It’s January. There’s a flashy “New Year Detox Plan” on every swipe of your screen promising weight loss, clear skin, more energy, and a sharper mind, and you may be toying with some food-related 2019 intentions of your own. But does the food we eat really matter when it comes to fertility? After all, women are born with all the eggs they will ever have, right? How could dietary choices possibly influence our chances of conception? Well, as with most things, the answer is not black and white, and individual reasons for infertility must always be taken into account. Let’s explore the relationship between food and fertility so you can determine if now is the time to embark on an overhaul of your eating habits.
You Are What You Eat
Let’s start with this simple fact: the foods we choose to eat become part of us. The materials contained within the foods we consume literally become our cells, our tissues, and our organs. The body is constantly regenerating itself, and it uses the nutrients available to do so. Those nutrients come from food. For example, every cell in the body is surrounded by a membrane made of fat. That fat comes from the fats we consume, so if healthy fats like those found in avocado and wild salmon are available, the body uses those when regenerating cells. But if only inflammatory fats are available, like canola oil and safflower oil, the body is forced to draw on those. The fats that we consume are also the raw materials used to make sex hormones in the body. It’s not difficult to see why we’d rather be an avocado than a French fry.
The foods that we choose to consume not only become part of us, they also influence the parts of us that already exist. Antioxidants in raw cacao (real chocolate) protect sperm and eggs from damage. Curcumin in turmeric reduces inflammation in all tissues, reproductive organs included. Sulforaphane in broccoli supports the liver in detoxifying excess estrogen. Lycopene in tomatoes improves sperm morphology. And the water that we drink carries those nutrients exactly where they need to go while escorting metabolic waste products and toxins out of the body. The list goes on and on and science does not yet fully know the multitude of ways that food impacts our bodies, let alone fertility. Clearly, though, the foods that we eat cannot be separated from the state of our health and therefore, our fertility status. In a general sense, for conception to occur, the body must see itself as “strong” enough, with adequate energy reserves to sustain a pregnancy. This is one of the reasons why women whose body fat is too low cannot ovulate.
Small Daily Habits = Big Impact on Fertility
The good news is, we eat several times a day. That means that every meal and snack is an opportunity to flood our bodies with the nutrients needed to thrive and reproduce. This is not a call for perfection, restrictive eating, or crash diets. This just means that at least three times per day we have the potential to positively influence our cells, tissues, and organs, namely our uterus, eggs & sperm! Perfection is never the goal – long-term, sustainable, balanced eating is. We do this by adopting daily habits, one at a time, that support our overall health and vitality. Each nutritious choice made is like a drop in the bank of wellness. It is the small things we do each day that lead to the big transformations in health we are looking for.
Although women are indeed born with all of the eggs they will ever have, it takes roughly 3 months for an immature egg cell to to mature and ovulate. Men are constantly generating new sperm and that process takes about 75 days. During the maturation time of both eggs and sperm, those cells are highly susceptible to nutrient deficiencies and DNA damage from free radicals, harmful food, stress, and toxic exposure. That means they are also highly receptive to the GOOD stuff: antioxidants, anti-inflammatory foods, moderate exercise, and nutrient-dense foods. The choices you make on a daily basis will have an impact on your reproductive health three months from now. Food is not a quick fix, but it can be powerfully transformative over the long-term.
January – New Year, New You?
As much as I cringe at the incessant “January Detox” pushers, there is a lot of merit to embracing a new way of eating at this time of year. For many of us, myself included, January is a fresh start, a new chapter, and a time when motivation is high for self-improvement. As a Holistic Nutritionist, I believe that any time is a great time to adopt a lifestyle of eating real, whole, delicious food. Especially when it comes to supporting a fertility journey. But is January the right time for YOU to transform your diet? I believe the answer hinges on one important question: Does the thought of changing your diet make you feel stressed out and anxious? Or does it make you feel inspired and empowered? For many people facing fertility investigations and treatment, focusing on food can be very empowering. It’s something they can actively DO during a time of great uncertainty and loss of control. This is good. But if changing your diet feels like yet another thing to stress you out on top of treatments, injections, ultrasounds, acupuncture, work, life, etc. then this is NOT the right time to analyze your eating habits. Food should not be stressful. The stress response in the body is more damaging to fertility than that donut you had for breakfast. Just eat the donut, enjoy every bite, and move on. But if you’re saying “yes! Using food to nourish my fertility sounds great!” Then read on…
Five Things You Can Do Right Now to Feed Fertility:
1) Start a food journal.
The most powerful thing you can do to improve your eating habits is to examine them. Write down everything you eat for seven days. Also make note of your energy levels, menstrual symptoms, headaches, digestive distress, bloating, bowel movements, skin irritations, sleep quality, brain fog, stress levels, etc. Then you can start to make connections between the foods that you eat and the way that you feel. Get curious. Which foods make you feel nourished? Which foods make you feel depleted? There is no one-size-fits-all approach to a fertility diet. We are all unique, and so are our nutritional requirements, even if we all have the same baby-making goal! This is why it’s so important to identify the foods that work for your unique constitution. Working with a Registered Holistic Nutritionist specializing in fertility, like myself, is another great way to determine what your needs are, and tailor an eating plan to your individuality.
2) Drink more water.
Proper Hydration is not just about feeling thirsty or not – every chemical process in the body requires water! Ovulation? Water! Hormone signaling? Water! Spermatogenesis? Water! Detoxification? Water! Aim to drink at least half your body weight (in pounds), in ounces, per day. If you drink caffeinated beverages, you need even more water. Starting the day with a large glass of water with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice is a great way to jump-start hydration as well as flood the body with the protective antioxidants in the lemon.
3) Choose antioxidant-rich foods.
Damage to egg and sperm cells occurs in a variety of ways including cigarette smoke, environmental toxins (such as plastics), high stress, excess sugar, and processed foods. Some of these are in our control, but others are not. Some level of damage to our cells is inevitable. Luckily, we can consume foods with high amounts of antioxidants, which actually combat oxidative damage and stress. All fresh vegetables and fruit will contain some antioxidants in the form of vitamin C, so eating plenty of fresh produce throughout each day will ensure that cells are always being protected. Foods that are particularly high in antioxidants include raw cacao (found in real, dark chocolate), green tea, berries, ginger root, turmeric, pecans, and leafy green vegetables.
4) Don’t fear the fats.
As mentioned earlier, dietary fats are required for the production of sex hormones and for the integrity of every cell in the body. They are also crucial for the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E, and K. Fats also play a role in blood-sugar balance, and for all these reasons, healthy fats should be consumed at every meal and snack. Focus on whole, natural fat sources like olives, avocado, wild salmon, sardines, coconut, flax, nuts, seeds, and even eggs, butter, and high quality meats. A favourite recipe for getting friendly with fats is my “Chocolate Fertility Fat Bombs” which you can find here.
5) Start Where You Are
Even if you’ve determined that revamping your eating habits will be a positive, empowering addition to your fertility journey, it can be a challenging task with many setbacks. Start where you are, and take baby steps. Choose one thing you can fit into your life right now and do it. Then add another. You don’t have to do it all at once, and probably shouldn’t. Small steps lead to lasting change. You are worth it, you can do it, and your body will thank you for it!
Krista A. Parr is a Vancouver-based Registered Holistic Nutritionist and founder of Root to Fruit Nutrition, specializing in eating for fertility. She is passionate about guiding women onto a nourishing diet that is all at once transformative, realistic, and individualized. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook for recipes, inspiration, and fertility nutrition tips.