How a dietitian can help with fertility

The critical role of nutrition in successfully conceiving a child

There are many factors outside of your control that contribute to you and your partner’s ability to conceive. Genes, age, reproductive health, and more can all cause their own unique set of issues when trying to have a baby.

However, one key contributor to fertility that you can control is proper nutrition. This article will explore the reasons for fertility in men and women, and how your dietitian can help you understand how food plays a role in natural conception, assisted reproductive treatments and in-vitro fertilization.

Causes of infertility in women

If you have been trying to conceive a child with no luck, you may be starting to feel discouraged. Fortunately, you are far from alone. Experts define infertility as regularly trying to get pregnant for at least a year with no success. Infertility affects millions of couples in Canada – in fact, around 11 per cent of women have trouble getting pregnant or carrying to term.

Infertility affects women at a slightly higher rate than men, simply because there are more factors involved. Women must consider both egg health and uterine health, whereas men only need to worry about sperm health while trying to conceive a child. There are many factors that can cause a woman to become infertile, including the following:

  • Ovulation disorders (such as PCOS or Hyperprolactinemia)
  • Fallopian tube damage or blockages
  • Endometriosis
  • Uterine polyps or tumours
  • Abnormally shaped uterus
  • Cervical stenosis (a narrow cervix)
  • Uterine scarring (from endometriosis or other conditions)

Nutrition for egg health

When trying to conceive, all you need is one healthy, mature egg. This can be difficult to achieve, especially if you are over the age of 35. However, before resulting to questionable remedies like herbal concoctions or ground up placenta powder, a few simple changes to your diet can make all the difference when it comes to egg health.

Consuming foods that are high in antioxidants can help boost your eggs’ mitochondrial function. This includes dark, leafy greens like spinach and kale, as well as berries, artichokes, pecans and even dark chocolate. If you feel that you are not getting enough antioxidants in your regular diet, taking vitamin supplements like Coenzyme Q10, folic acid and Vitamins A and E may also help.

Nutrition for uterine health

Your uterus plays a vital role in reproduction, so it’s important to keep it in tip-top shape while trying to conceive. There are a few specific foods that should be part of your regular diet (whether or not you’re actively trying to conceive) in order to avoid many common health problems that are associated with the uterus. While you’re at it, you’ll be promoting fertility and priming your uterus to successfully carry a child!

Nuts and seeds are essential for uterine health, as they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and good cholesterol. These nutrients help ensure optimal birth weight for your baby. Nuts and seeds can be easily added to various meals (especially baked goods) to enhance the taste as well as nutritional value.

You should also consume plenty of whole grains (to flush out excess estrogen), leafy vegetables and fresh fruits. These foods help maintain an alkaline balance in your body and provide vital nutrients such as minerals and folic acid. Lemons and oranges are particularly useful while trying to conceive. They contain plenty of Vitamin C, which will increase your chances of conceiving by preventing uterine infections.

Causes of infertility in men

When men become infertile or struggle with conceiving, the primary reason is usually sperm health. This is surprisingly common, affecting around 9 per cent of Canadian men. In order to successfully impregnate your partner, you must have a high number of healthy and mature sperm cells living in your seminal fluid.

When it comes to sperm health, there are a few important factors to consider. First, there is your sperm count, which is the concentration of sperm cells in a given sample. This can be an important marker of sperm quality. There is also sperm morphology, or the average size and shape of sperm cells in a sample. You should also consider sperm motility, which refers to movement. Sperm cells must be able to swim in order to fertilize an egg. Finally, a minimum volume of semen will be required to carry sperm cells through the female reproductive tract.

There are many factors that can cause abnormal sperm production or function, which affects the quality of the sperm. These can include:

  • Undescended testicles
  • Genetic defects
  • Diabetes (or other pre-existing health conditions)
  • Infections (such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, mumps or HIV)
  • Enlarged veins in the testes (varicocele)

Nutrition for sperm health

If your sperm cells are in poor condition, oftentimes, this can be remedied through medical treatments and lifestyle changes, most importantly, nutrition. By choosing the right foods, you can increase both your sperm production as well as the strength and quality of your sperm cells.

First and foremost, zinc has been proven to play a significant role in regulating sperm count and quality. Men who are infertile tend to have lower zinc levels than men who are fertile. Oysters, red meat and poultry, shellfish, whole wheat grain products, nuts and beans and dairy are all rich in zinc.

Foods containing folate (a B Vitamin), as well as foods that are high in antioxidants, are also important contributors to sperm health. Low folate has been associated with damaged sperm DNA as well as low sperm counts. Folate and antioxidant-rich foods include green, leafy vegetables, such as spinach, asparagus and brussels sprouts, fresh fruits (especially oranges and lemons), nuts, beans and peas, whole grains, nutritional yeasts, red meat and poultry, and enriched flour products such as breads and pasta.

Nutrition advice when trying to conceive

Most of us are aware of the importance of prenatal nutrition while pregnant, however, what you may not realize is that what you eat while trying to conceive is equally important. When trying to conceive, it’s important to consume plenty of foods that will optimize fertility hormones and ovulation.

For both men and women, experts recommend sticking to organic foods that are high in vitamins and antioxidants. It is fine to take natural supplements such as folic acid and Vitamin C. It is also important to stick to a healthy and consistent weight while trying to conceive, which can be done by eating small, nutritious meals throughout the day. It is also important to maintain a healthy lifestyle and get plenty of exercise.

If your diet consists mostly of fast food, processed meats, refined carbs, candy and sodas, you may want to make some changes while trying to conceive. Eating an excessive amount of trans-fats and processed foods have been linked to lower fertility for both men and women. Plus, research has shown that women in particular who consume too much fast food can take longer to become pregnant.

Nutrition when undergoing In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF) or Assisted Reproductive Treatments (ART)

According to experts, the golden rule while waiting for your IVF results is to eat as if you were already pregnant. This ensures that you will get a jump-start on health and wellness from the very beginning of your potential pregnancy. Ideally, you’ll want to emphasize whole foods, healthy fats and low sugar intake when undergoing IVF.

Fresh fruits and vegetables such as bananas, beets, berries, sweet potatoes and sprouts are all great options. For protein, stick to lean and nutritious sources that are high in fibre and omega-3 fatty acids, such as anchovies, beans, eggs, hummus, salmon, sardines, nuts and seeds, and yogurt. Finally, for carbs, stick with oats and whole grains over refined wheat products. These are filling but also high in fibre.

How your dietitian can help with fertility

A Registered Dietitian is a licensed healthcare professional that is qualified to assess, diagnose, and treat nutrition-related problems and conditions. There are many reasons why you should see a dietitian regularly, but one of the most important occasions for finally booking that appointment should be when you decide to try conceiving a child.

Your dietitian will be able to help you come up with a diet and exercise plan that suits your lifestyle and needs. Most importantly, your dietitian will help you separate nutritional facts from fiction. When trying to conceive, following the wrong advice can make it a longer and more difficult process. You can work together with your dietitian to prime your body to successfully conceive and carry a baby quickly and safely.

The takeaway

Eating right is great for not only your reproductive health, but your overall health as well. Whether you’re trying to conceive naturally or through treatments such as ART or IVF, making these important changes to your diet can (and most likely will) increase your chances of success.

However, there are no guarantees. This is why it’s important to have a partner who will help you navigate the ins and outs of nutrition along the way. Remember to always discuss with your dietitian before making any big nutritional decisions while trying to conceive. Interesting in speaking with a registered dietitian in Ottawa? Contact us today!

Sara Awija, Registered Dietitian

Sara Awija (BSc, RD), is a locally renowned and award-winning registered dietitian. She received her Bachelors of Science degree in food science and human dietetics from McGill University, and is frequently sought as a corporate speaker on nutrition and wellness, including for the Government of Canada.

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