This is the latest article in a Global News investigation into fertility in Canada, and the emotional and financial impact infertility has on Canadians struggling to conceive.
There are no-brainers when it comes to prepping for conception — quitting smoking is among the most obvious — but growing evidence shows that what you eat, in addition to what you cut out, could have a significant impact on fertility for both women and men.
“Poor ovulation is at the root of one-quarter of all cases of infertility,” says Quinn Hand, naturopathic doctor and founder of Q Wellness. “By eating a balanced and nutrient dense diet, you can increase fertility by as much as 80 per cent.”
To anyone who’s already a health-conscious eater, the fertility diet would look very familiar: a wide variety of colourful vegetables, lean protein (especially from fish sources), low-glycemic index carbohydrates like brown rice, quinoa and millet, and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
“It’s the same whole foods diet that naturopaths have advocated for a long time,” Hand says.
But there are some caveats. Where some would perhaps veer toward low-fat or no-fat dairy options to lessen the caloric load, women looking to conceive should opt instead for full-fat dairy.
In a landmark 2007 study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, researchers followed roughly 18,000 married women who conceived or attempted to conceive over an eight year period, and found that those who consumed full-fat dairy products had a decreased risk of ovulatory infertility. The study also found that those who opted for skim or reduced-fat dairy had an increased risk of infertility.
“The estrogen and progesterone that naturally occur in milk attach themselves to the fat globules,” says Lianne Phillipson, nutritionist and founder of Sprout Right, a company that specializes in preconception, prenatal and postnatal nutrition. “By skimming the fat from dairy, those hormones, as well as vital vitamins like D and K, are also removed leaving behind the male hormones. This creates an imbalance that can impair ovulation.”
For this reason, Phillipson advises her clients who are looking to conceive to consume one serving of full-fat dairy daily. That could look like one eight-ounce glass of whole or homo milk, one cup of full-fat yogurt, or 30 grams of cheese (think the size of three stacked dice).
Unfortunately, what that doesn’t mean is indulging in ice cream.
“Ice cream is at the bottom of the list of acceptable dairy options because it’s laden with sugar and other ingredients that can upset insulin levels, which can in turn trigger irregular ovulation,” Phillipson says.
In fact, the white stuff should be considered the sworn enemy of women and men looking to conceive. Because of sugar’s effects on insulin resistance, the fallouts are varied and range from diabetes to Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), an endocrine disorder that can cause infertility.
In men, sugar — especially the sugar in soda — has been linked to lower sperm count. A study conducted at the University of Utah in 2013 found male mice who ate a healthy diet supplemented with 25 per cent added sugar from soda (the equivalent of three cans) died earlier and reproduced less.
The bad news for soda drinkers doesn’t end there, either. In a different study out of Denmark conducted in 2012, researchers found that women who consumed soda had reduced levels of fertility. Although the study was meant to determine the effects of caffeine on fertility, researchers discovered that women who drank soda, both sugar-sweetened and diet, had lower rates. (Caffeine remains a grey area; some studies link it to a minor reduction in fertility while others show no effects at all.)
Processed and junk foods high in trans fats are other obvious offenders. They’re blamed for a host of health repercussions, from insulin resistance to clogged arteries. The latter is especially detrimental to men as decreased blood flow to the genitals could result in erectile dysfunction.
“Every two per cent increase in trans fat leads to a 73 per cent increase in risk of ovulatory infertility,” Hand says.
Her aforementioned diet is a good place to start when looking to boost fertility and general health, although bear in mind that not all healthy-seeming foods are created equal.
“You really should be eating organic as much as possible,” she says. “Health studies have shown that we harbour 264 different chemicals and pesticides in our bodies, 164 of which are endocrine disruptors and oxidative stressors that are bad for sperm and egg quality. The more we can decrease the burden, the better our chances are of fertility.”
Hand recognizes, however, that an all-organic diet can be out of financial reach for most people, so she suggests focusing on the “dirty dozen” list of foods that are highest in chemicals and pesticides.
Phillipson cautions against beverages that are marketed as healthy.
“When you drink a glass of orange juice, you may think you’re doing something healthy but you’re just downing concentrated sweetness with none of the fibre,” she says.
And smoothies are among the worst offenders. Unless you’re going to a smoothie bar where you’re watching someone feed fresh fruits and vegetables into the juicer, most commercially-made smoothies harbour sugars and syrups.
Here’s a handy breakdown of fertility-enhancing foods you should be eating.
Fruits and vegetables
“Eat the rainbow,” Hand says. Colourful fruits and vegetables have an assortment of antioxidants, phytochemicals and minerals that are beneficial for egg quality. Make sure your plate is made up of 50 per cent vegetables at every meal, she suggests.
Think of fish as a crucial building block for preconception and pregnancy health. Oily fish in particular (salmon, sardines, mackerel) are rich in Omega oils, which are shown to regulate hormone levels, decrease inflammation, boost sperm production and increase blood flow to the sexual organs. Look for wild caught fish, versus farmed varieties, as the latter have more PCBs (a known carcinogenic compound) in their tissues. With meat and poultry, opt for lean varieties. “Most toxins are fat soluble, so they store themselves in the fat cells of animals,” Hand says.
Low-glycemic index carbohydrates
Carbohydrates that digest slowly, like quinoa, brown rice and millet, have a high fibre content and slower release. That means they’ll have a gradual effect on your blood sugar thus preventing a surge in insulin resistance and preserving ovulation.
Unfortunately, a run of the mill multivitamin won’t cut it if you’re looking to boost fertility. For one thing, Hand says, don’t buy generic supplements. “Professional-grade vitamins contain nutrients that are easily activated by the body,” she says. “A lot of over the counter varieties contain binders and food dyes.”
Make sure to boost your diet with vitamin D, which will help with ovulation and hormonal balance; an antioxidant with vitamins A, C, E, zinc and selenium; folic acid to help prevent neural tube defects and congenital heart defects in the fetus; and CoQ10, which improves egg quality, counteracts ovarian aging and boosts sperm quality.
The jury, both medical and naturopathic, is out on subjects like caffeine and alcohol, although women and men are strongly advised to cut down on consumption if they’re trying to conceive. Eliminating it altogether is not necessary, however. Especially when you consider the psychological benefits they can have.
“Conception and fertility are stressful issues, and stress will zap your hormones,” Hand says. “If I have a patient who is super stressed out and really loves craft beer, I tell them to go out, have a beer and relax, because that helps too.”