Pregnancy & babies series: Eating to boost fertility


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When trying to conceive, you need to consider the mood and libido of both partners, stress levels and of course hormones – it’s a complicated process!

Managing to become pregnant is not always as simple as we seem to think. When trying to boost fertility, it is usual to concentrate on balancing sex hormones, but there is definitely much more to consider than just that. If you are trying to conceive, you also need to consider your mood and libido, stress hormones, your body’s signs of fertility (for females), circulation and more. If you are already taking a multivitamin and abstaining from drinking, you are already on the right track, but some of us may need more than basic healthy nutritional support to actually become pregnant.

Although women are the most likely to seek advice when it comes to fertility, it is not uncommon for men’s infertility to be preventing a successful pregnancy, so be sure to include both your own and your partner’s needs when it comes to nutrition to boost your fertility.

Get in the mood

If you aren’t ‘in the mood’, the chance of getting pregnant is much lower, so first things first: make sure that your sex drive (and your partner’s) is high enough for regular intercourse. In order to heighten mood, and induce feelings of pleasure, reward and relaxation, your brain chemical messengers should be functioning at their best. Brain messengers, or neurotransmitters, such as dopamine allow us to feel this way. A lack of production of neurotransmitters may result in anxiety, overwhelming stress and difficultly in sleeping, making the likelihood of getting ‘in the mood’ pretty slim.

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We need our brain chemical messengers to function optimally to get us ‘in the mood’; as amino acids found in protein are the building blocks of neutortansmitters, it’s important to eat a protein-rich diet to support their production.

The building blocks of neurotransmitters are amino acids found in protein. Levels of neurotransmitters can therefore be significantly affected by dietary intake of protein (1), so to support production of these brain chemical messengers, be sure to eat a protein-rich diet. There is an array of protein-rich foods to choose from to ensure you get enough in your diet; these include meat, fish, seafood, eggs, cheese, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. Important vitamins and minerals required for neurotransmitter production should also be considered, including zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6, found in foods such as meat, seeds, nuts and fish (also high protein foods).

In order to keep brain cell membranes responsive to these brain chemical messengers, omega-3 EPA and DHA consumption from oily fish is essential. Omega-3 EPA and DHA supplementation has shown very positive results in reducing anxiety (2) and depressive symptoms. (3)

It’s useful to also consider foods which specifically stimulate production of neurotransmitters. Cocoa, for example, contains phenylethylamine, which may stimulate the brain, releasing serotonin and dopamine. A couple of squares of dark chocolate or cocoa powder in hot oat milk will be well received by your brain cells, and cocoa also, rather obligingly, comes with an added boost of healthy nutrients including flavonoids and iron.

Recognise your body’s signs of fertility

Learning to recognise signs of ovulation (when your body releases an egg) in order to identify your window of high fertility can be very useful for increasing chances of becoming pregnant for women. Ovulation is generally 12-14 days before your period starts, and the window of high fertility is around 6 days before this (as sperm may survive for up to 7 days). Of course, every woman is different and often periods are irregular, therefore understanding how to read your body’s fertile signs can be very beneficial. If you check your temperature first thing in the morning every day with a thermometer, and keep a record of the values, this is an easy way to test for ovulation, as temperature rises just after ovulation. This requires monitoring over at least a couple of months in order to establish timings of personal hormone fluctuations. Each month, aim to have intercourse more frequently a week before your temperature usually rises.

Another immediate method to identify the high fertility window is to be aware of the consistency of cervical mucus. During times of high fertility, fluid becomes clear, slippery and stretchy, or watery, to allow for sperm to easily swim through.

Balance your hormones

If you regularly miss periods, or if you experience significant mood swings and PMS-type symptoms, it is very likely that your hormones are out of balance. Of course, the same can be said for men too, although the symptoms are usually more prominent in women because of natural fluctuations throughout the month. Hormones not only have an effect on fertility, they also have an impact on libido.

For healthy hormone balance, ensure a good intake of fibrous foods to regulate excretion of excess hormones; a lack of fibre may result in the reabsorption of hormones in the large intestine.

Hormones such as follicle stimulating hormones (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) help to mature eggs in women, and stimulate sperm production in men. If the brain fails to stimulate significant FSH and LH hormone production in women, menstrual irregularities may occur, resulting in reduced fertility. In men, sperm production may be reduced. Other hormone complications can also lead to conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis in women, which may result in irregular menstruation, acne, excess hair, mood swings, painful or heavy periods and painful intercourse. Ensure that you see your GP if you have any of these symptoms as this may be negatively affecting your fertility. Such conditions may have both a genetic and dietary role in their development. As numerous hormones have such a significant impact on fertility, it may be worth carrying out a hormone saliva test, measuring hormone levels over a full monthly cycle for women to identify specific levels.

“If you regularly miss periods, or if you experience significant mood swings and PMS-type symptoms, it is very likely that your hormones are out of balance”

For general nutritional support for healthy hormone balance, ensure that refined carbohydrates are kept to a minimum and keep up a good intake of fibrous foods to regulate excretion of excess hormones. Fibre intake is a great way to regulate hormone levels, as lack of fibre may result in the reabsorption of hormones in the large intestine. Reducing refined carbohydrates in those with PCOS has been shown to reduce high circulating testosterone levels. (4) Keeping refined carbohydrates to a minimum may also help if you have elevated oestrogen or high stress hormones. It must be noted that reducing carbohydrate to a very low intake for men may have a negative effect by lowering testosterone too much. Zinc is needed in the body to produce testosterone and therefore is required for sperm production.

If your oestrogen levels are too low, phytoestrogen foods such as linseeds – although they won’t actually increase oestrogen levels – have properties similar to oestrogen and may support fertility.

Get your blood flowing

Optimising circulation is a must for libido to ensure a healthy blood flow to sexual organs. Foods that increase circulation include garlic, chilli peppers and ginger. Garlic is particularly effective as it contains allicin, which dilates blood vessels and thins the blood. Supplementing with garlic is an option if regular consumption in food is difficult.

Omega-3 EPA and DHA found in fish also help to thin the blood and increase elasticity of blood vessels, allowing for easier blood flow. Consider a concentrated fish oil supplement such as Pharmepa MAINTAIN, which provides 750 mg and 250 mg in a highly absorbable triglyceride (rTG) form.

Alcohol and caffeine

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Alcohol should be avoided if you are trying to become pregnant; not only for its negative effects on the unborn baby, alcohol can also cause sperm abnormalities, therefore abstaining is important for both partners.

Alcohol should be avoided if you are trying to become pregnant, for its negative effects on the unborn baby, even in the very early stages of pregnancy. Drinking alcohol in excess in the long term can also increase risk of depression, with levels of neurotransmitters plummeting after drinking. Studies have also shown that alcohol consumption can cause sperm abnormalities (5), therefore abstaining from or limiting alcohol when trying to conceive is important for both you and your partner.
It may be wise to limit drinks containing caffeine to a maximum of two per day when trying to conceive, in anticipation of becoming pregnant. Caffeine intake should be limited during pregnancy, especially in the early stages because of risk of miscarriage.

Support your body through times of stress

When you are in a prolonged state of stress, your body may consider conception ‘low priority’ at this time, suppressing signals required to stimulate ovulation and reducing fertility. The stress hormone cortisol, over the long term, can significantly reduce fertility; reducing cortisol production is therefore key. This further emphasises the importance of limiting refined carbohydrates during times of stress due to its ability to increase stress hormones. Stimulants such as coffee, nicotine and alcohol also play havoc with the adrenal glands and can worsen stress in the long term.

A nutrient-dense diet rich in vitamin C, other antioxidants from brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, B vitamins, zinc, magnesium and much more will help your body to cope with stress. Supplementing with a B vitamin complex has been shown to significantly lower personal strain and dejected mood, therefore reducing stress. (6) Vitamin B6 combined with magnesium has been shown to reduce anxiety-related PMS symptoms. (7)

“When you are in a prolonged state of stress, your body may consider conception ‘low priority’ at this time, suppressing signals required to stimulate ovulation and reducing fertility.”

Get moving

Exercise can significantly impact on fertility, libido and stress levels by affecting hormone production. Moderate exercise may help to reduce stress and, as physical activity actually increases available energy, (8) this can even help you to feel more motivated by releasing brain chemicals, endorphins, which improve libido. Gentle exercise is most suitable for those suffering from stress, while resistance training may be particularly beneficial for men trying to raise testosterone levels.

Make sure that you don’t overdo it at the gym, however, as, if exercise is too intense, this has actually been shown to increase production of the stress hormone cortisol (9) and overtraining may result in lack of recovery, lack of energy and therefore reduced libido, leading to a re-reading and reapplication of all the above.

 

References

(1)   Choi S, Disilvio B, Fernstrom MH, Fernstrom JD. Meal ingestion, amino acids and brain neurotransmitters: effects of dietary protein source on serotonin and catecholamine synthesis rates. Physiol Behav 2009 Aug 4;98(1-2):156-62.

(2)   Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Belury MA, Andridge R, Malarkey WB, Glaser R. Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: a randomized controlled trial. Brain Behav Immun 2011 Nov;25(8):1725-34.

(3)   Sublette ME, Ellis SP, Geant AL, Mann JJ. Meta-analysis of the effects of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in clinical trials in depression. J Clin Psychiatry 2011 Dec;72(12):1577-84.

(4)   Gower BA, Chandler-Laney PC, Ovalle F, Goree LL, Azziz R, Desmond RA, et al. Favourable metabolic effects of a eucaloric lower-carbohydrate diet in women with PCOS. Clin Endocrinol (Oxf) 2013 Oct;79(4):550-7.

(5)   La VS, Condorelli RA, Balercia G, Vicari E, Calogero AE. Does alcohol have any effect on male reproductive function? A review of literature. Asian J Androl 2013 Mar;15(2):221-5.

(6)   Stough C, Scholey A, Lloyd J, Spong J, Myers S, Downey LA. The effect of 90 day administration of a high dose vitamin B-complex on work stress. Hum Psychopharmacol 2011 Oct;26(7):470-6.

(7)   De Souza MC, Walker AF, Robinson PA, Bolland K. A synergistic effect of a daily supplement for 1 month of 200 mg magnesium plus 50 mg vitamin B6 for the relief of anxiety-related premenstrual symptoms: a randomized, double-blind, crossover study. J Womens Health Gend Based Med 2000 Mar;9(2):131-9.

(8)   Schrager MA, Schrack JA, Simonsick EM, Ferrucci L. Association between energy availability and physical activity in older adults. Am J Phys Med Rehabil 2014 Oct;93(10):876-83.

(9)   VanBruggen MD, Hackney AC, McMurray RG, Ondrak KS. The relationship between serum and salivary cortisol levels in response to different intensities of exercise. Int J Sports Physiol Perform 2011 Sep;6(3):396-407.

 


Kyla Williams

About Kyla Williams DipION, BSc, MSc

Kyla is a highly qualified clinical nutritionist with a master’s degree in Nutritional Medicine. Kyla runs her own private practice, offering personalised dietary and supplement advice. Kyla has extensive experience in weight management, skin disorders and digestive issues. Her website is at www.kylawilliamsnutrition.com. Kyla regularly contributes to articles for leading consumer magazines, and blogs about healthy cake ingredients and recipes at www.healthybake.co.uk.

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