Can Food Improve Fertility?
Absolutely! Food is not just fuel for your daily movements, food is fuel for your cellular structures and functions, including your reproductive organs. However, since all of your body systems are interconnected, your fertility health is not solely reliant on your reproductive organs, but on the health of your whole person.
Every bite of food is made up of macronutrients – carbohydrates, proteins, and fats – and micronutrients – vitamins and minerals – that play vital roles in generating ATP (your body’s main fuel source), supporting enzymes, improving egg and sperm quality, regulating your hormones, and feeding your gut microbiome. If you aren’t getting enough macro- and micronutrients, your systems might not be functionally optimally, which can lead to subfertility or even infertility as much standard fertility care does not consider the profound effect that diet and lifestyle can have on fertility outcomes.
Think about it this way: let’s say you work a stressful job, you tend not to sleep through the night, you often skip breakfast and run on coffee until lunch, and you’ve been eating a low-fat diet. Your lack of sleep combined with high stress and high caffeine intake are probably be messing with your cortisol regulation, which could be affecting your fat storage and insulin metabolism, which could increase inflammation and, combined with your low fat intake (so you’re missing out on a major macronutrient that helps you to absorb other micronutrients)… well, let’s just say, your hormones aren’t too pleased.. It’s not always this straightforward, but you get the idea. Everything is connected!
Let’s break this down.
What Does it Take to Fuel Your Fertility?
The Four P’s
Adequate macro- and micronutrient intake, stress management techniques, and sleep quality are all important aspects of fueling fertility; but first I want to address the TTC mindset – AKA the Four P’s.
Fueling fertility is not an easy or quick feat. It takes a minimum of three months to improve the quality of the egg and sperm that will eventually become your baby, and may take longer depending on where you are in your journey. Consequently, fueling fertility takes patience and persistence. Don’t expect changes in your diet and routine to impact anything overnight. Progress will come with commitment, consistency, and time!
Fueling fertility also takes positivity. It can be difficult to remain patient and persistent when nothing seems to be working, but keeping a positive outlook can help you stay on track. That being said, staying positive isn’t always easy. I know, I’ve been there! But you have to keep up the hard work to see the results.
Lastly, fueling fertility takes partnership. No matter what is contributing to subfertility, partners need to support each other in making lifestyle changes and remaining hopeful. You are a team!
Ok, now that we know the Four P’s, let’s dive into the good stuff.
If you needed a sign to stop following your restrictive diet, this is it! I know that can sound scary for some of you, but restrictive diets can send a stress signal to your body that puts it in “no place for baby” mode. It takes a lot of nutrients and energy to fuel your fertility, so skimping on macros is not the way to go here. We’ll take a look at why you need adequate amounts of all three macronutrients in the next section – so hang tight!
Common Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies
We know that adequate vitamins and minerals are necessary for optimal fertility, but according to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the US suffers from population-wide underconsumption of vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and iron among other essential nutrients.(1) Let’s take a look at some common nutrient insufficiencies and how they impact your fertility:
- Iron. Iron is a mineral found in leafy greens, meat, fish, nuts, and legumes. It plays an essential role in the development of red blood cells, storage of oxygen in muscle tissue, brain development, hormone production, and growth and development during childhood. Without enough iron, the body cannot receive and transport adequate levels of oxygen, which not only leads to fatigue, but can result in preterm births, low birth weight infants, and increased susceptibility to infection.(2)
- Vitamin B6. Vitamin B6 is found in poultry, fish, chickpeas, bananas, and sunflower seeds. It plays an important role in protein metabolism, neurotransmitter synthesis, regulating blood sugar, and balancing sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone. Inadequate B6 can decrease egg and sperm quality, reduce cervical mucus production, and negatively impact the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle.(3)
- Vitamin D. Vitamin D is found in egg yolks, salmon, liver, and fortified products like cereals, milk, and orange juice. If you live in a sunny area, you can also get ample vitamin D by spending 10 minutes outside with your arms and legs exposed, depending on your skin tone. Vitamin D plays a critical role in bone development, blood pressure regulation, immune responses, cell differentiation, and regulation of inflammation. Higher levels of vitamin D have also been linked to increased rates of conception among IVF patients.(4) Evidence suggests that 4,000 IU (100mcg) of vitamin D supports fertility and pregnancy, however, you want to get your levels tested to see if you need more!
- Folate. Folate is a vitamin found in dark leafy vegetables, beans, peas, nuts, oranges, bananas, eggs, and liver. Folate is absolutely essential for the production of new DNA, and new DNA is needed for all new cells – like those of your future baby! Folate also promotes healthy neural tube formation, adequate birth weight, and proper development of the face and heart. Unfortunately, most prenatal supplements contain the synthetic form of folate called folic acid, which must be converted into folate before it can be used by the body. This conversion process doesn’t work so well in a whopping 40-60% of people,(5) so when purchasing a supplement, look for folate, folinic acid, or 5-methyl folate.
- Choline. The richest sources of choline are animal products like meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and egg yolks, but choline is also found in cruciferous veggies and legumes. Choline is essential for egg quality before pregnancy, prevents neural tube defects during early pregnancy, and supports babies’ brain development throughout the first year of life. Aim for 300mg-800mg in a prenatal and food daily. You can supplement with this separately to get enough.
Please note that even if you are consuming adequate amounts of the above nutrients, your body needs other nutrients (called “co-factors”) to properly process and use these nutrients. Also, it’s possible to have a change in your genetics that causes you not to process or use these nutrients efficiently. So when in doubt, test or ask your provider to help you look into this.
The adrenals are two little glands that sit on top of your kidneys helping to regulate your metabolism and response to stress. When you feel stressed, a tiny gland in your brain, the hypothalamus, sends a signal to your adrenals to produce cortisol, one of the body’s main stress hormones. Cortisol’s main job is to increase blood sugar because, back in the day when humans had to hunt for their food, they needed boosts of energy to run from predators or hunt down their prey. As you can imagine, hunting prey and running from predators are not ideal situations to be making babies, so elevated cortisol also suppresses reproductive hormones. Thus, cortisol would increase in times of stress, then return to normal when the job was done.
The problem with modern life is that today’s stressors – demanding jobs, stop-and-go traffic on your daily commute, swiping through your social media feed and comparing yourself to everyone and their mom, not having time to eat between appointments and meetings – rarely resolve themselves, leaving some of us in a state of elevated cortisol, often referred to as “sympathetic dominance”or, as I have come to call it, “no place for a baby” mode.
While cortisol regulates how much fuel is available in the bloodstream, the thyroid, another little gland that sits at the front of your throat, tells the body how much of that fuel to use. When your thyroid function is suboptimal – whether you have hypothyroidism or are just on the low end of “normal” functioning – cortisol tends to be elevated, suppressing reproductive hormones and raising blood sugar. The reverse is true as well, where high levels of cortisol have been shown to reduce thyroid functioning.(6)
We’re almost done with the science lesson, I promise! The more obvious outcome of high cortisol is that suppressed reproductive hormones are bad for fertility. The less obvious outcome is that high blood sugar can lead to inflammation, which can interfere with insulin signaling and cause the body to produce more insulin. High levels of insulin can then interfere with sex hormone production by telling the ovaries to produce more androgens, the kind of sex hormone associated with PCOS and subfertility.(7)
So what can you do to support your adrenals and thyroid? Well, there’s a number of things you can do from getting enough sleep to not overdoing your exercise routine to learning how to cope with daily stressors, but right now, I want to focus on the impacts of what I like to call the MACROtrio diet.
If you suspect thyroid and/or adrenal issues, dive deeper to find what’s stressing your hormones with the Fertility Unlocked Program. In this program, this is one of my Non-Negotiables steps to improving your fertility.
My Ultimate Fertility Eating Guide
Ensuring that your body feels safe from stressors and has enough resources to go around might seem like a tall order – stressors are everywhere and dietary advice from social media can be just as confusing as it can be helpful. While you might not be able to escape from everyday stress, developing coping mechanisms that allow the stress to flow through you rather than build up inside of you is a great place to start, as is implementing a nutrient-dense diet that supports whole-body health. To make this process as easy as possible, I’ve created a simple guide that ushers in “welcome baby” mode with an easy-to-follow formula for every meal. Say hello to your new BFFFTTC (best friend for trying to conceive!), the MACROtrio diet!
The MACROtrio “Diet”
Before you pull out your red flags, when I say “diet,” I don’t mean your traditional low-calorie, no-fun-foods, “I’ll take the salad” kind of diet. I’m just referring to a way of eating… which is what that word actually means. The MACROtrio diet is all about incorporating each macronutrient at every meal you eat. A low-carb, low-fat approach just doesn’t work when optimizing fertility. You need carbs to fuel your metabolism and ensure adequate vitamin consumption, and you need fats to sustain hormone production, absorb critical nutrients, and preserve egg and sperm quality. You also need protein to make enzymes, create new cells, and transport nutrients throughout your body.
So how does MACROtrio work? It’s really quite simple: just choose a food from each macronutrient category to enjoy at each meal and snack. When you incorporate each macro into every meal, you’re ensuring that you aren’t loading up on fats and forgetting to eat protein or skimping on fats in favor of carbs. In other words, it’s an easy approach to achieving a balanced diet. Because there are different types of carbohydrates, I’ve broken them up into two categories, starchy and non-starchy. Let’s take a closer look at our MACROtrio plate:
Critical Carbohydrates (Starchy):
- Whole grains like quinoa, rice, and oats
- Legumes like black beans, peas, and lentils
- Tubers like sweet potatoes and plantains
- Whole fruits
Critical Carbohydrates (Non-Starchy):
- Leafy greens like spinach, kale, and swiss chard
- Cruciferous veggies like Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and broccoli
- Other veggies like asparagus, carrots, and bell pepper
- Herbs & spices like turmeric, basil, and parsley
*Critical carbohydrates should come primarily from whole food sources like fruits, veggies, and whole grains rather than processed foods like baked goods, white rice, or pasta.
- Wild-caught fish low in mercury like salmon, herring, and trout
- Grass-fed animal products like beef, poultry, and lamb
- Pasteurized whole eggs (not egg whites!)
- Quality protein powder
*Perfect proteins should be easy to digest, contain minimal ingredients, and be grass-fed and organic if possible. You’ll notice I don’t list plant foods as sources of protein, primarily because you’d need to eat a lot of them to get adequate protein. (But we do have vegetarian meal plans in our Fueling Fertility Tribe!)
- Cooking oils with high smoke point like avocado oil, coconut oil, or butter
- Eating fats like avocado, fish, or olives
- Grass-fed animal products like cheese and whole fat dairy
- Nuts & seeds like chia, flax, almond, or cashew
*Fertility fats should come primarily from whole foods like plants or plant oils and grass-fed animal products, not from processed foods like baked goods or fast food.
Not every meal will be a perfect balance of each macronutrient, but the goal is not perfection! The goal with MACROtrio is to ensure that no macro is left behind and that your diet is rich in vitamins and minerals you can only get from eating a balanced diet. MACROtrio also helps balance blood sugar to support adrenal and thyroid function (hello “welcome baby” mode!), reduce inflammation, and support proper hormone functioning, all while taking the hassle out of meal planning…because the last thing your fertility needs is more stress!
The secret sauce is having all of these nutrients in the right amounts to fuel your fertility properly.
To dive into this information, get the complete guide, recipes, and done-for-you meal plans create your free account here in the Fueling Fertility Store to get started. In the store we take it a step further and break down which MICROnutrients you need to bring much needed harmony to those hormones. So if you have high estrogen levels, for example, we walk you through what foods to increase and decrease in your MACROtrio diet.
Find what is stressing your hormones and unlock your fertility
Affiliate Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links which means, to no extra cost to you, I would make a small fee if you use them.
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