The problem of conceiving a child is relatively common, experienced by every sixth couple.
Factors that affect fertility can be genetic, environmental, or behavioral. There are various medical treatments that increase fertility and help conception, but they can be invasive and expensive. In many cases, focusing on food and diet is a simple and effective approach to increase male and female fertility.
Food and diet affect the sperm quality in men. The semen quality determines how well the spermatozoids swim and how easily they can fertilize an egg. Spermatogenesis, the 90-day process of sperm development and the increase in sperm count, are phenomena that are greatly influenced by nutrition. What a man eats today will determine the quality and quantity of his sperm 90 days from now. That's why it's important for men to eat healthy while planning for a baby.
Two nutrients that are essential for healthy and abundant sperm are zinc and folate (folic acid). Zinc is necessary for spermatogenesis and sperm motility. Good sources of zinc include oysters and lean red meat, as well as nuts, sesame seeds, beans and whole grains. Folate is needed for the synthesis of genetic information, or DNA, which is found in sperm. Good sources of folic acid include fruits and vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables and grain products.
The spermatozoids also need to be protected once they are produced. They are easily damaged by free radicals that circulate around the body and damage cells. Antioxidants are molecules that can protect against this damage by neutralizing free radicals. Antioxidants include nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium, and many other compounds found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Researchers in the United States have found that men who consumed higher amounts of folate, zinc and antioxidants (vitamin C and E), from food and supplements, produced sperm with less DNA damage. These findings are valid mostly for older men.
Scientists in the Netherlands have established that a combined zinc and folate supplement taken under the supervision of a specialist increases sperm count in men. Due to a lack of sufficient evidence (i.e. studies with relatively small samples and participants), these findings have yet to be incorporated into specific recommendations that can be made by healthcare professionals. But for now they can be used as a guideline.
Men can improve their fertility by eating a balanced diet that includes a variety of fresh foods that contain folate, zinc and antioxidants.
Such foods are lean meats, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Preventing cell damage from free radicals is also important. Factors that may result in an increase of free radicals include smoking, drug use, excessive alcohol drinking, pollutants, obesity and infections.
Women with healthy weight have higher fertility rate than those who are underweight or overweight. Significant weight loss can disrupt the menstrual cycle, while excess weight gain can affect the hormones that regulate ovulation and pregnancy. Therefore, women should achieve a healthy weight before conceiving.
In Australia, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (RANZCOG) recommends that women achieve and maintain a healthy and balanced diet before conception.
A balanced diet includes a variety of fresh foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, good sources of protein are lean meats and vegetables, and calcium-rich foods.
Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health suggest that a well-balanced diet that includes low-glycemic carbohydrates, monounsaturated fats and protein from mostly plant sources can increase fertility in women. Their findings do not guarantee pregnancy, but the healthy diet messages can be useful for any woman trying to conceive.
Women are also advised to take prenatal nutritional supplements before conception. Recommendations vary from country to country.
In Australia, it is recommended that women take at least a 400 μg dose of folic acid at least one month before conception and during the first trimester to prevent neural tube defects (NTDs). A dose of 150 μg of iodine during pregnancy and lactation is recommended to prevent hypothyroidism during pregnancy and to optimize fetal brain and nervous system development.
Additional supplements may be required in the event of nutritional deficiency, certain population subgroups, and restricted diets (more on this next week).
In certain groups of people, with chronic diseases or intolerances to certain foods, additional food supplements selected and recommended by a specialist may be necessary to avoid nutritional deficiency. We will discuss the topic in more details during the online seminar.
It is important to understand that prenatal supplements do not guarantee pregnancy, but they optimize the nutritional status of women who are trying to conceive and who are already pregnant.
So, what would be our advice to women?
Women can improve their fertility by achieving a healthy weight and eating a balanced diet that consists of a variety of fresh foods. Prenatal supplements are also important for women planning pregnancy.
Choosing proper food may not solve all fertility problems, but it is a very good start.
Both men and women can improve their diet in order to increase their fertility.
Men are advised to focus on the quality of their diet, as this affects the quality of their sperm – even months before conception. Antioxidant-rich foods can also protect against sperm damage.
Women are advised to achieve a healthy weight before conception in order to regulate the hormones associated with ovulation and pregnancy. A balanced diet will help with this and will optimize the nutritional status.
Author: Neli Pavlova