Patients often ask whether their eating habits are affecting their fertility. There is evidence to suggest that modifying your diet may be a natural, low-cost option to improve your chances of conceiving, especially if you have certain infertility diagnoses, such as irregular ovulation and PCOS, or are undergoing IVF.
The Nurse's Health Study (NHS), one of the largest investigations conducted on female health habits, has provided clinicians with important information about the effect of diet on a women's reproductive system.
Why diet can have a positive or negative impact on fertility
Carbohydrates, proteins and fats are all essential nutrients in a diet. Each plays an important role in maintaining proper hormonal balance essential for ovulation and menstruation.
Too many simple carbohydrates can increase blood sugar and insulin levels. This, in turn, contribues to insulin resistance which then disrupts the interplay with each other. Fats, which provide the building blocks for steroid hormones (such as estrogen, progesterone and testosterone), can also turn genes on or off, stimulating or calming inflammation and influencing cell function.
Pay attention to the type of carbohydrates, proteins and fat
According to the NHS, women who ate highly refined carbohydrates or fast carbs (white rice, french fries) were 92% more likely to have had ovulatory infertility than women who ate "slow" carbs (brown rice, oatmeal, dark bread). These two types of carbohydrates vary in how fast they impact blood sugar.
Large population-based studies found that consuming more protein from plants and less from animals resulted in less ovulatory infertility. The study concluded that consuming five percent of total calories as vegetable protein (beans, nuts) rather than animal protein (meat) was associated with a more than 50 percent lower risk of ovulatory infertility.
Unsaturated fats, such as those found in olive and other vegetable oils, can improve fertility by improving insulin sensitivity while trans-fats do the opposite. Trans-fats are typically found in fast food and many commercially prepared products.
The type of food you consume is more significant than the amount
One of the most interesting findings from among the 18,555 women in the NHS is that quality is more important than quantity. Interestingly, the total amount of carbs was not connected with ovulatory infertility; rather, it was the type of carbs, ie. fast carbs versus slow ones. The same was found for fats; diets rich in trans-fats were particularly bad for ovulation and conception.
Is a Mediterranean diet the answer?
A Mediterranean diet is abundant in fruits, vegetables, fish, legumes, olive oil, and a moderate amount of dairy and wine. Two recent studies have noted that women who consume this diet had improved fertility, including higher IVF success. In one study, the consumption of vegetable oils rich in linoleic acid and Vitamin B turned out to be an important positive addition to a diet. Both studies warrant more investigation.
Increase your folic acid and vitamin B intake
Folic acid and other vitamin B vitamins improve the likelihood of ovulation and fertility and prepare you for pregnancy. Furthermore, women who consume iron supplements or diets rich in non-heme iron (primarily found in fruits, vegetables, and beans) also had decreased rates of ovulatory infertility. Numerous studies suggest that vitamin D deficiency may be determintal to reproduction.
Men are affected, too
Men can help optimize their fertility by maintaining a healthy weight; men who are obese have lower testosterone levels, increased insulin resistance and decreased semen parameters. According to a Danish study, high saturated fat in men is associated with lower sperm concentration and total counts.
HRC physicians continually strive to improve fertility treatment and pregnancy outcomes in ways that also can enhance your lifestyle, overall health and the way you feel about your body.
We suggest starting a diet that includes more carbohydrates, plant-based proteins and unsaturated fats while supplementing it with folic acid and vitamin B--two steps with potentially significant impact.