Fertility and diet: Is it important?
It’s safe to say that it’s pretty well-known that mothers-to-be are aware of the impact of nutrition on their baby’s health whilst they are pregnant, but have you ever considered the importance of nutrition in helping women and men to conceive? Approximately 50% of pregnancies are unplanned so it’s always a good idea to optimise your nutrition now, not only to help shape the health of your future baby, but also optimise your chances of conceiving.
It is estimated that infertility impacts between 8-12% of reproductive couples worldwide, with approximately 30% being attributed to male complications, 30% attributed to female complications, 30% attributed to both male and female complications and 10% to unknown complications.
How is infertility defined?
From a clinical perspective, if you have been having unprotected sex for at least 12 months and have not yet conceived, then you will be considered to be infertile. There is also such a thing as secondary infertility whereby a couple struggles to conceive despite not having had fertility issues with previous children that they have had.
As science has advanced, we now have a wealth of knowledge of the primary causes of infertility. However, this subject does remain very complicated and I’m sure we will find out even more in the coming years! In general, one or more of the following factors are the leading causes of infertility:
- Production of egg or sperm.
- Structural/functional issues of the female/male reproductive systems.
- Hormone imbalance.
- Problems with a person’s immune system.
- Thyroid disorders.
- Weight (too low or too high).
So, you may be thinking, when should you start making any dietary changes to help support your chances of fertility and also your baby’s health? Well, most fertility specialists will agree that the three to 12 month period prior to conceiving is the most important time to start making changes. This is because in the three months before a sperm fertilises an egg, your egg cells develop and mature.
In addition, the full cycle of sperm development takes 64-77 days and so what a man eats and drinks during this critical time window can really make the difference between conceiving or not. This is where nutrition and seeking help from a registered dietitian who specialises in fertility can really help.
How can a nutrition professional help with fertility
Generally speaking, there are four stages in a couple’s journey to conceive where a dietitian can offer support and make a significant difference to conception outcomes:
If you are thinking of conceiving, even if you don’t have fertility problems, optimising your diet can help shape your baby’s future through the power of epigenetics. This is a term used to describe how the expression of genes can be influenced by environmental factors, one of them being nutrition.
A person’s genetic profile is determined from a month before a woman is pregnant up to a child’s second birthday and so by optimising your nutrition during this period, there is the potential to modify health outcomes for your future baby. A process called methylation switches the expression of these genes on or off, rather like a light switch.
These genes will have the capacity to impact the development of the brain, the immune system and overall health in addition to your grandchild's health (if you have a female - this is because all of a woman’s eggs for her whole lifetime are produced whilst she is still in the womb!).
Having a dietitian to fine-comb your diet and improve it can make all the difference between conceiving or not, whilst also optimising your baby’s health.
For example, it may be that we work together to improve your blood sugar control if you are diabetic, or make targeted dietary changes to improve insulin resistance, inflammation and high testosterone levels if you have PCOS.
Improving your diet can help optimise the success of assisted reproduction therapies. They may involve ovulation induction injections, medications or genetic testing. Working with a dietitian who specialises in fertility and understands which hormones affect ovulation and how dietary changes can have an impact upon these hormones, is vital.
If you are going through IVF, my goal would be to help you strengthen the chances of its success. In this scenario, I would guide you on the right foods and supplements that will help strengthen IVF outcomes, advise you on key nutrients that impact egg health and how nutrition will help embryo implantation.
Everyone is different and is going through a different stage in their fertility journey, which is why it’s essential that you receive individualised advice. There is no one-size-fits-all approach and that’s where a dietitian can play such an important role in analysing your diet in detail, making recommendations individualised to you and ultimately, increasing your chance of a successful pregnancy and optimise the health of your future child.
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