It is estimated that around one in seven UK couples experience difficulty in conceiving, with a poor diet being one of the major contributory factors. Unfortunately, despite its importance for conception and fertility, a lack of nutrition can often be over looked with the most common cause of infertility frequently being labelled as ‘unexplained’.
The nutritional status of an individual, whether they be male or female, impacts massively on the ability to conceive and there are certain nutrients that are known to be of paramount importance to conception and, the health of the foetus whilst in the womb and also the long term development of the child.
In this week’s article, Nutritional Therapist Sue Bedford gives us an insight into the micronutrients that play a pivotal role in potential fertility, and giving birth to a healthy baby.
My research and work within nutrition has shown me that in order to optimise the chances of conceiving a healthy baby it is important to eat a colourful diet rich in unprocessed, nutrient dense foods, making sure that a whole range of nutrients essential to fertility (naturally or through assisted reproduction) are consumed. It is important to take into account biochemical individuality when discussing correct levels of nutrients in the body as some people may require more of a particular nutrient than others (Sizer et al., 2006), deficiencies can affect the fertility of both women and men, therefore supplements should be taken as necessary, tailored to each individuals needs.
There are certain nutrients that are essential in the diet in order to provide the best chances of conceiving:
Selenium is a trace mineral that has antioxidant properties which help the body to prevent cellular damage from free radicals. Free radicals can cause chromosomal damage which is known to be a cause of miscarriages and birth defects. The antioxidant effect of Selenium is enhanced by vitamin E. Selenium also helps to regulate the functioning of the thyroid gland, supports a strong immune system, and may help reduce the risk of cancer. It is important in oogenesis and spermatogenesis. In various studies men with low sperm counts have been found to have low levels of selenium. Increasing selenium levels also leads to improved sperm motility (Mistry et al., 2012).
BEST SOURCES OF SELENIUM: WHEAT GERM, BUTTER, GARLIC, GRAINS, SUNFLOWER SEEDS, BRAZIL NUTS, WALNUTS, RAISINS, LIVER, KIDNEY, SHELLFISH, FRESH WATER and SALT WATER FISH
Vitamin C is important in male fertility as it has been shown in studies to help the motility and quality (as it is an antioxidant it helps prevent damage to DNA). In females it is thought to help the endocrine system balance oestrogen and progesterone more effectively and thus aid ovulation.
BEST SOURCES OF VITAMIN C: GREEN AND RED PEPPERS, STRAWBERRIES, PAPAYA, BROCCOLI, ORANGES, LEMONS, LIMES, KALE, CANTALOUPE MELONS, TOMATOES, POTATOES (ESPECIALLY BAKED) AND CRANBERRIES
Zinc is one of the most important minerals with regard to fertility. It is needed for the maintenance and health of hormone levels, sperm and ovaries (Derbyshire 2007). Zinc acts as a co-factor for numerous enzymes involved in DNA replication and protein synthesis. A Zinc deficiency may lead to an increased rick of miscarriage.
BEST SOURCES OF ZINC: SHELLFISH (OYSTERS ARE AN EXCELLENT SOURCE), POULTRY, PUMPKIN SEEDS AND LEAN MEAT
Folic Acid (Folate)
In women, folic acid supplementation is known to prevent several congenital malformations such as neural tube defects, but also has other effects on fertility and fertility treatment, such as, decreasing twinning rates and preventing spontaneous miscarriage (Muggli and Halliday 2007). In combination with other B vitamins (such as Vitamin B12 and Vitamin B6), it has an important role in the production of DNA and RNA.
BEST SOURCES OF FOLATE: BROCCOLI, AVOCADO, GREEN LEAFY VEGETABLES, PEAS AND BROWN RICE
BEST SOURCES OF VITAMIN B12: EGGS, CHEESE, SALMON AND MEAT
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are important in the prevention and treatment of various diseases, including both male and female infertility. They are important in ovulation, male sperm count/motility and DNA, conception and embryo development.
BEST SOURCES OF OMEGA 3: OILY FISH, SPIRULINA, WALNUTS, EGGS, FLAX, FRESH BASIL, LEAFY DARK GREEN VEGETABLES, SUCH AS SPINACH
Chromium may help improve fertility in people with PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome), due to the fact that it is thought to help to lower insulin levels and as result, testosterone levels are lowered.
It is important to ensure that insulin levels are managed as increased testosterone levels in women do not help those with PCOS.
BEST SOURCES OF CHROMIUM: ONIONS, TOMATOES, BROCCOLI, GREEN BEANS AND POTATOES
Vitamin E is thought to improve sperm quality and motility in men. It has shown to be particularly beneficial when supplemented alongside selenium. In women, vitamin E may help regulate the production of cervical mucus, which is important for conception, due to its ability to keep sperm alive for several days. A study conducted in 2010, showed that vitamin E supplementation may aid in increasing the thickness of the uterine lining in women with thin uterine lining (Takasaki et al.)
BEST SOURCES OF VITAMIN E: SUNFLOWER SEEDS, APRICOTS, EGGS, LEAFY VEGETABLES, BROCCOLI, SPINACH, NUTS AND PAPAYA
Iodine is essential for the production of the thyroid hormones. Iodine plays an important role controlling the hormone cycle in women. Iodine deficiency has been linked to menstrual irregularities, decreased sex drive, miscarriage, failure to ovulate, premature childbirth and pre-eclampsia.
BEST SOURCES OF IODINE: EGGS, SHELLFISH AND SEA VEGETABLES
With many thanks to Sue for this informative article, as mentioned, the nutritional status of both parents before conception and during pregnancy has a catalytic effect on fetal development and his or her health after birth.
The Importance of Nutrition
Many of us are nutritionally depleted, often as a result of poor dietary choices or poor quality food being consumed. Ensuring a balanced diet that provides all the vitamins, minerals and essential fats we require can be challenging and very difficult to achieve. This is largely down to the fact that the soils that we source our food from are now depleted in the nutrients that are so important for optimum health. There is now an emphasis through modern agriculture on quantity of product as opposed to quality.
The following table demonstrates some common shortfalls for essential vitamin and mineral nutrient levels as they presently exist in the Western world.
In every single instance the average Western diet is leaving us short of metabolically essential nutrients. This shortage puts fertility at major risk. If your body does not have optimal levels of the nutrients required then fertility, and the health of your baby if you manage to conceive, could be compromised.
You can read more about soil and nutrient depletion in our recent blog – Soil – The Foundations of Nutrition.
Research has demonstrated that young girls and women are particularly low in a number of nutrients that are considered essential for health and especially for pregnancy and conception.
An article titled “Pregnancy diets and early years nutrition: spreading the word” in The Guardian newspaper suggested that the nutritional health of pregnant women and young children could well be the key to a healthier Britain.
The article suggested that “Improving the diet of pregnant women was one of the most effective ways to change the health of the population, participants agreed. Good nutrition is crucial to early brain formation. However, according to a study by Alberta Pregnancy Outcomes and Nutrition, only 27% of women during pregnancy and 25% of women at three months post-birth meet the current EU recommendation for DHA (docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid). This is essential for neurological development – embryos in utero and newborns cannot make their own and so are dependent on obtaining the nutrient via their mother through the placenta or breast milk.”
Essential fatty acids, particularly Omega 3, are important during preconception planning for men and women and also during pregnancy for the cognitive development of the baby. Omega 3 is available from sources such as fish, crustaceans, algae and see oils such as flax.
A previous blog of ours titled Children’s Nutrition and School Meals goes into more depth on the importance of omega 3 for the health of babies and young children.
Although nutrition is of paramount importance to fertility, there are certain conditions that commonly prevail when a developing foetus is not receiving the optimal levels of nutrients that is required. Providing your body with optimal levels of nutrients is essential DURING pregnancy as well as before. This helps the foetus to grow and could play an important role in preventing the onset of the following conditions.
Low Birth Weight
In 2005 The World Health Organization reported that around 23.8% of all births result in ‘low birth weight’ with severe, short term and/or long term consequences. There is a recognised link between low birth weight and infant mortality, and even in the case of survival there is an increased risk of childhood illnesses and conditions such as visual and hearing impairment, neuro-development delay and behavioural disorders. Poor nutrition is recognised as being a major contributory factor of this.
The Bristol City Council recently produced an advisory booklet on Preconception and Pregnancy stating that “several studies of school age children who had a low birth weight have shown less developed language and social skills, more behavioural and attention span problems, and lower IQ, cognitive ability and academic achievement.”
The human foetus is able to synthesize its own fats, carbohydrates and proteins from metabolites such as glucose and amino acids that are transferred from the mother to the foetus. The levels of the nutrients that the foetus receives is very much dependent on the levels that are present in the blood of the mother. If these levels are low, the foetus will not be getting the nutrients required for normal growth increasing the risk of low birth weight.
Neural Tube Defects
Neural Tube Defects are birth defects that commonly effect the brain (known as anencephaly), spine or spinal chord (known as spina bifida). These defects happen in the initial months of pregnancy and can occur before the mother even knows she is pregnant.
On the MedlinePlus website it states the following:
The exact causes of neural tube defects aren’t known. You’re at greater risk of having an infant with a neural tube defect if you:
- Are obese
- Have poorly controlled diabetes
- Take certain anti-seizure medicines
Research has demonstrated a link between the intake of folic acid and the prevention of neural tube defects stating that “Folic acid supplementation has been proven to decrease or minimize specific birth defects”. For more information regarding the relevant studies conducted please follow the link.
Finally, in order to heighten your chances of conception it is incredibly important to make sure both you and your partner are reaching optimal levels of nutrition on a daily basis – A well nourished diet and suitable supplementation is the ideal way of making sure of this.
Poor diet, unhealthy food choices, smoking and alcohol have the potential to make the baby more susceptible through life to a whole range of illnesses. Conversely a good nourishing wholefood diet with optimum levels of key nutrients will impact beneficially on fertility and the long term health of the baby.
If you have any questions regarding any of the health topics raised in this article, or any other health matters please do contact me (Amanda) by phone or email at any time.
Amanda Williams, Cytoplan Ltd
[email protected], 01684 310099
Relevant Cytoplan Blogs
Our ‘Pregna-Plan’ supplement is specifically formulated for all stages of pregnancy and breastfeeding and the formula is ideal to aid preconception planning for women too. Pregna-Plan comprises all of the most appropriate vitamins and minerals necessary for women and baby during preconception, pregnancy and breastfeeding. This includes the current UK Government recommendations comprising Folic Acid and Vitamin D. Suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
Sizer, F. and Noss Whitney, E. (2006) Nutrition Concepts and Controversies. 10th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson Learning.
Mistry et al., (2012) Selenium in reproductive health. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 206(1):pp21-30.
Derbyshire, E. (2007) Dietary factors and fertility in women of childbearing age. Nutrition & Food Science, 37:2, pp 100 – 104.
Muggli, E. and Halliday, I. (2007) Folic acid and risk of twinning: a systematic review of the recent literature; Med Journal: 186: pp 243-8.
Takasaki A, Tamura H, Miwa I, Taketani T, Shimamura K, Sugino N (2010). Endometrial growth and uterine blood flow: a pilot study for improving endometrial thickness in the patients with a thin endometrium. Fertil. Steril. 93 (6): pp1851–8.