Fertility issues are on the increase and one in every five or six Irish couples now struggle to conceive. This is down to many different factors, but the good news is that nutrition can have a positive impact on both male and female fertility, whether trying to conceive naturally or via IVF. Read on or watch Heather explain more on Virgin Media Weekend AM.
Can nutrition really help?
There are lots of reasons for fertility issues, from the fact that we are leaving it later to conceive, to environmental and many other factors. Nutrition can’t help with everything. For example, if a man has a varicocele or another structural issue, surgery may be needed. But there is a huge amount of evidence showing the important role that nutrition plays in both male and female fertility.
Women are born with a fixed number of eggs and nutrition cannot change that. However, the right diet and lifestyle can support egg quality, the foetal environment and the immune response that plays a key role in maintaining a pregnancy. This is especially important as we get older, which unfortunately in fertility terms is over 35.
While the focus used to be firmly on the woman, we now know that up to 40% of fertility issues are down to the man. As men are making new sperm all the time there is a huge opportunity to influence sperm quantity and quality. This includes the DNA health of the sperm.
What is the ideal fertility diet?
There is no such thing as a perfect diet for everyone. We all have different requirements and some people may have underlying conditions including autoimmune disease or thyroid disorders affecting their fertility that require more individual advice. However, the evidence shows that there are some good general dietary guidelines when trying to conceive:
- Limit processed foods – these are usually lower in nutrients and higher in additives and other chemicals than unprocessed foods. A good example is yoghurt. Natural yoghurt is a minimally processed whole food providing minerals, protein and beneficial bacteria. A fruit or flavoured yoghurt is likely to have preservatives, additives and flavourings added
- Limit sugar – partly because a higher sugar usually contributes to weight gain, that can be problematic for fertility and partly because higher sugar foods squeeze out more nutritious options
- Eat a wholefood Mediterranean-style diet with lots of vegetables, some fruit, fish, pulses, wholegrains, nuts and seeds. Eating in this way naturally reduces processed foods and sugars and provides many more nutrients to support egg and sperm quality. Even making small changes like adding in an extra portion or two of vegetables every day, having oily fish twice per week or switching to wholegrains can make a difference
- Look after your microbiome – the 2 lbs or so of bacteria, yeasts and other organisms that we host mainly in our gut. There is a growing body of evidence on the importance of a healthy microbiome for both male and female fertility and for IVF success. It’s a massive topic in it’s own right, but a healthy microbiome thrives on a whole food diet low in sugar and processed foods with the addition of fermented food like yoghurt, kefir or kimchi to provide beneficial bacteria. And if you have gut issues it may be helpful to check your microbiome while you are preparing to conceive. Or if you have had fertility issues, it may be helpful to assess your vaginal microbiome.
Do men and women need different nutrients for fertility?
There are some specific requirements related to the ability of the sperm to move. Certain nutrients like L Carnitine and CoQ10 can be helpful. And others that can more specifically support egg quality and female hormone health like inositol. However, many of the nutritional requirements for egg and sperm quality are similar. There is very good evidence for some nutrients, including omega 3, vitamin D and zinc.
Zinc is particularly important for male fertility, but also for female immune response and egg quality. An Irish study published in 2022 concluded that almost 90% of participants had inadequate zinc intake from food. Food sources include meat, sea food, fish, eggs and also beans, nuts and seeds, wholegrains and dairy products.
Omega 3 is needed for a healthy cell membrane, whether sperm or egg. Our best source is oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines and anchovies. To get enough omega 3 you would need to be eating oily fish 2 or 3 times per week. If you don’t eat fish, then you can get some omega 3 in ground linseeds (flax seeds), pumpkin, hemp and chia seeds and walnuts. However you only covert a small amount into the usable forms of omega 3 and may not be getting enough.
Vitamin D is known to play an important role in both male and female fertility in a number of different ways. We know that the majority of Irish people have suboptimal levels of vitamin D, especially over the winter months
Many other nutrients like selenium, vitamin E and vitamin A play important roles in cell and hormone function.
Should I take supplements?
Supplements can be helpful, especially to plug gaps. For example if you don’t eat fish, then taking an omega 3 supplement is likely to be helpful, as long as it contains sufficient EPA and DHA. If you live in Ireland it is probably a good idea to take a vitamin D supplement, at least over the winter. How much to take varies widely, depending on individual levels.
Too much of a single nutrient can be as harmful as too little. Everyone has different requirements and we don’t recommend supplementing high doses of singer nutrients without checking your levels first. A fertility multivitamin can help to cover basic requirements, but may not contain enough to address deficiencies. It is also very important when taking supplements that you check they are suitable to take while trying to conceive, as many are not.
If you would like to learn more about testing your nutrient levels or microbiome for fertility please get in touch.