IN an era where one in seven couples have problems conceiving, many are desperate to find ways to help themselves.
The options are far ranging, from ovulation kits to acupuncture – and the far more invasive In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF).
But one fertility expert argues that diet can make a huge contribution to success.
Zita West, a midwife and fertility expert, says her research and experience proves a good diet ‘forms the bedrock of getting a woman’s body baby-ready and a man making healthy sperm’.
Below, in an extract from her new book, Eat Yourself Pregnant: Essential Recipes for Boosting Your Fertility Naturally, she explains which foods can help with conception…
As a practising midwife and fertility expert, I have always been fascinated by the role nutrition takes in every couple’s ability to have a healthy, happy baby.
Over the course of my many years in this field, I have come to the conclusion that micronutrients play a big role in getting pregnant – both naturally and through assisted conception – with deficiencies having significant effects on fertility for both men and women.
However, I also think that couples who want to make a baby need to have treats.
Who could live without bread, chocolate, cheese and dairy? Not me!
Whether you are just embarking upon trying for a baby, have been trying for a while without success, or have been diagnosed with a fertility problem, I want to reassure you that my philosophy is simple: strict or faddy diets involve too many restrictions – they make what is the most normal and natural thing in the world seem strange and unfamiliar.
My focus is on nourishing the body in a positive, sustainable way most of the time – not on challenging you to be 100 per cent perfect.
I believe that small changes that are manageable within the context of your everyday life are all that you need.
Quite simply, your pre-conception diet has to fit in with your ‘normal’ life or you won’t be able to keep it up. Small steps can go a long way.
I am very aware that many of the issues that come between a couple – just when they need most to be together – relate to lifestyle.
I particularly see the contention that can build up around what food and drink lands on the supper table.
I often find that one partner is trying to be too rigid, while the other wants to take a more relaxed approach.
I think everyone can be happy – and that the resulting togetherness can only mean that you create more chances of making a baby.
My approach to fertility is integrated – modern medicine combined with the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
By encouraging the body to produce certain neurotransmitters – chemicals that act like neurotransmitters, some foods can influence mood and your desire for sex, she says.
Most importantly, this approach has taught me of the need for balance between all the body’s systems – if one system is out of kilter, there is a ripple effect that touches every aspect of your well-being, including your fertility.
Furthermore, I think the connection between mind and body has a huge role to play in a couple’s ability to conceive, which is why I think it’s important that your lifestyle choices are good and healthy, but also make you happy.
When I first meet a couple, I want to find out about the following things: their digestion and gut health, toxicity, immunity, and how much their states of mind are affecting their bodies.
Only then can I begin to advise them on how to balance all these aspects of themselves to make the journey to parenthood a successful one.
FOODS FOR MOOD AND LIBIDO
By encouraging the body to produce certain neurotransmitters, or chemicals that act like neurotransmitters, some foods can influence mood and your desire for sex.
This chemical helps us feel positive and motivated and is present in high levels during sexual excitement.
Dopamine helps us feel positive and motivated and is present in high levels during sexual excitement. The body manufactures it from the amino acid tyrosine, which is found in bananas, oats, eggs and dairy products.
The body manufactures it from the amino acid tyrosine in the presence of key nutrients including vitamins B3, B6 and C.
Foods rich in tyrosine include chicken, lean red meat and turkey; cod, pike, shellfish and tuna; eggs and dairy products; avocado and bananas; and oats.
This is the body’s mood-booster. The body converts the amino acid tryptophan to make it.
Tryptophan-rich foods include chicken, lamb and turkey; cod, halibut, salmon, sardines and tuna; asparagus, leafy green vegetables, potatoes, seeds and soya beans; and yogurt.
A mild stimulant, this is produced in your body as a by-product of the amino acid phenylalanine.
It’s the chemical that gives you that butterflies feeling when you first fall in love, making it great for reinvigorating the flush of desire. Chocolate is a good source of phenylethylamine.
Chicken is a good source of tryptophan, an amino acid the body uses to make serotonin. Tryptophan-rich foods include chicken, lamb and turkey as well as cod, halibut, sardines and tuna.
THE FUNDAMENTAL ROLE OF DIET
Food – and all the things it’s related to, from your digestion to your gut health – plays a crucial role in optimising your fertility.
This is where preparing to make a baby begins, at the basics – the way your whole body works
Quite simply, the right nutrients give you the right building blocks for making a baby. What then should you and your partner include and eliminate in your diet in order to optimise your chances of conceiving?
However, I don’t want to be prescriptive; I think hard-and-fast rules are hard to stick to.
Instead, I want to show you how nutrition and fertility are inextricably linked, so that you can make informed choices about your diet.
Then, because your diet is one that you’ve carved out for yourself, you should be able to sustain it in the long term and so properly enhance your chances of conceiving.
First, though, I want you to assess what your nutrition looks like now, so that you have a better idea of why and how you need to make changes. (Note that, when I say ‘you’, I mean both of you.)
If you frequently suffer with constipation and diarrhoea your digestion might be influencing your chance of conceiving.
How healthy is your digestion?
Fertility starts in the gut – the hormones you need to be fertile require key nutrients from the food you eat.
Take a look at the following statements and answer true or false for each.
• I frequently burp or suffer with flatulence.
• I suffer from bloating and/or abdominal pain especially after eating.
• I suffer from irritable bowel syndrome.
• I regularly take antibiotics.
• I frequently suffer with constipation and diarrhoea.
• I have food allergies or intolerances.
• My stools are pale in colour or float.
• I frequently suffer with heartburn.
Answering true to four or more statements could mean that your digestion may be influencing your chances of conceiving.
Look at ways to improve your nutrient absorption (that is, the health of your gut).
How toxic are you?
A considerable amount of evidence suggests that ‘detoxing’ – eating pure foods for a couple of days a week – helps to regulate hormones, lower cholesterol, balance blood sugar and improve digestion.
To assess your present toxicity, answer true or false to the following statements.
• My urine is dark and strong smelling.
• I have bowel movements less than once a day.
• I suffer with headaches, fatigue, muscle aches and/or concentration problems regularly.
• Even one cup of caffeine makes me feel jittery.
If one cup of coffee makes you jittery, you might need a detox. Evidence suggests ‘detoxing’ for a few days a week helps to regulate hormones, lower cholesterol, balance blood sugar and improve digestion
EATING FOR OVULATION
I always think how magnificent a human egg looks when I see images of it – large, regal and ready for the sperm.
The egg needs both nutrients and energy to prepare it for fertilisation and to make its journey to the uterus.
Surrounding your ovarian follicles is a follicular fluid that contains hormones and nutrients that nourish the egg before it leaves the ovary.
However, this fluid can also contain free radicals that can harm the egg. So, above all, healthy eggs need lots of antioxidant foods, which neutralize the effects of free radicals.
Then, the natural compound myo-inositol may help improve the follicular environment and egg quality and to help balance blood sugar.
Foods rich in inositol include beans, brown rice, lentils, cantaloupe melon, citrus fruit, nuts and seeds so make sure you include plenty of these in your diet, too.
The natural compound myo-inositol may help improve the follicular environment and egg quality and to help balance blood sugar. Melons, citrus fruit, beans and brown rice are rich in inositol
THE DIET PLAN AND YOUR CYCLE
Mood, weight and hormones can change rapidly according to where a woman is in her cycle. It is possible to support your body’s monthly shifts through your diet.
In this section I want to encourage you to think about how you feel at each of the stages (phases) in your cycle.
Then, I’ll tell you which foods will help support your shifting moods and emotions (a natural by-product of your changing hormones) over the course of the month.
Phase one of your cycle
Many women can actually feel the hormonal shift on the first day of their period – pent-up tension seems to fall away and a sense of relief and calm ensues.
However, like many other women, you may also feel a bit depleted or lethargic. Take some time out when your period begins – enjoy some quiet time that allows you to conserve and then restore your energy.
Avoid exercising and treat yourself to an early night (or two).
Good sources of iron to help you maintain energy during your period are dried apricots and shellfish.
This is a time for warm, nourishing foods. Choose a diet rich in iron and vitamin C, as these nutrients help to replenish the iron that you lose with your period.
Vitamin-B-rich foods will help you to regain some energy.
Good sources of iron include lean red meat, pumpkin seeds, beans and pulses, dried apricots and raisins, shellfish and dark green leafy vegetables.
For B-vitamins include whole grains, lamb, beef, poultry, shellfish, eggs, and dairy products, leafy green vegetables, yeast extract and nutritional yeast flakes.
Most fruits and vegetables will provide good levels of vitamin C (this is essential for iron absorption), but particularly good sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits, berries, kiwi fruit, leafy green vegetables and red pepper.
If you suffer from period pain, try taking an omega-3 supplement to help reduce levels of inflammation in your body.
Phase two of your cycle
During this phase, which can vary in length from month to month, oestrogen is on the rise as your body prepares for ovulation.
Many women feel great – attractive, flirty, full of libido. This is usually a time when you’ll burst with energy – you may feel like hitting the gym or pounding the streets (if that’s your thing).
Now is the time to noticesome of the vital signs and secretions associated with this fertile time of the month.
Spicy foods such a curry are rich in capsaicin, isofavones and L-arginine, which encourage the body to make nitric oxide (NO). During this phase, stock up on your B-vitamins, which are important for hormonal balance.
B-vitamins also help with healthy cell division (a crucial part of babymaking).
Lecithin (a phospholipid found in animal products) will help to keep your cell membranes healthy.
Keep eating the vitamin-C-rich foods as this vitamin is thought to increase the amount of water in your cervical mucus, making it more plentiful.
Foods rich in capsaicin, isoflavones and L-arginine (such as, in turn, spicy foods, tofu and watermelon) encourage the body to make nitric oxide (NO).
This compound helps to dilate your blood vessels, easing blood flow through your whole system, which is good news for your reproductive organs (including your genitals, uterus and ovaries).
Finally, for healthy implantation to occur during this crucial part of your cycle, your immune system needs to be in optimum condition.
For healthy implantation of an egg, the immune system needs to be strong. Vitamin D, the workhouse of immunity, is found in salmon, sardines and shiitake mushrooms
For this reason, stock up on vitamin D – the workhorse of your immunity. Exposing your skin to sunlight is the best way to get your body to manufacture this vitamin, but it is also present in salmon and sardines, and in shiitake mushrooms (if you’re vegetarian).
Phase three of your cycle
This is the luteal phase of your cycle. The corpus luteum (the ruptured ovarian follicle that produces progesterone to thicken the womb lining, close the cervix and maintain a pregnancy) contains a high level of betacarotene, which is the orange–yellow pigment found mainly in foods such as carrots and butternut squash, as well as other vegetables.
Betacarotene is also a powerful antioxidant – a free-radical scavenger that helps protect your cells from damage.
During this phase of your cycle, try to include plenty of betacarotene-rich foods in your diet, including butternut squash, carrots, collards, kale, spinach, potato and mustard greens.
Spinach, kale and butternut squash are a great source of betacarotene – the orange pigment found in carrots. It is an antioxidant and helps protect the cells from damage
If no fertilisation has occurred, your hormone levels start to fall. During this phase you may begin to feel more lethargic again – it’s this time (on the run-up to your period) that many women find they crave sweet foods.
Remember your 80:20 leeway and allow yourself the odd treat, but try to make sure that generally you eat foods that will keep your blood sugar stable.
Your cycle begins at the end of this phase – marked by the moment you get your period.
FULL FAT IS GOOD FOR FERTILITY
Many women make the mistake of substituting foods containing fat with low-fat products, thinking they won’t gain weight using them.
However, for fertility – and, for that matter, for weight management – the principle is flawed.
These products often contain trans fats, sugar and sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners disrupt the normal hormonal and neurological signals that control hunger and satiety.