October 7, 2020 by Mackenzie Timbel
While digging through journal papers and speaking with various members of the fertility community—patients, nurses, and physicians—it became crystal clear to me that diet and nutrition have an integral role to play in reproductive health and infertility. What was unclear to me was what advice was right.
As fertility treatments have become increasingly advanced and more people seek treatment, the industry is changing rapidly. The advent of fertility coaches and the growing popularity of nutritionists specializing in fertility has flooded the interwebs with advice, diet plans, and sometimes contradictory or nebulous information. Fertility patients are already dealing with so much strain that adding the investigative work to determine the best fertility-conscious nutrition plan can be daunting. Some clinics offer in-house nutrition counseling, but for those who don’t, diet and nutrition can be left by the wayside during the treatment process.
In scientific investigation, it is always the goal to be able to cut through the noise and get to the thesis of a problem or study. Here are my four key points of nutritional and dietary wellness for fertility. It is my goal to make these points a down-to-earth highlight reel of the salient nutritional facts when it comes to supporting your fertility. Full disclosure: I am not a doctor or nutritionist and if you have questions about your diet, I recommend directly approaching your care team at your clinic with your questions. If you need a starting point for those questions, read on!
One of the more heavily studied subjects when it comes to nutritional wellbeing while trying to conceive is the relationship between supplements, vitamins, and specific nutrients that can affect outcomes or promote the health of an eventual pregnancy. An easily agreed upon nutritional change for people trying to conceive is that prenatal vitamins are essential, even if you only just started trying.
When it comes to prenatal vitamins, make sure yours has a good amount of folic acid in it. It is difficult to get enough folic acid just from your diet—even if you have a healthy one. Folic acid deficiency has been proven to cause neural tube birth defects and is often a staple in a prenatal vitamin. Therefore, do your research and consult with your doctor. They will have a recommendation for their preferred brand and will have a good idea of other supplements they want you to have in your diet and vitamins.
Bonus fact: Did you know that any women of childbearing age should be taking a women-specific vitamin? These vitamins can work to maintain fertility and also maintain reproductive health in general.
When it comes to addressing infertility, it is a team effort. That also goes for doing nutritional or dietary prep in order to give the best chance for conception. In a comprehensive study from 2017, antioxidants were found to have a positive effect on outcomes for men who were participating in assisted reproductive treatments with their partner. Antioxidants can be found in lots of places, most of them yummy. Try dark fruits, beets, and seafood. And it couldn’t hurt to share some with your partner.
It’s unfortunate but true that there is no magic food or special elixir that wildly improves your fertility or makes fertility treatments more effective. Although there is a wide range of research on the effects on nutrition on fertility, there is certainly still some grey area about what is actually effective, what is actually harmful, and what doesn't really make a difference either way.
For an example of the grey area, look no further than the question about alcohol or caffeine during IVF. First off, your doctor surely has an opinion on this matter and since you are likely receiving a myriad of treatments from them, it’s best if you dive into their method fully by asking what they recommend as far as drinking a morning coffee or getting a glass of wine with a close friend.
From the scientific perspective, it has been relatively hard to prove any correlation between infertility and drinking alcohol. In a comprehensive study of nutrition and fertility published in 2017, it was stated that “well designed studies not detected associations between higher alcohol or caffeine intake and lower fertility.”
While the scientific perspective is not conclusive, this is an opportunity to embrace the grey area and make your body the healthiest it possibly can be while trying to conceive. Most doctors agree that treating your body as though you were pregnant is often the best way to give your body, barring other medical conditions or issues, the best chance to conceive.
So next time you feel like your fertility coach, your doctor, or the internet tells you that a nutritional or diet change hasn’t been proven to help or hurt fertility, take a deep breath, check in with yourself, and imagine how that nutritional change fits in with the “healthiest version of yourself.”
After falling into an internet or blog abyss suggesting pineapple core or juice cleanses for fertility, it’s important to take a deep breath and zoom out. A common thread between medical journals, nurses, and doctor advice is that a healthy diet is the most significant change that a person can make with the most extreme results for fertility. By zooming out and focusing on adopting an entire diet rather than just specific fertility-focused foods or boutique-y cures, you are able to be successful while being cost-conscious and reducing stress.
A healthy diet for fertility is often recommended to follow the Mediterranean diet. In a 2019 study including 590 subjects, IVF patients who complied with a Mediterranean diet were shown to get more available embryos from their IVF cycles. The Mediterranean diet consists of fruits, vegetables, seafood, and whole grains. The diet asks you to avoid red meat, processed or refined grains, and foods with added sugars. In general, the scheme asks the patient to eliminate processed foods from their diet entirely and instead focus on eating all-natural.
Thinking big picture as you make nutritional and dietary changes to your lifestyle to support your fertility is the best way to preserve mental wellness and be cash-conscious. Determining the most salient changes for your specific fertility journey or struggles is an excellent conversation to have with your fertility clinician or OBGYN when you begin trying to conceive.
Want some helpful scientific sources to inform your nutritional and dietary conversations when trying to conceive or during IVF? Check out my sources and enjoy wading into the science of diet and fertility.