Infertility is a serious health problem, affecting 8% to 10% of couples worldwide. This percentage translates to 60 to 80 million couples across the world suffering from infertility every year and around 20 million or 25% live in India.
Before we deep dive into understanding the best nutrition to support fertility, we should understand that complicated issues related to infertility such as physiological malfunction cannot be addressed by nutritional intervention and need medical attention. That said, eating a nutritious diet is one among many other natural ways to boost fertility in both men and women. The influence of healthy eating is crucial to overall wellbeing and not just the reproductive system.
First step is to watch your body weight
Overweight or obesity reduces the chance of fertility for a couple. Excess body weight and fertility is linked in numerous ways. A 2016 review explained the connection between excess body weight and leptin hormone regulation. According to the study, overweight and/or obese women have higher levels of leptin circulating in their blood that may affect the hormonal balance and lead to disrupted fertility.
Being overweight or obesity increases the risk of an irregular menstrual cycle which further reduces fertility. One study found 66.4% of women who were living with obesity conceived within a year compared to 81.4% of women of normal weight. The probability of spontaneous pregnancy was found to be reduced in women with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of more than 29 kg/m² in a 2008 study. The study also mentioned women with a high BMI had a 4% lower pregnancy rate per kg/m² increase.
The development and progression of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a common cause of women infertility is characterised by irregular menstrual cycles and inconclusive ovulation, are also associated with excess body weight. Symptoms of PCOS, including infertility, can be improved by losing just 10% to 15% of your body weight.
Excess body weight was associated with lower fertility in men too. A combination of factors such as obesity-induced diabetes and sleep apnoea is associated with reduced testosterone levels and erectile problems.
Dos and don’ts in daily diet
A diverse range of food groups with essential nutrients can boost your fertility. Additionally, staying away from ultra-processed, high-refined carbs containing trans-fat-rich foods leads to obesity, inflammation, and reduced fertility.
Eat antioxidant-rich foods such as colourful vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds to ensure folate, zinc, vitamin E, vitamin A and vitamin C. The nutrients help reduce oxidative stress and prevent sperm and egg damage in men and women.
Fruits and vegetables have a special role in boosting fertility. Loading your plate with varieties of fruits and vegetables can improve the egg quality. Harvard School of Public Health researchers studied nearly 19,000 women and found that those who consumed more trans fats, sugars from carbohydrates, and animal proteins had a higher incidence of ovulatory disorder. However, chose low-sugary whole fruits; fruits in liquid form cause more harm than good.
Cut down total carbohydrates in your daily diet if you have PCOS. Consuming a low-carb diet with no more than 150 grams carbohydrate is recommended for women with PCOS. The benefit of a low carbohydrate eating pattern in PCOS is proven by several research studies. Moreover, a low-carb diets is proven to be beneficial in maintaining a healthy body weight, lower insulin resistance and enhance fat loss in both men and women.
The quality of carbohydrates is important too. Refined carbohydrate-containing foods such as white bread, white pasta, sugary snacks, desserts, and beverages are especially problematic. These carbs have a very high glycemic index, so they raise the blood sugar level quickly and also lead to insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone closely linked to the onset and worsening of PCOS.
Include full-fat dairy products – Two to four servings a day is recommended. High intake of low-fat dairy foods was found to increase the risk of infertility, whereas high-fat dairy foods consumption was reported to reduce the risk of infertility.
Eat a mix of plant and fish-based protein. An interesting study involving around 18,500 married women found that consuming 5% of total energy intake as vegetable protein instead of animal protein was linked to more than 50% lower risk of ovulatory infertility. At the same time, consuming more fish instead of meat was associated to a higher chance of live birth following infertility treatment. Get your daily protein from beans, pulses, soy, and dairy.
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Along with a wholesome nutritious diet, moderate physical activity daily is important for better health including fertility. However, don’t overdo as intense exercise may lead to decreased fertility. Managing stress, taking time out to relax and quality sleep are also important for optimal reproductive function. Make positive changes in your lifestyle starting by losing excess body weight. A healthy diet and other lifestyle measures will help you prepare your body for pregnancy. If you are thinking of getting pregnant, begin to eat healthy today without taking too much stress and worry. Take help of a team of healthcare professionals to set the best choices for you.
(Subhasree Ray, Doctoral Scholar, Clinical and Public Health Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Educator. She can be followed on her Twitter @DrSubhasree)
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