Most women of childbearing age have spent most of their teens, 20’s, and even 30’s trying NOT to become pregnant. Educators, health care providers, media, and pop culture have all contributed to this familiar message: ANYTIME YOU HAVE SEX YOU MIGHT GET PREGNANT! And so, rather than learning about our own unique menstrual cycles and the female fertility window which is typically only 6 days per month, women have embraced “the pill” or other forms of birth control with enthusiasm.
But after years or even decades of using birth control, an increasing number of women are experiencing the often-devastating realization that achieving pregnancy is not always straightforward. Roughly 1 in 6 couples in Canada experience infertility and that number has doubled since the 1980’s. While there are a variety of medical conditions that may contribute to infertility such as STD’s, endometriosis, and tubal factors (to name just a few), there is a growing curiosity about what “else” might be causing what seems like a fertility crisis today. Junk food? Environmental toxins? Delayed childbearing? Stress? Medications?
To be sure, infertility is complex and often multifactorial. This article aims to offer a balanced approach to healthy eating as one aspect of support for women who are searching for ways to optimize fertility.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could list a few fertility-boosting miracle foods and send you off into baby-making bliss? Despite the many misleading headlines and click-bait, there are no miracle foods that are guaranteed to boost fertility, and there isn’t one specific diet that is perfect for everyone. Each of us is unique, and so are our nutritional requirements. Having said that, food matters. A lot. We know that nutritious food is fundamental to vibrant health. Without vibrant health, why would the body want to reproduce and grow another life? If you are someone who has been consistently choosing processed, sugar-laden, convenience foods, listen up: Now is the time to make your health a priority. There is perhaps no greater opportunity for transformation than when preparing for pregnancy. Every meal is a chance to flood your body with the nutrients it needs to thrive. Nourishing yourself with a lifestyle that includes a wide variety of real, whole, clean foods is the best you can do towards optimizing overall health and, therefore, fertility.
A daily prenatal vitamin is not enough. It’s not just about providing the right nutrients in adequate amounts; it’s about creating healthy, positive habits for your future children and grandchildren to emulate. Once pregnant, your food choices impact the developing baby as well as the baby’s reproductive organs, meaning you are influencing 3 generations! Prenatal nutrition is preventive healthcare at it’s finest!
Getting as healthy as possible before pregnancy usually leads to a healthy pregnancy, but it’s important to remember that food works in subtle ways. We need to give the body time to respond to dietary improvements. Ideally, take 6 months or more to prepare for pregnancy, but 3 months minimum. It takes about 100 days for eggs to mature and during that time the eggs are receptive to nutrient deficiency and toxic exposure. If you can take 6 months or more to prepare for pregnancy, there’s time to undergo a period of gentle detoxification before building up your nutrient stores.
Specific Nutrients to Support a Fertile Body
Variety in your food choices is key. In order to expose your body to the many different nutrients needed to fuel your fertile body, do not eat the same foods day after day. Eat a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts & seeds, and beans & legumes. Animal and dairy products, in smaller amounts, can be part of a healthy fertility diet for most people as well. To get a little more specific, here are some of the most important nutrients to focus on:
Folic Acid/Folate: Most people know that folic acid is needed to help prevent fetal defects and pregnancy complications, and most women are getting what they need from a prenatal vitamin (and hopefully lots of veggies and legumes!). But it bears mentioning that obese women need to take extra folic acid, on top of the prenatal vitamin.
Vitamin D: this fat-soluble vitamin regulates cell growth and is needed to create sex hormones, and therefore also plays a role in ovulation. The best way to get vitamin D is from the sun, but free-range eggs are also a good source. If supplementing, look for vitamin D3, rather than D2.
CoQ10: A very powerful antioxidant, CoQ10 helps protect eggs from free radical damage. It is also needed by every cell in the body for energy production, but amounts of CoQ10 in the body decline with age. It’s very difficult to obtain through diet alone, so supplementation with CoQ10 Ubiquinol is often recommended.
Iron: This mineral delivers oxygen to all of the body’s organs and tissues. During pregnancy, blood volume increases by nearly 50%, making iron deficiency very common, so optimizing iron levels is an important part of preconception care. A growing fetus requires enough iron to store for the first 6 months of life out of the womb. Organic chicken or beef liver is hands-down the best source of iron, and very easy for the body to absorb (make a paté to spread on sandwiches). Pumpkin seeds, beans, and lentils are good vegetarian sources. Vitamin C-rich foods will assist in iron absorption, so try to eat some fresh veggies or fruit with every iron-rich meal. Do not take an iron supplement without consulting your health care practitioner.
Healthy Fats: First of all, please hear me when I say that eating fat does not make you fat (sugar is responsible for that!). But the type of fat and the quality is so important. Every organ and cell in your body require good fats to function optimally. Fats are essential to the production of sex hormones. Low body fat can disrupt the menstrual cycle and ovulation. Coconut oil, olive oil, avocado, full-fat yogurt, nuts & seeds, and even grass-fed butter are all good choices.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a special class of fats that are important for fertility because of their anti-inflammatory effect. Omega-3’s are also crucial to the brain development of the fetus during pregnancy, and there is some evidence to suggest that supplementation with Omega-3’s may prevent post-partum depression. The best sources are oily fish like wild salmon, sardines, anchovies, and mackerel, but they are also found in flax & chia. Good quality supplements will be made from sardines and anchovies, and molecularly distilled to remove toxins.
Water: Okay, technically not a nutrient, but I need to mention that every chemical reaction in the body requires water! Water transports nutrients where they need to go in the body and carries waste products out. Drink more water, everyone! For most people, about 2-3 litres per day. A pint of lemon water first thing in the morning is a great way to start the day properly hydrated.
The priority is to eat as many clean, whole, nutrient-dense foods as possible, rather than to outlaw any specific foods. Healthy eating is about balance, and I believe that enjoying favorite foods guilt-free on occasion can be part of a healthy diet, even if our favorite foods are considered ‘sinful’ (hello cheesecake). Having said that, trans-fats and unhealthy oils like canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, and margarine cause premature aging, inflammation and free-radical damage everywhere in the body, including the reproductive system. These dangerous fats are found in deep-fried and processed junk foods and should be avoided as much as possible, along with sugar and refined carbohydrates, which can disrupt hormones and deplete the body of essential minerals.
Caffeine is often blacklisted on “fertility diets” but the truth is that a cup of coffee a day (200mg) is generally accepted to be safe. In my practice, though, I find that a lot of women actually want to give up caffeine while preparing for pregnancy; they intuitively feel like their bodies are asking to be free from the stimulant, and I totally support and encourage that. Caffeine triggers a stress response in the body, and we know that stress is damaging to fertility. Some women are more sensitive to the effects of caffeine than others, so even a small amount can have negative consequences.
Organic food deserves discussion here as well. Many of the pesticides used in conventional food production are known endocrine disruptors, meaning they can mess with your hormones. Once pregnant, pesticides cross the placenta, exposing your baby to toxic chemicals as well. Preparing for pregnancy is a time for reducing your ‘toxic load’ so eating clean, organic food and using natural care products are paramount. Choosing organic is also a great way to honor the fertility of our Earth. I recommend using EWG’s “dirty dozen” list as a guideline when grocery shopping.
The Male Factor
This article has focused on female fertility but I want to make very clear that the health of both male and female are equally important in fertility, miscarriage risk, and the health of the baby. It’s not just up to the woman to adopt a nutritious diet. Couples should embark on a journey to clean eating together, supporting one another along the way. It’s a fantastic way to establish healthy habits to pass on to future children! Specific nutrients like selenium, zinc, CoQ10, lycopene, omega-3 fats, vitamin D, and vitamin E are involved in sperm health and production, and I would need a whole other article to get into specifics 😉
It’s a fantastic way to establish healthy habits to pass on to future children! Specific nutrients like selenium, zinc, CoQ10, lycopene, omega-3 fats, vitamin D, and vitamin E are involved in sperm health and production, and I would need a whole other article to get into specifics ;).
If you’ve made it to the end of this article, bravo! You are clearly on a path of taking control of your health, which in turn will have a positive impact on your fertility. Please be patient with yourself, be kind to yourself, and surround yourself with support of all kinds. Nourishment comes from healthy food, of course, but it also comes from laughter, love, movement, adventure, and creativity. May you be fruitful!
Krista A. Parr is a Vancouver-based Registered Holistic Nutritionist and founder of Root to Fruit Nutrition. She serendipitously began working in administration at a fertility clinic while attending Nutrition school and has been deeply inspired by the work of the staff and the grace of the patients. Krista is passionate about guiding women onto a nourishing, supportive diet, and dedicated to supporting women on their fertility journeys.