About 15-25 percent of couples are unable to achieve pregnancy after 12 months of trying to conceive. If this is you, you are not alone. The question I want to answer for you today is whether nutrition can help improve those odds and increase the chances of getting pregnant. The good news is that a growing body of research suggests that, yes, nutrition may be a factor for improving fertility in both women and men.
Did you know that sub-optimal lifestyles such as eating a poor diet and low physical activity are linked with decreased fertility? Eating a nutrient-rich diet is recommended for everyone but it especially has benefits for those actively trying to conceive. Recent studies show that there are certain dietary patterns, foods, and nutrients that may help women and men when it comes to fertility. Some foods and nutrients are linked to a more balanced menstrual cycle and ovulation, higher numbers of healthy sperm, and a shorter time to get pregnant.
Before we address nutritional factors that are linked to higher fertility in women and men separately, let’s first go over foods and nutrients that may help or hinder fertility in both women and men—starting with the overall dietary pattern.
Medical disclaimer: Nutrition is only one of many factors that plays a role in fertility. Please see a healthcare professional or book an appointment with me to discuss your personal needs and goals to initiate a nutrition plan tailored to your personal reproductive health.
A nutrient-rich, anti-inflammatory dietary pattern is linked to higher fertility in both women and men.
If there is one main takeaway from the growing research linking nutrition and fertility, it’s that an overall healthier diet is beneficial—for both women and men.
Inflammation is a normal process your body uses to help it heal from infections and injuries. However, regularly consuming inflammatory foods can result in long-term, low-grade inflammation that may negatively impact fertility. In women, inflammation can disrupt ovulation and having a regular menstrual cycle. It can also contribute to endometriosis, reduced ability of a fertilized egg to implant, and more frequent miscarriages. In men, inflammation can reduce sperm quality and quantity.
High inflammatory diets include larger amounts of fast foods, fried foods, red meat, highly processed foods such as bacon, hot dogs, white bread, snack foods, and sugary drinks and lower amounts of fruits and vegetables. Those with high inflammatory diets have been found to take longer to become pregnant than those with healthier dietary patterns. Studies show that nutritious anti-inflammatory dietary patterns such as the Mediterranean diet are linked to greater chances of having successful pregnancies whether using fertility treatments or not. Women who eat a Mediterranean diet seek medical help for infertility only about half as often as those who don’t eat this way. Men who consume the Mediterranean diet have been shown to have larger amounts of high-quality sperm.
Anti-inflammatory diets like the Mediterranean diet are nutrient-rich and anti-inflammatory because they
consist of high amounts of fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans, lentils, peas), whole grains, and poultry. They
may also include fish, nuts, seeds, olive or canola oil, and soy-based foods. Dairy products, red or processed meats, and sweets may be consumed, but in smaller amounts. In general, anti-inflammatory diets are high in unsaturated and omega-3 fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and are low in sugars, refined carbohydrates, and saturated and trans fats.
Foods and nutrients linked to higher fertility in both women and men.
Beyond eating a nutrient-rich, anti-inflammatory diet, there are several interesting links between specific foods and nutrients and their potential impact on fertility in both women and men. These include regularly consuming seafood, getting enough Vitamin B12, and reducing intake of both trans fats and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Enjoy seafood weekly!
Research shows that couples who ate more seafood got pregnant sooner than those who rarely ate seafood. In one study, the best results with the shortest time to pregnancy were achieved when both partners consumed eight 4-ounce servings during each menstrual cycle. The average menstrual cycle is about four weeks, so the seafood intake goal, according to this study, would be about two servings per week. Interestingly, those with higher seafood intake also had intercourse more frequently than couples with diets low in seafood. Over 90 percent of the couples who ate eight or more servings per cycle (a 4 week period) got pregnant within 12 months compared to 79 percent of those who ate seafood less often.
This link between seafood and pregnancy may be related to the positive effects the omega-3 fatty acids have on ovulation, menstrual cycles, and sperm quality, although the exact correlation is yet to be determined by researchers.
When choosing seafood for a healthy pregnancy, it’s important to keep in mind that not all seafood is created equal. If you are trying to get pregnant, focus on seafood that is lower in persistent environmental chemicals and mercury. This means eating salmon, sardines, scallops, and shrimp, and avoid larger, predatory fish like shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. It’s also recommended to avoid raw seafood during pregnancy as it may pose a risk of bacteria or viruses.
Get enough Vitamin B12
Women undergoing assisted reproductive technology who have higher levels of Vitamin B12 are more likely to have a successful pregnancy than those with lower Vitamin B12 levels. Vitamin B12 supplements may help fertility by increasing sperm quantity and quality while protecting sperm cells from DNA damage.
According to the National Institutes of Health, adults should aim for 2.4 mcg of Vitamin B12 each day, 2.6 mcg if pregnant, and 2.8 mcg if breastfeeding. Vitamin B12 is naturally present in animal foods (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy), fortified breakfast cereals, and nutritional yeasts, however, the body can actually absorb more Vitamin B12 from dietary supplements than from foods.
Reduce intake of artificial trans fats
In addition to getting healthier omega-3 fats from seafood, reducing intake of less-healthy trans fats may help with fertility as well. According to researchers at Harvard, trans fats are related to lower fertility in women and lower semen quality in men.
Trans fats are naturally found in dairy and meat from ruminant animals; however they’re also artificially created when unsaturated fats are processed to become partially hydrogenated. Hydrogenation is done during the manufacturing process to change liquid oils into solid fats at room temperature. The good news is that these artificial trans fats (“partially hydrogenated oils”) are slowly being phased out of the food supply in the U.S. because of their detrimental effects on heart health, but they are something to be aware of. When it comes to trans fats in dairy, there does not seem to be any negative effects on fertility for women who regularly consume dairy products.
Cut down on sodas and energy drinks
Several studies show that both women and men who consume sugar-sweetened beverages—especially sodas or energy drinks—tend to have lower fertility than those who don’t drink them. The reduced fertility was found at levels as low as seven drinks per week (about one per day). It’s important to note that these fertility effects do not seem to apply to those who enjoy diet sodas and fruit juice.
A possible reason for this link is that sugar may interfere with women’s reproductive hormones, egg maturation, and ovulation and cause a lower sperm concentration in men.
Foods and nutrients that may help women’s fertility
Now let’s talk about women specifically. A recent study from Harvard found that certain nutrients have positive effects for women who are trying to conceive. These include folic acid and soy isoflavones.
Folic acid supplements are highly recommended
Some studies show that women who take multivitamins containing folic acid had more regular ovulation and were able to get pregnant sooner.
Folic acid, also known as Vitamin B9, is recommended before and during pregnancy because of its proven role in reducing the risk for neurological problems in the developing fetus like spina bifida. This is why folic acid is commonly available in prenatal multivitamins. Some women may need higher doses of folic acid than others, so meeting with your healthcare provider or booking an appointment will help you know the amount that’s right for you.
Folic acid’s positive effects on women’s fertility is due to its role as an enzyme that aids in the successful synthesis of DNA and RNA in the body, both of which are essential for optimal reproduction.
The impact of soy on fertility has been studied because soy is the main source of plant-based estrogens (estrogen is a reproductive hormone). Most studies done in humans show that it does not have a harmful effect (despite some initial animal studies) and in fact, soy may be helpful for fertility. There is a growing association of successful pregnancies for women who consume soy or isoflavone supplements, particularly in women who are also using fertility treatments.
Foods and nutrients that may help men’s fertility
Now it’s time to talk about men. When it comes to sperm quality, antioxidant supplements might help.
Studies show that men who supplement with antioxidants tend to have higher quality semen. Decreased levels of antioxidants have been linked with negative impacts on sperm including DNA damage, membrane damage, and reduced motility.
Several vitamins have antioxidant properties including vitamins C and E, beta-carotene (pre-vitamin A), folic acid, coenzyme Q10, and the essential minerals selenium, and zinc. It’s important to note that too-high levels of antioxidants may be detrimental, so be sure to meet with your healthcare provider or book an appointment with me for an appropriate supplementation protocol for you.
Struggling with fertility is very common for so many people who are looking for options and answers. One option is nutrition since research shows that it can help both women and men improve fertility. Consuming a more nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, poultry, seafood, and healthier oils is recommended. Also, there are certain foods and nutrients that have been linked to higher chances of a successful pregnancy. Both women and men can enjoy seafood twice per week, ensure they get enough Vitamin B12, and lower intakes of artificial trans fats and sugar-sweetened beverages. Women can benefit by taking folic acid supplements and, if also using fertility treatments, eat soy or take soy isoflavones. Men can benefit from supplementing with antioxidants.
Need help planning and making nutritious changes to your meals and supplement regimens? As a registered dietitian I’d love to help. Also, I would love to give my dietetic intern, Alicia Bair-Future Dietitian, credit for her help on creating this blog.
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