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Are food and nutrition important for fertility?

Having trouble conceiving a child is a relatively common problem experienced by one in every six couples.

Factors that affect fertility may be genetic, environmental or behavioural. There are a variety of medical treatments that increase fertility and assist in conception but these can be invasive and expensive. In many cases, focusing on food and nutrition is a simple and effective approach to increase the fertility of men and women.

Food and nutrition affects sperm quality in men. Sperm quality governs how well sperm swim and how readily they are able to fertilise an egg. Spermatogenesis, the 90 day process of developing sperm and increasing sperm count, is also affected by nutrition. Therefore what a man eats today will determine his sperm quality and quantity in 90 days time. It is therefore important for men to eat a healthy diet for many months before trying for a baby.

What nutrients are important for fertility?

Two nutrients that are essential for healthy and abundant sperm are zinc and folate. Zinc is required 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 required for the synthesis of genetic information, or DNA, that is found in sperm. Good sources of folate include fruits and vegetables, particularly green leafy vegetables, and cereal products. Researchers have found that a combined zinc and folate supplement taken under medical supervision can increase the sperm count in men. It remains unknown whether increasing your intake of zinc-rich and folate-rich foods can improve sperm quality.

Sperm also need to be protected once they are formed. 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 neutralising the free-radicals. Antioxidants include nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium and a large number of other compounds found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

What we also know for sure is that women of a healthy weight have higher fertility rates 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, it is recommended that women achieve a healthy weight before they fall pregnant.

What do we know?

In recent decades, significant data have confirmed a link between coeliac disease and fertility. Women with untreated coeliac disease experience a significantly delayed menarche, an increased risk of secondary amenorrhea. They also have a higher risk of miscarriage and experience an earlier menopause. The consumption of a gluten free diet in women with untreated coeliac disease may increase their chance of a successful pregnancy.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health suggest that a well-balanced diet that includes low-GI carbohydrates, monounsaturated fats and protein from predominantly plant sources may increase fertility. Their findings do not guarantee pregnancy but the healthy eating messages can be applied safely and at a low cost.

Both men and women can use food and nutrition to increase their fertility. Men are advised to focus on diet quality as this affects their sperm quality – even months before conception. Foods rich in antioxidants can also protect against sperm damage. For women, the scientific evidence supports a focus on weight management as achieving a healthy weight prior to conception can regulate the hormones associated with ovulation and pregnancy.

Overall, everyone can increase their fertility by consuming a balanced diet that includes a variety of fresh foods such as wholegrain cereals, fruit, vegetables, good sources of protein from lean meat and vegetables, and calcium-rich foods. Food choices may not solve all fertility problems but it provides a very good start.

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This article is from the free online course:

Food as Medicine: Fertility and Pregnancy

Monash University