One in six couples in Australia have fertility issues - and of those, around half will go on to seek assisted reproductive technologies (ART) such as Clomid, intrauterine insemination (IUI) and in vitro fertilisation (IVF). It's great that we have access to high-tech fertility treatments, but such technologies are no magic bullet. There's a lot we can do to boost our natural baby-making abilities before heading down that road.
According to experts, it all starts with what you eat. Healthy eating isn't only important during pregnancy, there is a huge link between fertility and diet. Eating a diet for optimum fertility will help you lose weight if you need to, and give your reproductive health the boost it might need in a world saturated with rising obesity, processed foods and environmental toxins. Unfortunately, many couples aren't aware changing what they eat can assist their fertility.
Excess Weight and Fertility Are Not Friends
“At the moment, our society seems to be getting it wrong with diet, exercise and healthy living,” says Dr Simone Campbell, fertility specialist with City Fertility Centre in Brisbane. “People are eating poorly, they're overweight. Even couples that come in to see me who aren't significantly overweight often have a very poor diet. They're not getting the nutrition they need for their long-term health, let alone trying to achieve and maintain a healthy pregnancy. Even couples having IVF who are overweight are at least 25 percent less likely to get pregnant than couples in a normal weight range.”
Studies show that women who are overweight can experience difficulty ovulating. If they do get pregnant, being overweight raises their risk of diabetes, miscarriage and hypertension. “Sometimes, even a 5 percent body-weight loss in women who are overweight and not ovulating will get them to ovulate again,” says Dr Campbell. “So losing weight can significantly increase their chances of achieving a pregnancy by themselves.”
And blokes, you're not off the hook either - if you're overweight or obese, your chances of impregnating your partner decrease. “Obesity increases the temperature of the testes, causing oxidative stress and DNA damage in sperm,” explains Dr Campbell. “It also decreases sperm production. So men who are obese can have slower sperm, less sperm and sperm that doesn't work as well.”
Want Proof That a Fertility Diet Works? Here it is...
Wouldn't it be great if you could overhaul your diet and get pregnant naturally instead of having to go down the assisted conception route? It's worth a shot if you consider the results of a 1995 study on natural fertility methods conducted at the UK's University of Surrey.
During the three-year study, researchers followed 387 couples, 59 percent of whom had experienced fertility issues in the past, including miscarriages. The couples were told to quit smoking and drinking alcohol. They also changed their diet to eat more fruit, vegetables, organic meat and dairy products, reduced their caffeine intake and took individualised fertility supplements. By the end of the study, 89 percent of the couples had given birth to a healthy baby, including 81 percent who were previously considered infertile.
Fertility Supplements for Men and Women
For her... Women should ideally take 600mcg of folic acid a day for three months prior to conception, which helps prevent abnormalities in the baby and may actually help you get pregnant in the first place, says Dr Campbell.
“Studies for [pregnancy supplement] Elevit have shown a decreased chance of abnormality in the baby across the board with mothers who took folic acid supplements. We also think that things like vitamin D and iodine, and not being iron-deficient, will improve your chance of achieving a pregnancy.”
For him... According to a UC Berkeley-affiliated study, a diet high in antioxidants boosts fertility by increasing sperm motility and sperm count. “Sperm is produced healthy and then it's stored for three months before being ejaculated,” says Dr Campbell.
“During that storage process, if the sperm is exposed to things like smoking, it will cause a lot of oxygen free-radicals, which cause oxidative stress. A diet high in antioxidants – vitamins C and E, folic acid, selenium and zinc - helps to minimise any stress to the sperm. Men trying to get their partner pregnant could take a Menevit supplement, but it doesn't have huge doses of vitamin C and E and it doesn't replace a good diet. Orange vegetables, green vegetables, tomatoes and olive oil have high doses of antioxidants.”
But What About...
Whether it's booze, doughnuts, coffee or low-fat yoghurt, here's the science on what's best to avoid when you're eating a diet to promote optimum fertility.
1. Junk food
For men, it may really be a case of ‘eat crap, shoot blanks'. A study conducted at Harvard University in 2011 found a link between fertility issues in men and junk food intake, which led to a lowered sperm count and sperm concentration. And, studies show avoiding sugar is also a good idea if you're trying to boost your fertility (there are approximately 15 teaspoons of sugar in one 600ml bottle of Coke, for example). Too much sugar and too many trans fats in your diet can lead to insulin resistance, which can have negative effects on fertility for men and women.
No more than two drinks a day and a couple of alcohol-free days a week are key for both men and women who are trying to conceive, says Dr Campbell – although some experts advocate no alcohol at all.
“There's a big difference between a couple who might have a glass of wine a couple of times a week and someone who drinks very heavily and has all the health-related issues along with that, because we know that people who are generally unhealthy are going to have unhealthier sperm and unhealthier eggs maturing,” says Dr Campbell. “So it comes back to being sensible.”
The jury's still out on how much caffeine is okay for optimum fertility. “We don't have a huge amount of evidence on the effects of caffeine on fertility, but one cup of coffee a day is probably reasonable,” says Dr Campbell. “Some people might admit to having eight espressos a day - which might indicate you're a very busy person who's just not sitting down and eating properly, or who probably eats a lot of processed foods as well. It's all intertwined.”