Nutrition has so much to offer for preconception. The evidence shows that certain nutrient deficiencies increase infertility and can decrease sperm count in men. Lifestyle factors and dietary inclusions also play a huge role in conceiving and the health of your baby. So many couples have been through the heartbreaking process of not being able to conceive. What I ask is - have you dedicated time to creating a healthy environment that a baby wants to grow in before you try to conceive? We simply cannot decide that we want to have a baby and not plan for this or make any changes. As nutritionists, we recommend addressing all nutrient deficiencies and implementing lifestyle and dietary changes at least 12 months before conception.
Preconception health care is an area that we as nutritionists have a lot to offer in. Our bodies need optimal levels of certain nutrients in order to conceive and prevent an increased likelihood of disease in our children. More often than not, these requirements are overlooked by the medical model.
Let’s start with the factors affecting fertility. The amount of antioxidants that your male partner consumes directly affects the condition and durability if you will, of his sperm.
Both partners gut health is also extremely important. An imbalance of bacteria or too many ‘bad’ bacteria can lead to higher risk of allergies or asthma in infants. Also, if you are not properly absorbing nutrients, you are more likely to have extreme deficiencies in vitamins required for fertilisation. I’ll talk more about what these deficiencies can lead to soon.
Environmental toxins also play a large role in your chances of falling pregnant, as pesticides and solvents have been shown to disrupt endocrinological function.
If you are underweight, your hormones won’t be adequately synthesising and if you are overweight, you could be oestrogen dominant. Inflammation is also present in overweight people, which decreases your chances of falling pregnant. Being overweight also increases your child’s chances of developing autism or ADHD.
Stress also decreases your chances of falling pregnant, as well as poor sleep. Sleep quality is one of the most important factors. Sleep allows healing and reduces inflammation in the body. If we don’t sleep, we are more likely to crave sugar, which puts metabolic stress on the body. If the mother is highly stressed during conception and pregnancy, the child has a higher risk of developing allergies later on in life. High stress also affects the endocrine function of the child.
Smoking causes reduced ovary cell division, which helps you fall pregnant. It increases premature aging of your ovaries and increases your risk of miscarrying once you do fall pregnant. This goes for both men and women. Women who smoke whilst trying to conceive are also more likely to give birth to a baby with foetal abnormalities, impaired mitochondrial function and have more allergies/atopy such as eczema and asthma. A woman who drinks alcohol whilst trying to conceive is also increasing the risk of a preterm birth, birth defects, neurodevelopmental disorders, miscarriage and stillbirth, and low birth weight.
In regards to diet, the concept of a fertility diet is not new. There is a substantial amount of research indicating that dietary modification improves ovulation and the chances of conception.
Adequate intake of oily fish, for instance, is required to ensure stable cell membrane fluidity and energy production of the sperm and ovulation. A whole food diet undertaken by both partners is also indicated in the maturation and development of a healthy sperm and oocyte (the cells in your ovaries). A whole food diet based on a variety of fresh, seasonal and organic food will contain a blend of synergistic nutrients required for healthy preconception. Antioxidant rich foods in particular have been studied the most in relation to fertility and have produced impressive results.
It is also absolutely essential that protein requirements are being met. This means that all essential amino acids are being obtained in the diet every single day and the sources of food actually provide quality proteins. As every cell of the body requires protein, it is absolutely crucial for fertility. Once pregnant, those that have restricted quality protein intake are more likely to have a child with reduced cell numbers in their spleen, pancreas, kidneys and heart. Therefore, the infant is at risk of reduced metabolic support such as glycaemic control and it may increase the potential for chronic kidney disease. Inadequate protein during pregnancy is also linked to reduced birth weight, which causes a whole host of problems in itself.
In relation to deficiencies, the following vitamins and minerals MUST be addressed when trying to conceive as they will significantly affect your chances of falling pregnant and the health of your child.
Zinc: This mineral plays an important role in the synthesis of protein, which is crucial for reproduction. Zinc also exerts antioxidant properties specific to the reproductive system and thus a deficiency will reduce sperm and ovary cell quality. A zinc deficiency in a mother is also a risk factor for poor glycaemic control in an infant.
B group vitamins: Deficiencies of B vitamins have been associated with a number of fertility problems including fetal abnormalities such as neural tube defects, low birth weight and miscarriage. It may be worth noting that alcohol, carbohydrate rich diets and the oral contraceptive pill increases the body’s requirements for B vitamins. Therefore, any couple that wants to optimise their fertility and has a lifestyle involving these variables may require additional B vitamins to prepare their bodies for conception. If you have taken the oral contraceptive pill for years and have stopped taking it just to conceive, the nutrient deficiencies you will have as a result of this (unfortunately not just B Vitamins) need to be assessed well before you want to conceive.
Vitamin D: This vitamin is required structurally and enhances both male and female fertility. It also enhances the absorption of calcium, an essential nutrient for fertility. Vitamin D acts as a potent immunomodulator and can support skeletal health in both the mother and the developing fetus. If you are vitamin D deficient during your pregnancy, your child is more likely to have osteoporosis later on in life as well as develop insulin resistance.
Vitamin A: If you are Vitamin A deficient at conception or during pregnancy, your child is more likely to have high blood pressure and glucose intolerance (a predisposition for insulin resistance and diabetes).
Deficiencies of Vitamin D and A will also alter the neurological development of a child, which is a BIG THING to consider. Studies have shown these deficiencies are huge risk factors for the development of disorders such as ADHD and autism.
Iron: Adequate intake of iron is paramount for healthy fertility since it is required for the formation of red blood cells. Iron is also required to ensure the correct formation of fetal blood, brain, eyes and bones, and healthy growth rate. If you are iron deficient during conception or pregnancy, your child is more likely to have increased blood pressure.
Chromium: If you are chromium deficient at conception or during pregnancy, your child is more likely to have an increased body weight and visceral fat percentage. VIsceral fat is the the fat stored around our organs which is potentially dangerous.
Vitamin B12: A deficiency in this vitamin at 18 weeks and forward increases the risk of visceral fat storage in the child as well as reduced insulin sensitivity. Therefore, your child will be more at risk of developing diabetes.
There are a number of other nutrients that have been identified as required for the healthy function and regulation of the female reproductive system as well as the health of the child. I realise there are many diseases that can affect female reproduction, however assessing nutritional status and treating this functionally and holistically has proven very useful in supporting fertility. The health of both the mother and the father is crucial during conception period and doing a nutritional assessment ensures your child will not be more likely to experience drawbacks to their health.