Age & Fertility: In the past it was commonly believed that the only factor that determined fertility health was age in both woman and men. Fertility obsession has led to new studies that now disagree with previous age related studies. New research claims that female fertility rates are almost identical in women in their 20s and 30s.
A study from the Journal of Fertility and Sterility that followed 2,820 Danish women reported that 78% of women aged between 35 to 40 conceived within a year of trying. In contrast, 84% of another group of women aged between 20 to 34 also conceived within a year of trying. Interestingly, this later group had only a 6% more successful fertility rate. To add strength to this research, another study published in the Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology that included 782 couples in it’s research also reported a minor fertility rate difference in 2 groups of women of varying ages. The study looked at women who tried to conceive only twice a week; 86% of a group of women aged between 27 to 34 became pregnant within a year, with 82% of another group of women aged between 35 to 39 successfully conceiving – only a 4% difference!
Focus On Nutrition: For both males and females poor lifestyle choices may play a role in compromising fertility health. Antioxidants found in various foods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts & seeds are thought to protect female eggs and sperm in males from free radical damage. Countless studies suggest that fertility health may be improved by consuming a more nutritious diet. Research carried out by the University of Surrey has reported that couples with a history of infertility may achieve a staggering 80% success rate just by simply changing their diet and lifestyle habits, whilst also taking nutritional supplements.
Insightful research carried out on male fertility from the University of Copenhagen has reported that unhealthy lifestyles in men may be passed on to their children. So if a man is obese, the likelihood of his children being obese is increased – another reason to eat a healthy diet!
Beneficial Fats: Research suggests that optimal levels of omega-3 may enhance fertility health in both sexes by improving sperm quality in men, and in women increasing blood flow to the uterus which is thought to help with uterine lining development. Omega-3 may also help to regulate reproductive hormones, and reduce sensitivity to the hormone prolactin which is thought to suppress ovulation. On the other hand, hydrogenated or trans fats found in margarine, processed cakes and biscuits have not only been associated with an increased risk of heart disease, but have also been linked to infertility, endometriosis, miscarriage and lower sperm counts. These artificial hydrogenated fats are thought to also block the uptake of beneficial ‘good’ fats such as omega-3.
According to research carried out by the Society for the Study of Reproduction, a daily handful of omega-3 rich walnuts was associated with increased sperm vitality, motility and morphology (sperm size & shape). Other sources of omega-3 include oily fish such as salmon and sardines, as well as flaxseeds and chia seeds.
Pomegranate: Various antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables may be beneficial to include in an eating plan to help enhance fertility. Regarding the pomegranate fruit, exciting research suggests that the fruit improves sperm quality due to it’s antioxidant rich properties and folate content. A Turkish study reported that rats fed pomegranate juice daily for a total period of 7 weeks showed an increase in the production of antioxidants, that help protect fatty acids in sperm against oxidation. In females, the fruit is thought to boost fertility by increasing blood flow to the uterus, and thickening the uterine lining.
Be Patient: Lifestyle changes may take between 3 to 4 months to set in before you start to see changes in your fertility health. In females, improving egg quality won’t happen overnight, and that’s because it take about 3 months for an egg follicle to develop. This means that an improvement in fertility health won’t start to pay off until about 3 months. Similarly, it also takes 3 months for men to generate a completely new batch of sperm.
Relax: Stress in it’s many forms may affect fertility health in both men and women as stress is thought to increase levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.
Don’t underestimate the mind and body connection, during periods of extreme stress the body has a natural way of preventing conception. Consequently this may reduce sperm count, and ovulation in women. So try to reduce stress in your life by reacting to stress differently – this takes practice and patience, so hang in there.
Some stress of course is inevitable, so make your body more resilient to the effects of stress by making sure to get enough sleep, eat a nutritious diet, carry out moderate exercise to detoxify stress hormones from the body, and be sure to eat regularly. Eating healthy meals on time, and snacks too maintains steady blood sugar levels. When people don’t consume meals on time blood sugar levels rapidly drop and trigger a production of stress hormones that may have a negative impact on reproductive hormones. As well as consuming 3 square meals daily, eat a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack too, such as a handful of carrot sticks with humus or an apple with a few Brazil nuts.
Supplementation: Prenatal supplements are thought to help enhance pre-conceptual health in women, and aid in a healthy pregnancy. Men who take good quality supplements may also benefit from improving their fertility, consequently improving sperm production and mobility.
Food is not as nutritious as it once used to be due to popularity of various processed foods, hidden sugars and soils being depleted of nutrients due to intensive farming practices. A nutritional practitioner may be able to devise a tailor made program for the needs of each unique individual by assessing mineral and vitamin deficiencies.
It’s never too early to start supplementing in order to improve fertility health. Various deficiencies such as Vitamin D deficiencies have been reported to interfere with fertility, as well as deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids and the antioxidant CoQ10. Much research recognizes that prenatal supplements including folic acid are vital in the prevention of birth defects. However research now also reports that folic acid and other nutrients found in pre-natal supplements may improve the chances of conceiving and in preventing miscarriages. In addition, studies report that sperm count may be improved by supplementing with antioxidants found in multivitamin and mineral formulas, as well as folic acid. This B vitamin is thought to be crucial for keeping sperm free of chromosomal abnormalities.
Fertility Testing: Under the care of a health practitioner, various fertility testing may be carried out. A semen analysis is a routine fertility test for men that looks at the quantity and quality of sperm under a microscope. To test for female fertility, an AMH (Anti-Mullerian Hormone) test is available that looks at the quantity of eggs present. However, a test to check for the quality of the eggs is not yet available. Although much research indicates that improving nutritional status and lifestyle factors should help to improve the quality of female eggs.