So much of the conversation of how to support fertility focuses on those people who are currently trying to conceive, those people who want a baby now. But what if you know that you want a family in the future just not right now, how can the diet and lifestyle choices that you make today protect your future fertility and improve your chances of conceiving in the future.
Future Female Fertility
Women can protect their future fertility by focusing on two main areas of our reproductive health: our ovarian reserve and hormone balance. The term ovarian reserve refers to the number of eggs left in a woman’s two ovaries and it is a strong influencer of fertility and chances of getting pregnant. We are born with all the eggs we will ever need and this number naturally declines as we get older, but good nutrition and lifestyle practices can help to reduce the speed of the decline in your ovarian reserve and therefore support your chances of getting pregnant later in life.
Focusing on having good hormone balance will not only support a regular menstrual cycle (an important factor in female fertility) it will also protect the reproductive organs and keep them healthy.
How can diet and lifestyle choices protect ovarian reserve
Our ovarian reserve is going to diminish as we get older, that’s a fact, but we also know that our age is not the only factor that influences ovarian reserve, our diet and lifestyles can also positively or negatively influence how quickly our ovarian reserve declines, so therefore dietary choices today can really impact our chances of getting pregnant in the future. The research tells us that diet can impact ovarian reserve in a number of ways:
It’s all about the antioxidants – Antioxidants are nutrients and chemicals that occur naturally in fruits and vegetables, often providing that plant food with the pigments that give it colour. Antioxidants protect our cells from damage and ageing and therefore they can help protect our ovarian reserve. Ensuring our diet is rich in antioxidants is crucial in protecting ovarian reserve and the research tells us that we should focus on consuming a number of specific antioxidants:
Resveratrol – reserveratrol is commonly found in red grapes, so this antioxidant is the reason drinking red wine is associated with so many health benefits. It can also be found in peanuts, pistachios, blueberries and dark chocolate. If you are going to choose red wine as your source of resveratrol avoid drinking a bottle of red in one sitting as binge drinking will negate any of the antioxidant benefits in the red wine.
Quercetin – found in onions, apples, capers and green tea. Quercetin is a powerful antioxidant and possibly the reason why an apple a day protects our health.
Curcumin – curcumin gives the spice turmeric its vibrant yellow colour. Try and consume meals made with turmeric on a regular basis, even if you aren’t making a curry why not toss your vegetables with some turmeric before roasting or add a teaspoon to cooking water when boiling rice or potatoes.
Proanthocyanidin – this antioxidant give fruits and vegetables their purple, blue or red colour so you’ll find them in berries, pomegranates and red wine. Fresh berries can be expensive so opt for frozen berries, while vegetables such as red onion, red cabbage and even black beans are more budget friendly sources of this important antioxidant.
Beta-cryptoxanthin – one study found a very strong relationship between consumption of this antioxidant and protection of ovarian reserve, you’ll find it in peaches, mandarins and oranges.
Eat more good fats – eating the right type of fat is a strong predictor of good ovarian reserve, so aim to get more of the good omega-3 fats found in oily fish, walnuts and flax seeds. Women who have better stores of these fats are consistently found to have better ovarian reserve possibly becausethese good fats protect our bodies from inflammation and we know that inflammation can speed up the decline of our ovarian reserve. It’s also important to reduce intake of the bad pro-inflammatory fats at the same time, so try and avoid sunflower oil, corn oil and vegetable oil, all of which drive inflammation.
Drink responsibly: while it’s not essential to cut out alcohol completely to protect your future fertility it is important to be mindful of the way that you drink. Aim to avoid binge drinking at the weekend, instead spread your alcohol consumption across your week. Binge drinking depletes the body’s antioxidant stores and, as we’ve seen above antioxidants are crucial in promoting future fertility. Choosing red wine as your preferred tipple might also have benefits due to the antioxidant content, in fact wines such as malbec, pinot noir and shiraz provide the most antioxidants.
Cut the cigarettes: let’s face it cigarettes are bad news for our health and that includes our future fertility. Cigarettes will negatively impact ovarian reserve and significantly reduce chances of getting pregnant in the future. So don’t put it off, try to quit today.
Sleep matters: getting enough sleep is one of the most important things we can do for our health and if we think about it, it doesn’t cost us anything. When we sleep we produce the sleep hormone melatonin, which has another role in our bodies, it acts like an antioxidant, protecting our cells. Melatonin has been shown to slow down the rate at which our ovarian reserve declines. So aim to get around 7 hours of sleep a night to ensure you are producing sufficient melatonin.
Ditch the plastic: maybe you are trying to reduce your use of plastic for environmental reasons, but did you know that avoiding exposure to plastic can support your fertility? A specific type of plastic called Bisphenol A (BPA) is known to interfere with fertility and hormone balance and negatively impact ovarian reserve. BPA is found in plastic water bottles, cling film and Tupperware, so invest in a stainless steel refillable water bottle and glass food containers (or reuse jam jars) and avoid wrapping food in cling film.
Eat a hormone balancing diet
The food choices we make can have both a positive and negative impact on the balance of our reproductive hormones, potentially impacting the regularity of our menstrual cycle and the health of our reproductive organs. Getting the balance right will not only support hormonal health today but could also make getting pregnant that much easier when the time comes.
Fill up on phytoestrogens – the word phytoesytrogens literally means plant oestrogens, and certain foods contain these compounds that can help promote female hormone balance in a number of ways. These plant oestrogens help to balance oestrogenic activity when oestrogen is both high and low, so can help keep menstrual cycles regular and can help prevent hormonal imbalance conditions where oestrogen activity is too high (such as endometriosis or fibroids). Phytoestrogens also promote production of a substance called Sex Hormone Binding Globulin (SHBG), which binds to hormones in our bloodstream and helps to balance and regulate hormonal activity. Foods that provide phytoestrogens include: flaxseeds, beans and lentils, tahini, pomegranates, sweet potato, edamame beans. Hummus is an ideal source of phytoestrogens to consume daily as two of its main ingredients chickpeas and tahini are a rich source of phytoestrogens.
Interestingly some research indicates that we get the most benefit from phytoestrogens when they are converted into active substances by the good bacteria that live within our gut (our gut microbiome), so supporting this population of good bacteria by eating fermented foods and using a probiotic supplement is an important way to support hormone balance.
Brilliant Brassicas – eating vegetables that belong to the broccoli family of vegetables (also known as brassicas) is another way to promote and maintain good hormone balance through dietary changes. These vegetables contain a compound called indole-3-carbinol that helps to remove excess oestrogen from our body and therefore can be beneficial in oestrogen dominant conditions and to ensure a proper ratio of oestrogen to progesterone (an imbalance in this ratio is one of the main causes of hormonal imbalance for women in their 30s). Women should aim to eat at least one serving of the following vegetables every day: broccoli, purple sprouting broccoli, tenderstem broccoli, kale, cavolo nero, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, radish, rocket, pak choi, kohlrabi, radish and swede.
Keep sugar consumption to a minimum – when we eat sugar (and refined white carbohydrates) our bodies respond by producing the metabolic hormone insulin. The more sugar we eat the more insulin we will produce. Unfortunately insulin also has the potential to disturb our reproductive hormone balance as it can encourage the body to produce higher levels of male hormones (androgens). For women higher than normal levels of androgens can interfere with ovulation and regularity of menstrual cycle. So try and focus on having treats 1 or 2 times a week and keeping sugar intake to a minimum.
Alcohol and hormone imbalances – Drinking alcohol can have a direct impact on female hormone balance, even moderate consumption can lead to an increase in oestrogen levels and a drop in progesterone, an imbalance that can affect the regularity and length of the menstrual cycle. As outlined above avoid binge drinking sessions and aim to keep alcohol intake to a minimum.
Maintaining a healthy weight and BMI is important as it can impact upon both ovarian reserve and hormone balance. Fat tissue, often referred to as adipose tissue, is actually a biologically active substance that produces inflammatory compounds and can interfere with proper hormonal health.
Fat tissue produces inflammatory messengers called adipokines and being overweight will result in a chronic low grade inflammatory state. Inflammation in the body can promote the decline of ovarian reserve and therefore having a BMI that is above normal could contribute to a faster than normal decline in fertility. Fat cells also produce a substance called aromatase that encourages the body to produce oestrogen, therefore, being overweight can result in excessive oestrogen production, a state that can interfere with proper ovulation and impact negatively on the health of reproductive organs.
Losing weight is not always as simple as eating less and moving around more (in fact calorie reduction has been proven not to work in the long run), if you do need to lose weight it is a good idea to seek the support and advice of a medical professional or nutritional therapist.
Future Male Fertility
While much of our focus today has been on how women can support their future fertility, there are a number of important ways in which men can support their future fertility too. Men don’t have exactly the same concern as women do because their reserve of sperm will not diminish, in fact men are constantly producing new sperm through a process called spermatogenesis. However male fertility alos declines with age and there are a number of key lifestyle considerations that men can take on board to promote good hormone balance that will help protect their future fertility.
Maintain muscle mass – the more muscle mass men have triggers the body to produce testosterone so maintaining good muscle mass through exercise and resistance training and avoiding a sedentary lifestyle is important to maintain and support male hormone balance.
Sleep more – the amount of sleep a man gets is directly linked to his testosterone levels. The testosterone used during the day is replenished during sleep and therefore insufficient sleep will lead to a drop in testosterone levels. Aim for a good sleep pattern of at least 7 hours a night to support healthy testosterone levels.
What on earth are telomeres and how can they protect our future fertility?
In terms of scientific understanding telomeres are a relatively recent discovery. Telomeres are a small protective cap on the end of chromosomes that keep our DNA healthy by preventing chromosomes from becoming damaged and fraying (they are often compared to the protective cap on the end of shoelaces). Because of this role in protecting DNA quality telomeres play a key role in the cell ageing process and preventing premature cell ageing. Keeping telomeres and the DNA within reproductive cells healthy could be an important focus in prolonging and protecting future fertility.
The longer telomeres are the better they do their job and we are beginning to understand that a number of dietary and lifestyle behaviours can help maintain telomere length and, as a result, could prevent premature cell ageing in our reproductive organs. Research indicates that following a Mediterranean dietary pattern rich in vegetables, fruit, beans and good fats from olive oil while also enjoying regular moderate (but not excessive) exercise can help maintain telomere length. On top of that supporting production of the antioxidant glutathione can help improve telomere length. Glutathione is produced in the body using the minerals selenium and sulphur. So eating sulphur-rich foods such as the Brassica vegetables (see above) and onions, leeks and garlic and selenium-rich foods including shellfish, turkey and eggs will support glutathione levels.
It’s clear that age is not the only factor that impacts our fertility and the diet and lifestyle choices we make today can play a really important role in maintaining and protecting our fertility until we are ready to start a family.
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