Sorry for the delay in posts. We just moved into a new place, I was traveling for a baby shower, and honestly, being 7 months pregnant is tiring! I had fully intended to make this nutrition and fertility series just two parts, but as I started writing this second one, I realized it was just too much to put in one post. Instead, I have decided to divide it in two; the first will focus on male fertility and nutrition. The next (and third in this series) will focus on female nutrition needs to support fertility and a healthy pregnancy.
In our last pregnancy post, I talked about how important it is to get yourself ready for a baby. Not just mentally, but physically, with proper exercise and nutrition. The focus of Part I was the negative impact excess body fat can have on your pregnancy pursuit. This post, as promised, focuses on the more specific nutrition that can help fuel your fertility and keep mom and baby growing and healthy once your attempts prove fruitful.
Full disclosure – I’m a big fan of alternative, holistic, and often considered “non-scientific” medicine. In an effort to make be as creditable as possible, I have refrained from using some of the sources that I most value in my own health and nutrition considerations, like Sally Fallon and Weston Price. I do want to touch on some of these more “natural” and “ancient” nutrition traditions in a future post very soon, but will start by focusing on nutrition recommendations that have come out of scholarly articles and research.
Let me say, first, that just like with overweight and obesity and fertility, male nutrition is just as important in the conception game as female. Some key nutrients found to increase fertility or increase the risk of infertility if deficient include the following:
Lycopene – this is a dietary antioxidant (helps protect cells, including those high-susceptible sperm cells! – from damage). Lycopene has been found to be present in semen, which makes sense, since these little guys need extra protection from damage. Men suffering from infertility were found to have much lower levels than those who were not. Fortunately, your lycopene levels can be increased pretty easily with nutrition. It’s found in tomatoes and watermelons, in particular!
Vitamins E & C – again, these vitamins are very potent antioxidants, improving sperm quality by reducing oxidative damage. Healthier sperm = better chance of conceiving! Nut oils, olive oil, seeds, and fatty fish like salmon are great sources of vitamin E, while citrus fruits and vegetables are a wonderful source of vitamin C. It’s important to note, before you just go scouring your local supplement store, in most studies, supplemental doses of such vitamins had very little effect, while whole food sources (getting your vitamins from actual food), had a much more significant impact.
Selenium – another powerful antioxidant (see? sperm are fragile!). Selenium also promotes testosterone production and studies have found that testicular morphology (make-up) and function are negatively affected by a selenium deficiency. Sources? Nuts, fish, whole grains. And, as mentioned above, supplementation was not found to be beneficial, but, in fact, often had a negative effect.
Copper – can you guess? Why, an antioxidant! Adequate copper intake from whole food sources helps protect sperm from damage and results in healthier sperm. Oysters, sesame seeds, chocolate, and nuts are all great sources. Supplementation can lead to “excessive” intake, which actually has a negative effect on reproductive organs.
Zinc – mineral essential for maintenance of germ cells, progression of sperm production, and sperm motility. Dietary restriction can result in reduced sperm count, while excess levels from supplementation can be not only detrimental to sperm and reproductive health, but also lead to a copper deficiency! Sources include shellfish and lean meat, as well as pumpkin seeds.
Folic Acid – promotes normal sperm generation, sperm maturation, DNA metabolism, synthesis, and repair. Total normal sperm count increased with folic acid levels. Dark leafy greens, fruits, and whole grain cereals are your best sources.
L-Carnitine – required for the metabolism, maturation, and mobility of sperm, as well as playing an antioxidant role. When levels increased, sperm motility and pregnancy rates improved in those affected by male infertility. Red meat, dairy products, fish, poultry, wheat, asparagus, avocados, and peanut butter are all good sources, with the animal-derived options being superior choices.
Phytoestrogens – This one is special, as increased intake may actually have a NEGATIVE effect on fertility, meaning you should try to avoid these compounds if you’re trying to get pregnant. The most obvious source of phytoestrogens is soy. Phytoestrogens, as their name might suggest, act like estrogen. This may alter reproductive hormones, sperm production, and overall fertility. Increased soy intake has been associated with lower sperm concentration. So, what to avoid? All forms of soy, especially non-traditionally prepared. In other words, miso, soy sauce, and natto, all fermented forms of soy, are much less detrimental than soy in a more “raw” form, like edamame, tofu, soy oil (found in just about every processed product!), and soy protein isolate (protein bars, granola bars, protein powder, etc – check your ingredient lists!) (1,2)
Beyond specific nutrients, pesticides, especially agricultural ones, have been found to affect fertility in both males and females. (3) I know organic produce is expensive and organic, properly-fed animal products are even more expensive, but , reducing your pesticide load is very vital in keeping yourself healthy and increasing your likelihood of successful conception. One good possibility to increase your organic fruit and veggie intake without worrying about the bill? Seek out local organic farms. Offer to volunteer at the farm – a few hours, a day, whatever you can – in exchange for free produce. Most farmers, especially organic ones, are in desperate need of extra hands, but do not have the financial resources to hire more people. They do, however, often have excess produce they’d happily provide for the extra help!
What about the ladies? What nutritional recommendations may increase your fertility and chances of a healthy pregnancy? We’ll talk about the prime baby-bakers next time! In the meantime, if the male partner’s diet is good, chances are the female partner is off to a very good start!
(1) Szostak-Wegierek D. Nutrition and fertility. Europe Pubmed. 2011. http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/22516697
(2) Dupont C, Faure C, Sermondade N, Boubaya M, Eustache F, Clement P, Briot P, Berthaut I, Levy V, Cedrin-Durnerin I, Benzacken B, Chavatte-Palmer P, & Levy R. Obesity leads to higher risk of sperm DNA damage in infertile patients. 2013. Asian J Androl. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3881654/
(3) WebMD: 8 Ways to Boost Your Fertility