Are you and your partner trying to conceive? Or perhaps you know someone who has had difficulties getting pregnant?
Well, you’re not alone…
It is estimated that 1 in 7 couples face difficulties conceiving, with the 2017 UN World division report showing that total fertility rates have halved in the last 50 years (1).
While many associate decreased childbearing with female empowerment and alternative opportunities for family planning; rising infertility rates are also a significant factor (2)(3). In a survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control, it was found that the percentage of women between the ages of 15-44 with an impaired ability to conceive was 10.9%. While rates of infertility; defined as the diminished or inability to conceive following 12 months of consistent unprotected intercourse was at 6.0% (2).
What has contributed to the rise of infertility?
While many question the impact of environmental toxins on reproductive health and fertility (4), researchers have also been investigating a metabolic role (5).
Hormonal imbalances such as those observed in polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) have been linked to significant nutritional and metabolic dysfunctions. These conditions not only impact insulin resistance, but also other hormone levels (6,7). In fact, several experts believe that the rise in rates of infertility alongside those of obesity and diabetes is no coincidence.
How can diet help with fertility?
Scientific researchers at Harvard University discovered that women who managed to change just five or more aspects of their diet and lifestyle dramatically reduced their risk of infertility by 80%. Research indicated that specific foods could either increase or decrease a woman’s risk of experiencing fertility issues, observing that those with the highest fertility levels dramatically dropped their intake of sugar and trans fats, while increasing their plant-based protein and fibre intake (8).
Additionally, researchers have identified a number of minerals and micronutrients which are vital to support proper hormonal balance and functioning. When adequate nutrient levels are not being met, it is almost impossible for the body to support and maintain a healthy pregnancy.
This consideration provides one of the many reasons as to why dietary factors are so important regarding both fertility and pregnancy.
What foods support fertility?
Whether you’re 22 or 42, eating in a hormone supportive manner will not only balance your mood, boost your energy and lift libido; it will also set you up for a smooth journey when you decide that the time is right to try to conceive.
While the foundations of a healthy diet which centres on whole, unprocessed foods should be maintained; a fertility diet goes one step further. The foods recommended below contain nutrients and compounds which target reproductive health; ensuring that you have all that is required for healthy hormonal functioning and balance, foetal development, egg and sperm health.
Below are 10 key fertility boosting foods you can incorporate into your daily diet to support fertility!
These delicious legumes are rich in isoflavones which act as a form of natural oestrogen in the body (1). 100g of chickpeas contain approximately 10mg of isoflavones, while their high plant-based protein content also supports fertility.
Tips to enjoy:
- Hummus is a delicious dip made from chickpeas and tahini. Enjoy as a snack with raw vegetable crudités or add a dollop on the side of a main meal.
- Enjoy roasted chickpeas as a healthy snack or add them to salads.
2. Omega 3
Omega 3 fatty acids including EPA and DHA have been shown to support fertility through hormone regulation, improved blood flow to the uterus and reproductive organs, stimulating cervical mucus and promoting ovulation (9,10). Foods such as oily fish, flax seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts are great sources of omega 3.
Tips to enjoy:
- Sprinkle a mix of omega-3 rich nuts and seeds (such as flax, walnuts and hemp) on top of your morning oatmeal or smoothie.
- Snack on toasted walnuts during the day.
- Include more oily fish such as salmon, mackerel or sardines into your weekly meals.
3. Green vegetables
Magnesium is absolutely vital when it comes to optimizing fertility (2,3), as this nutrient participates in over 300 reactions within the body. Dark green vegetables such as spinach, kale, broccoli and chard are some of the richest sources. Just one cup per day provides you with 50% of your daily magnesium requirement.
Furthermore, many of these green vegetables contain folic acid which is known for reducing the risk of infant spinal cord and brain defects, as well as being essential for ovarian health. While the calcium content in the greens aid the regulation of your cycle.
Tips to enjoy:
- Buy these veggies in bulk to pre-chop and steam in batches for easy access on the days which you are tight on time.
- Add to soups, stews, curries and stir fries.
- For a lighter dinner, serve you main meal on a bed of greens instead of rice.
While eggs contain a healthy dose of protein; an essential component of embryo quality, it is the yolk of the egg which is particularly supportive for fertility. Egg yolks contain a multitude of nutrients including calcium, vitamin B12, B6, vitamin A and vitamin D. In particular, B6 is vital for regulating hormone levels (4), supporting premenstrual symptoms (5) and decreasing your risk of having issues with ovulation (6).
Tips to enjoy:
- Enjoy scrambled or poached eggs for breakfast with a large side of vegetables.
- Try an omelette for dinner rather than meat or fish.
- If you’re very brave, you can add a raw egg or two to a smoothie or juice (note: raw eggs should not be consumed while pregnant).
5. Sweet potatoes
Not only are these delicious root vegetables rich in vitamin A, they support efficient oestrogen metabolism through the liver as well as encouraging healthy blood sugar balance and insulin response due to their low glycaemic index.
Tips to enjoy:
- Cut into cubes and steam or roast them as a side to your main meal.
- Why not try making sweet potato soup with ginger and turmeric for an added boost?
- Baked sweet potatoes make a delicious alternative to the traditional white potato. Load with mixed greens, legumes and hummus for a delicious, hormone balancing meal!
This lesser known grain is a fertility superfood! It is rich in a compound called D-chiro-inositol, which along with myo-inositol have demonstrated their ability to improve fertility by dropping insulin and testosterone levels while increasing rates of ovulation. In particular, these compounds have displayed very positive results in overweight women suffering from PCOS (11).
Tips to enjoy:
- Rolled buckwheat can be prepared exactly like oatmeal and eaten as a fertility boosting breakfast.
- Cook roasted buckwheat (also known as ‘kasha’) and use as you would any other grain.
- Switch from regular noodles to Soba or buckwheat noodles. These Japanese noodles are traditionally made from 100% buckwheat flour.
- Alternate your staples such as pasta and flour to their buckwheat alternatives. Make sure that you buy products which contain 100% buckwheat and rather than mixed grains.
This fruit is high in vitamin E; a powerful antioxidant which is vital for hormonal balance and proper functioning of the endocrine system (12). Studies demonstrate the importance of vitamin E for increasing levels of cervical mucus and regulating ovulation (13).
Tips to enjoy:
- Enjoy smashed avocado on toast with some sea salt, pepper and chilli flakes.
- Try guacamole dip or add avocado to your usual hummus recipe.
- Add to salads chopped up in cubes or sliced.
This well-known spice contains a polyphenol compound called methylhydroxychalcone polymer (MHCP) which causes the fat cells to become more responsive to insulin which in turn supports increased ovulation rates (7,8). Between ½-1 teaspoon daily is recommended to achieve these effects (9,10) and it is important that cinnamon is taken with a carbohydrate containing meal in order to achieve the maximum desired effect.
Tips to enjoy:
- Add cinnamon to your morning oatmeal or smoothie.
- Enjoy a mug of fresh cinnamon tea or add some to a mug of cocoa or latte.
This distinct orange spice may improve circulation (11) and possibly enhance the vascular health of the ovaries (12). It is also a natural anti-inflammatory agent (13) and supports phase II liver detoxification (14) which is important for maintaining healthy oestrogen recycling within the body.
Tips to enjoy:
- Try adding dried ground turmeric to scrambled eggs, soups, curries and stews.
- Make the switch from a regular latte to a turmeric latte with cinnamon, black pepper and vanilla.
- Try a fresh turmeric and ginger shot from your local juice bar or add to a smoothie or a juice.
- Consider taking a high-quality turmeric supplement.
Fiber is a superpower when it comes to improving the overall health of the body. While a high intake of fibre rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes is an important part of any diet, adequate fibre is essential in the case of PCOS as it supports a healthy blood sugar balance.
Tips to enjoy:
- Increase your overall intake of fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes and tubers.
- Add ground flax or chia seed to smoothies or oatmeal to increase the fibre content.
- Consider a fibre supplement such as psyllium husk or inulin to add to drinks.
In addition to incorporating these 10 foods and nutrients into your daily routine, it’s important to always aim to select organic produce. Research has shown that pesticides used in the growing of non-organic produce can affect oestrogen and other hormones (14).
So, choosing organic foods wherever possible can reduce toxicity that may impact hormonal balance.
Which foods can impact your fertility?
Now, just as there are foods which can support your fertility, there are also foods which can be harmful to it. Even some perceived ‘health foods’ can have a negative effect on your hormonal balance if not consumed correctly.
Below are 5 foods to avoid when trying to conceive.
1. Refined sugars & sweeteners
Conditions which can affect fertility such as PCOS have been linked to insulin resistance (15); a condition which is exacerbated through the consumption of sugar.
Even so-called ‘natural’ sweeteners disrupt your blood sugar balance. While maple syrup and agave nectar may be sold as ‘healthier’ options, at the end of the day, they still act on the body in a similar manner to regular white sugar. In fact, a commonly used natural sweetener called stevia may actually inhibit the body’s ability to ovulate and contribute to cycle irregularities (16). These disturbances are due to the glycosides in stevia, which possess a structural similarity to plant hormones. For those who are trying to conceive, stevia is best avoided.
What to use instead:
- Raw organic honey, coconut sugar or coconut nectar appear to have the least impact on blood sugar stasis. However, even with these alternatives, moderation is the best practice.
2. Refined fats and processed oils
Not only are these foods generally unhealthy, but the high levels of pro-inflammatory fatty acids omega 6 and 9 found in many oils can interrupt your delicate omega 3 balance. These fats support the production of inflammatory prostaglandins (15,16) which can impact PCOS (17); a condition which has been associated with higher rates of infertility (18).
What to use instead:
- Focus on including plenty of unprocessed fat sources into your diet such as nuts, seeds, avocado and olives.
- Try to limit your use of processed oils, such as those used during deep frying. If you must use a fat for cooking, stick to extra virgin olive for light cooking or coconut oil which can withstand higher temperatures.
3. Raw cruciferous vegetables
While cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, kale and broccoli contain important compounds including indole-3-carbinol (I3C) which supports oestrogen metabolism and hormonal balance (17), there is a caveat; they should always be cooked. This is because the cruciferous family contain goitrogens; compounds which can reduce thyroid functioning by interfering with iodine metabolism (19). A sluggish thyroid can result in delayed ovulation (20), which can throw off your conceptual cycle.
What to do instead:
- Always cook your greens. Change things up by varying your choices between broccoli, kale, spinach, chard, Brussel sprouts and bok choy.
- When you do eat these greens, enjoy with foods high in selenium such as Brazil nuts, turkey or brown rice in order to support healthy thyroid functioning.
Caffeine consumption can disrupt cortisol levels and result in exhaustion of the adrenal glands. This surge in cortisol creates an inflammatory response which can inhibit your ability to conceive (21). Additionally, this process can deplete minerals and micronutrients which are critical for maintaining hormonal balance (22,23).
What to do:
- Identify the products you use which contain caffeine. Things like black tea, coffee, soda and energy drinks are standard culprits, but even certain health foods such as chocolate and green tea contain caffeine.
- Switch from caffeinated beverages to non-caffeinated herbal teas such as rooibos, Kukicha root or peppermint tea.
Soy has become a highly controversial food in the health world; particularly when it comes to hormones. This is because the truth of the matter is that soy can have both positive and negative effects on hormonal health.
Soy foods are a rich source of isoflavones which act similarly to oestrogen in the body. Studies have shown that when traditional forms of soy are consumed, they can have a positive effect on hormonal health (18) (19). On the flip side, consumption of processed soy such as that used in soy milk, soy cheese, soy yogurt and soy isolate can have significant negative consequences. Studies suggest that this type of soy can increase oestrogen-dominance and exacerbate conditions such as PCOS, endometriosis, ovarian cysts and fibroids (20).
What to do:
- Consume whole, organic and fermented soy such as miso, tempeh, tamari and fermented tofu in moderation; 2 teaspoons daily is the perfect amount to gain the benefits.
The bottom line?
Whether you’re currently trying to conceive or interested in healthy fertility for the future, the bottom line is that food matters when it comes to supporting hormonal health and fertility.
Difficulties conceiving can be agonizing for couples, and a well-focused diet will go a long way in aiding your fertility journey.
These hormone helping foods are also incredibly beneficial to those experiencing PMS, PCOS, endometriosis, ovarian cysts, fibroids or other hormone-related disorders.
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