Fertility can be an emotive subject for both men and women. Studies have shown that infertility can lead to anxiety, depression, and in 2014, a Danish study even found that infertile couples were three times more likely to divorce. About one in six couples is unsuccessful when trying to get pregnant, naturally, for the first time. In addition to medically-influenced conditions, several lifestyle factors have been linked to fertility struggles in both women and men, including nutritional deficiencies. For many couples, nutrition and nutritional deficiencies can not only significantly impact general fertility health, but it can also influence the success of conception. In fact, poor nutrition is one of the leading causes of infertility in both men and women.
The Impact of Nutrition and Nutritional Deficiencies
When it comes to fertility nutrition, the biggest note of importance is that a fertility diet is not a “diet,” but rather a healthy approach to meal planning to ensure fertility friendly foods and food intake checks all the boxes for key nutrients that can influence men and women’s fertility health.
When it comes to conception, nutrition can influence a number of factors including weight, hormone levels, cycle regularity, egg quality and sperm health.
In most cases, individuals with the lowest intake of vitamins and minerals, or with significant nutrient deficiencies, tend to have the highest BMI. This occurs as a result of missing nutrients slowing the body’s metabolism and/or triggering a ravenous appetite and uncontrollable cravings.
For couples looking to conceive, weight can be a contributing factor to fertility complications. Too little or too much extra weight in both men and women can affect various aspects of reproductive health and decrease their odds of conceiving.
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A number of hormones can exercise a significant and sometimes potentially adverse impact over men and women’s fertility. Nutritional intake and even lack thereof, can play a significant role in maintaining balance and preventing fluctuations in one or more of the body’s natural chemicals that might lead to difficulty in the ability to conceive.
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There’s no doubt that when it comes to TTC, balancing the phases of women’s menstrual cycle will increase the chances of healthy ovulation and conception. Proper nutrition can help regulate cycles and maintain healthy ovulation cycles which can be key to successful family planning.
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In years past, doctors and researchers believed that age was the determining factor in ovarian health, and thereby fertility. Although it is true that age plays a role in overall egg health, other factors such as diet and nutrient intake can also affect the health of the ovaries and viability of eggs for conception. For women struggling with fertility, experts have found that in many cases, 90 days of healthy habits can be enough time to improve egg health and positively benefit fertility.
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While fertility is often assumed to be a female-only issue, male-factor infertility can account for up to 40 percent of infertility issues. Crucial parameters that must be examined with male fertility are semen volume, sperm concentration, morphology (or physical form) of the sperm, and sperm motility. Lifestyle factors such as alcohol and drug use and nutrient deficiencies can hinder or exacerbate sperm health and infertility in men.
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For most men, nutritional deficiencies and unhealthy weight may alter hormone levels, causing problems ranging from low sperm count and motility, or performance abilities in the bedroom. For women, nutritional deficiencies, or being over or underweight may cause hormonal imbalances, irregular menstrual cycles or compromise egg quality and ovulation, all of which impact negatively on fertility.
Nutrient deficiencies in Vitamin C, antioxidants, folate, folic acid, omega-3, amino acids, vitamin A, B, D and iron are just some of the key nutrients that have been proven to impact fertility, and thus deficiencies in these areas can have adverse impacts on conception success.
Key Nutrients and Their Impact on Fertility
Fruits, nuts, vegetables, and whole grains are full of antioxidants like vitamin C and E, lutein, beta carotene, and folate. Antioxidants help in the removal of free oxidative radicals, that are notorious for causing damage to the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) found in cells. This DNA damage, especially for the sperm and ova, can be catastrophic when it comes to fertility health since the two only have one copy of parent DNA; thus, damage to that DNA leads to egg and sperm destruction.
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Both folate and folic acid are vitamin B9 derivatives. However, each possesses certain unique properties, the greatest distinction being that folic acid does not occur naturally within the body, thus making proper nutrition essential for achieving proper levels. High folate intake has scientifically been shown to increase chances of implantation of the zygote, clinical pregnancy, and live parturition. Conversely, folate deficiency has been associated with higher chances of spontaneous miscarriage and defects in fetal neural development.
Folic acid and fertility rates have a common link as the nutrient is found to be important for optimal fertility in both sexes. Although researchers aren’t certain why ovulation problems are so prevalent these days, there is strong evidence that taking a folic acid supplement can help to increase the rate and reliability of ovulation.
When researchers measured the folate levels in semen, they found that men with low seminal folate levels had increased sperm DNA damage. This can not only increase the risk of fetal development problems but also decrease the odds of successful fertilization.
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While unhealthy fats or trans fats have been linked to a heightened risk of ovulatory infertility and a decline in insulin sensitivity, healthy fats can have a positive impact on overall and reproductive health. As the unhealthy trans fats are found in hydrogenated fats like margarine, fast fried foods, and some baked foods, healthy fats and beneficial omega-3 fatty acids are most commonly found in fish, avocado, nuts, and natural oils.
Omega fatty acids help benefit the maturity and viability of men’s sperm while studies have found that even a short-term omega treatment can also help improve women’s egg quality and help decrease risk of anovulation.
In addition, by aiding in insulin sensitivity, women with fertility factors such as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) can also reap the benefits from Omegas.
Studies have shown that a deficiency in omega-3 may negatively impact women’s ovulation cycles and affect progesterone levels key in regulating the condition of the lining of the uterus.
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Amino acids are the building blocks of health and are products of protein metabolism and are the basis from which all proteins in the body are made. When trying to get pregnant, replacing animal-based protein with plant-based protein from legumes or alternating these intakes can help increase fertility levels.
While there is a slew of various amino acids, preliminary research finds that key amino acids such as L-arginine, L-carnitine can play a significant role, specifically, in male fertility.
An amino acid deficiency can result in decreased immunity, digestive problems, depression, fertility issues, lower mental alertness, slowed growth in children, and many other health issues.
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Vitamin A, being an antioxidant, is vital for growth and overall wellness, and immunity. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that an increased intake of vitamin A can be beneficial for your health, well-being and reproductive function.
Proper vitamin A intake is critical in reproductive health, and a deficiency in this nutrient can lead to reproduction failure, or even fetal resorption or malformation.
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This composition of B vitamins is essential as a co-enzyme in many metabolic processes. Besides its role in metabolism, vitamin B also serves as a necessary component in the average physiologic body and cellular function, playing an active role in nerve function and is essential for the proper development of the fetus.
A vitamin B deficiency can lead to irregular menstrual cycles, poor egg development and a progesterone imbalance. In men, a vitamin B12 deficiency can cause low sperm count, which is likely to create infertility problems.
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While vitamin D is important for bone strength and health, there are accumulating data suggesting that it may also be significant for fertility health, pregnancy outcomes and lactation. High vitamin D levels also appear to impact positively on sperm motility and overall sperm health.
Conversely, vitamin D deficiency is a significant cause of the degradation of sperm quality and in women, vitamin D deficiency has been found to be a contributing factor in ovulatory disorders.
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Iron is essential as a component of heme found in the blood, and is critical in overall cell health.
Studies have found that proper iron intake can significantly lower the risk of ovulatory infertility and help improve the chances of conception. Additionally, iron is an essential precursor in the formation of the hemoglobin protein necessary for fetal blood and a deficiency can lead to premature birth and low birth weight in babies.
In summary, nutritional deficiencies can play a significant role in fertility health for both men and women and deficiency left unaddressed can negatively impact the ability to conceive. However, balancing proper nutrition, regular exercise and following regular gynecological visit recommendations may help optimize fertility levels and help create ideal fertility conditions to put you on the path to a healthy pregnancy.