Nutrition and fertility: Food for thought
Healthy body + healthy mind = healthy life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard patients ask, If I take a few months off and “get healthy,” will I conceive? In all seriousness, there is some truth to this. While fad diets, rapid weight-loss plans and pineapple-core binges likely will not result in instant conception, there is definitely data to support your effort to maximize your health while trying to conceive.
What are healthy vitamins and foods that contribute to reproductive health?
A well-balanced, healthy diet
“Change has to start from the building blocks: your everyday meals and snacks”, says Sophia Zheng, a dietitian specializing in pre-conception health and weight management. “Taking all of the supplements recommended by your doctor should not be a reason to over-indulge in foods and drinks that you know are not too nutritious”.
For both men and women, food and fertility are linked. Stick to a balanced diet to boost your chances of a healthy baby. Eat adequate servings of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and calcium-rich foods such as yogurt and milk every day. Take this opportunity to clean up your diet for better reproductive and long-term health!
Prenatal vitamins and folic acid
This might seem obvious, and you may be thinking, “I’ve been on folic acid forever and I have not conceived yet!” The truth is that folic acid supplementation is crucial to a successful early pregnancy.
Many women who are trying to conceive will get pregnant on a month off, while on vacation or when they least suspect it, and having appropriate levels of folic acid in the blood is very important to the development of your baby’s spine and neural tube. This is why we say women should be on folic acid for at least three months prior to conceiving.
The recommended dose is 400 micrograms of folic acid per day, but most prenatal vitamins have 1 mg. So, remember that prenatal every morning! Some foods that are rich in folic acid include bean and lentils (average 200 mcg in three-quarter cups cooked), grain products (average 100 mcg in half a cup cooked or 1 slice), and green vegetables (average 170 mcg in half a cup cooked).
Vitamin D has many benefits. Published data shows that subfertile and infertile women, as well as women who experience recurrent pregnancy loss, are often low in vitamin D.
The recommendation is that women who are trying to conceive take 1000 IU of vitamin D in the summer and 2000 IU in the winter. And in Canada, where sunlight is often at a bare minimum, vitamin D is even more important because our daily natural exposure is lower than in other parts of the world.
Food sources of vitamin D include fish (an average of 380 IU in 75 g cooked), milk and yogurt (an average of 100 IU in 1 cup) and eggs (73 IU in two large).
Antioxidants reduce free radicals, which are byproducts of many reactions in our body and can be toxic to many of our cells and organs. There is a lot of buzz on the Internet about taking antioxidants to promote heart and brain health and potentially reduce cancer risk.
In the fertility world, antioxidants can help, particularly men’s reproductive health. Taking antioxidants can reduce high DNA fragmentation in sperm. This often occurs in men who are smokers, who are over 40 or who have had exposure to any other toxins, such as chemotherapy and radiation. In addition, antioxidants can help men who have abnormal semen parameters by improving motility and morphology (i.e. the shape of sperm) in as little as three months.
Well-known benefits of omega-3 fatty acids include improving cognitive development of the fetus and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and more studies are suggesting it boosts fertility! Although more research has to be done to confirm this benefit, it doesn’t hurt to increase intake.
Aim for 240 to 360 g of low-mercury seafood per week. Good choices include salmon, Atlantic mackerel, rainbow trout, lake whitefish, shrimp, mussel and oyster. Non-seafood sources of omega-3 include flaxseed, walnut and omega-3-enriched eggs.
If these foods are not for you, then it’s not a bad idea to take a supplement instead. Many times you can get multiple supplements from one food. Take fatty fish: It is rich in vitamin D, omega-3 and co-enzyme Q10, allowing you to get all of your vitamins from one food source!
Coq10 is the new en vogue fertility vitamin! While best known as an active ingredient in creams intended to promote younger-looking skin, coq10 has been shown in numerous studies to improve egg quality and possibly increase pregnancy rates. It works by providing more energy (ATP) to the special organs in a woman’s eggs (mitochondria).
The recommended dose of co-enzyme Q10 for women who are trying to conceive is 600 to 800 mg per day. Typically, we recommend that any woman over the age of 35 or who have failed prior treatment cycles or who have a diminished egg reserve be on coQ10.
Fertility treatments typically involve taking hormones, whether in pill or injection form. Hormonal side effects could include bloating and nausea. These side effects can be managed by eating healthy and staying hydrated. It’s important to drink a fair amount of water daily when undergoing fertility treatments (the recommended amount for women is 6 to 8 glasses per day).
Certain conditions associated with fertility medications, such as ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), might require you to restrict water intake. Speak to your fertility doctor while undergoing treatment to see what makes sense for you.
While you might feel like you need a pill box to remember all of the vitamins and meds you have to take on your fertility journey, keep in mind that they’re all for a great cause and that they can help optimize your success rate and future pregnancy! That being said, try your best to get nutrients from foods, because you will benefit from many more types of nutrients than what a single supplement has to offer — and that’s a win win! As always, speak to your doctor and consider getting a referral to a registered dietitian to discuss the benefits and any risks of supplements you are taking and what foods and vitamins are right for you!