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.
A variety of medical treatments are available that may increase fertility and assist in conception but these can be invasive and expensive. In many cases, focusing on food and nutrition is a potentially useful approach to increase the fertility of men and women and may aid these medical approaches.
Zinc and Folate
Spermatogenesis, the process of producing sperm and increasing the sperm count, can be affected by what a man eats. Food and nutrition also affects sperm quality (including their ability to swim towards and penetrate the egg). In fact, what a man eats today will determine his sperm quality in the next 90 days. It is therefore important for men to eat a healthy diet in the months before trying for a baby. Two nutrients that are essential for healthy and abundant sperm are zinc and folate.
Zinc is required both for spermatogenesis and sperm motility. Good sources of zinc include oysters, lean red meat and egg yolk. Vegetarians can increase their zinc intake by eating more green leafy vegetables and tofu. Some seeds such as pumpkin and squash seeds contain zinc as do nuts particularly cashews, pine nuts and pecan nuts.
Folate is required for the synthesis of DNA which carries our genetic information in sperm. Good sources of folate include vegetables, particularly green leafy vegetables, wholegrain/cereal products and wheat germ. In some countries, folate can be found in foods that have been fortified with folate such as white flour and bread. Fortified breakfast cereals have been shown in dietary surveys to provide quite a substantial amount of the population’s folate requirements.
Researchers have found that taken under medical supervision, a combined zinc and folate supplement can assist with increasing the sperm count in men. More studies are needed however, to examine the effects of eating specific zinc-rich and folate-rich foods to improve sperm quality.
Sperm are also easily damaged by free-radicals, a group of very reactive compounds that circulate in 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. These are commonly found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Particularly good sources of selenium include brazil nuts, meat, oily fish, mushrooms and oysters. Milk, cheese and eggs are also sources of vitamin E and selenium. In areas where the soil is known to be low in selenium, the content of selenium in food can be much lower so take advice from a local health professional about selenium and the need for supplements depending on where you live.
In recent decades significant data have confirmed a link between coeliac disease and fertility. Women with untreated coeliac disease experience a significantly delayed menarche (time of first menstrual bleeding), an increased risk of secondary amenorrhea (failure to menstruate), incur higher miscarriage rates and have an earlier menopause. The consumption of a gluten free diet in women with untreated coeliac disease may increase the chance of a successful pregnancy.
Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health suggest that a well-balanced diet that includes carbohydrates with a low-glycaemic index, 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.
What we know for sure is that women of a healthy body weight have higher fertility rates than those who are both underweight and overweight. Being underweight and having a low body fat percentage 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 attempt to get pregnant.
Overall, everyone can improve their fertility by consuming a balanced diet that includes a variety of foods such as wholegrain cereals, fruit, and sources of protein such as lean meat, fish, beans, legumes and nuts. Vegetables especially green leafy vegetables are very important and calcium-rich foods such as dairy products or seeds and grains containing calcium are also important to include in a diet to prepare you for pregnancy. Food choices may not solve all fertility problems but it is a good place to start.
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Find out more
In the See also section of this step, you can access links to further information on food and nutrition and its role in fertility.
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