Preconception Care and Nutrition for Fertility: where to start
By Sarah Trimble Nutrition
Dietary and lifestyle changes are key in helping to prepare your body for conception. When we are trying to conceive we are essentially trying to improve the health of our bodies right down to a cellular level, aiming to produce healthy cells and healthy eggs. It can be difficult to know how best to achieve this and understand which changes should be prioritised, so I’ve put together an evidence-based guide on where to begin.
Instead of focusing on specific foods that promote reproductive health it is important to begin by addressing your dietary pattern, the balance of foods that you consume. Time and again the research tells us that following the Mediterranean dietary pattern is the most beneficial way to eat to improve our reproductive health. Men eating a Mediterranean diet have better sperm quality, while women who followed a Mediterranean style diet were found to have much greater chances of success in assisted conception.
Even if you don’t live in a Mediterranean climate you can achieve a Mediterranean dietary pattern by following a few key principles.
The term plant-based diet is now commonly used to refer to a vegan diet. However, this phrase was initially used to refer to a Mediterranean dietary approach that is based around an abundance of vegetables and fruit. Mediterranean meals are based around a variety of fresh and seasonal vegetables, so focus on filling up half your plate with vegetables at each main meal. Fresh fruit should replace sugary snacks and is often served as dessert at the end of a meal. Ideally if you are following a Mediterranean dietary approach you should be consuming 5 portions of vegetables and 2 portions of fruit every day.
Eat the Rainbow
Fruit and vegetables are our main dietary source of antioxidants, the nutrients that protect our reproductive cells from damage and promote egg and sperm quality. These antioxidants are often the compounds that give fruit and vegetables their bright colours, for example, beta carotene in carrots – so by eating a variety of colours of fruit and vegetables daily we can ensure we are consuming a greater variety of these all important antioxidants.
Meat in moderation
The Mediterranean diet is plant based, but it does not exclude meat, fish or shellfish completely. Instead the focus is on eating high quality animal products in moderation. This is a key benefit of the Mediterranean diet for reproductive health because red meat is the best dietary source of the mineral zinc, which is absolutely essential for male fertility. In fact high quality grass-fed red meat can also be a source of the GOOD omega-3 fats which we normally associate with fish consumption. Have good quality red meat 1-2 times a week to ensure you are getting enough of these essential nutrients.
Love your legumes
Beans and lentils are a central ingredient in a Mediterranean diet, usually consumed on a daily basis. Beans and lentils are a nutritional package that combines slow release carbohydrates with protein and soluble fibre, so not only do they fill us up for longer, they have a very positive impact on blood sugar levels. Incorporating beans and lentils into a meal reduces the blood sugar response to that meal, helping to prevent blood sugar levels getting too high. This is a key goal for a fertility promoting diet as we know that high blood sugar levels can negatively impact male and female fertility. Aim to have one serving of beans or lentils daily by adding beans to a soup or salad at lunch time or try hummus as a snack with raw vegetables.
Olive oil is probably the most important ingredient in the Mediterranean diet and for a very good reason. Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat that helps control and reduce levels of inflammation. Olive oil is packed full of dietary antioxidants, and on top of that dressing salads and vegetables with olive oil will actually increase the absorption of antioxidants present in those vegetables. Choose extra virgin olive oil as it is highest in antioxidants and aim to consume around 2 tbsp daily in salad dressings or drizzled over cooked vegetables.
Alcohol is not forbidden in the Mediterranean diet, however, the alcohol choices and the way it is consumed differ from a Northern European approach. A Mediterranean dietary approach focuses on consuming small servings of alcohol across a week and this alcohol is usually in the form of wine, especially antioxidant-rich red wine. Whereas, in Northern Europe, it is more common to consume most of our alcoholic drinks at the weekend, consuming 4 or more drinks in one day is considered binge drinking. Binge drinking has a rapid negative impact on our reproductive health as it leads to elevations of an inflammatory toxin (called LPS) in our bloodstreams. Higher levels of LPS have been shown to have a negative impact on reproductive health. So avoid binge drinking sessions at the weekend and limit intake to 2 alcoholic drinks in one day.
Managing and avoiding stress could be the most important lifestyle change you make in promoting and protecting your reproductive health. All the health benefits of eating a healthy diet can be easily negated if we are experiencing high levels of stress. Stress is the ultimate hormone disruptor for both men and women and has the potential to reduce chances of conception. When women are stressed and producing higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, they can experience a reduction in progesterone levels, which are essential in promoting conception. For men, higher levels of cortisol may contribute to lower sperm number and motility. It is not always possible to avoid stress and often trying to conceive is a stressful time, so try to focus on activities that we know help to reduce cortisol levels such as gentle exercise, sleep, yoga, meditation, massage, reflexology or just spending time with friends.
Get more sleep
There is a direct relationship between the amount of sleep we get and our fertility. Research has found that women getting less than seven hours of sleep are 15% less likely to get pregnant than women who got seven to eight hours. Men who got more sleep were also found to have better quality sperm. Not only does sleep reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, but men produce testosterone when they sleep. On top of that the sleep hormone melatonin has been shown to improve egg and sperm quality. So try getting a bit more sleep, it’s an effective (and free) way to support your reproductive health.
Many scientists attribute the drop in fertility rates worldwide to the variety of hormone-disrupting chemicals we are all exposed to in our day to day lives. In fact, exposure to chemicals such as pesticides and plastics is probably the main environmental factor contributing to a drop in fertility rates. The plastic BPA is known to directly reduce egg quality and chances of conceiving in women. It is essential to reduce exposure to these chemicals when trying to conceive by removing them from your home environment and diet as much as possible. Start with removing plastic containers and cling film from the kitchen, avoiding water in plastic bottles and buying organic food wherever possible. Be wary of advice promoting fertility detoxes or cleanses as these could negatively impact conception.
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