Diet is an important factor in fertility and can be optimised to enhance your chances of having a baby. Below are extracts from my fertility book on when to try and conceive a baby naturally.
We’ve all heard the saying “We are what we eat”, but what does this mean in relation to fertility? All types of food are graded according to quality. It’s the quality of our food that greatly affects our health and fertility. If you want good fertility then you need to nourish your body with good quality food. To use an analogy, if we want better performance from our car, we feed it with the extra good gas. We really are what we eat and we need to eat well and prioritize money towards good quality food.
People often look for the cheapest foods, thinking it looks the same so it must be the same, but it’s only the same skin deep. Upon closer inspection, food varies greatly, for example meat in one store can be greatly different to meat in another store. You often get what you pay for, so paying a bit extra for better quality food will greatly improve your health and chances of having a baby. You can’t skimp on food if you want good health. There is a saying “Pay the farmer now or the doctor later”.
Research has shown that women who are given dietary and lifestyle advise as well as coping mechanisms for dealing with the infertility had a marked improvement in pregnancy rates than those who did nothing. They became pregnant and lost weight too, had reduced anxiety and depression and improved self-esteem levels, all of which are important aspects of fertility treatment in Chinese medicine.
Fertility clinics and nutritionists often recommend taking protein supplements to improve fertility, as protein is important in aiding follicle growth. The follicle itself is made up mainly of protein and some carbohydrates; so don’t cut out carbs completely. However, essential fatty acids such as omega-3 are also vitally important for fertility, hence why some IVF clinics prescribe intralipids to their patients. An ideal diet for your fertility would be a combination of essential fatty acids, protein, vegetables high in iron and fruits rich in antioxidants.
You can break this down according to your menstrual cycle, with foods for jing, yin and blood in the first part (follicle phase) and foods for yang in the second part (luteal phase), once you’ve ovulated. If however, you feel hot and sweat at night after ovulation, replace foods for yang deficiency with foods for yang excess.
Most people eat with their eyes and their mouths rather than their stomachs. Any food that takes too long to digest is bad for the stomach, i.e. gluten. Research has shown that people sensitive to gluten are more likely to be deficient in iron. This is due to a weakened spleen not producing enough blood in Chinese medicine. For good health and fertility you should eat with both your mouth and your stomach. That way, the food you eat will be the best for your body and won’t weaken it. It’s no surprise that Chinese cuisine has evolved to be both good for the mouth and the stomach. Have you ever had a Chinese meal and then felt hungry again a few hours later? This is because it has been easy for the stomach to digest and has been processed efficiently. Learning what food is easy for your stomach to digest is a learning process and will take time, but the rewards are huge.
You should only eat when you’re actually hungry. Sounds obvious I know, but a lot of people eat with their mind and not with their stomach. We live in a modern world where people seldom feel actual hunger. We often eat before we feel hunger, which stresses our digestive system, causing it to weaken, which affects fertility.
There are ten main food groups:
Eating a balanced diet will all these food groups is important for health and fertility. However, some can be more important than others, which we’ll discuss below. We’ll also look at other influences into our diet, which can have an impact upon fertility.
We’ve all heard that fats are bad for our health, but actually we need some fats, just not too much and none of the bad ones. Bad fats are the trans-fatty acids (hydrogenated oils) found in processed foods, whilst too much fat comes from animal meat, all of which contain cholesterol. Our bodies need cholesterol to maintain good health; it helps to convert vitamin D in the skin, metabolizes carbohydrates and is necessary for the production of male and female fertility hormones. We just don’t want too much of it, no more than 200mg/dL and a diet that has no more than 10% of saturated fats.
A diet low in fat and high in fiber can reduce levels of testosterone. This is good for women with PCOS who have higher than normal levels of testosterone, but can be bad for men and women trying for a baby, as testosterone is needed for both sperm and egg production. As modern diets contain more meats and processed foods, which contain trans-fatty acids, a lot of people can inadvertently overdose on fats, causing high cholesterol levels and we all know how bad that can be for us!
To reduce the effects of fats in our body, we can increase our consumption of lipotropics. Lipotropics increase the liver’s production of lecithin, which keeps cholesterol levels down. Lipotropics include methionine, choline, inositol and betaine. As myo-inositol is good for fertility as well, I would recommend taking that. Be careful when selecting foods that proclaim they are either low in fat or fat free as they’ve often replaced the tasty fats with something else equally as bad for our health; refined sugar!
Essential fatty acids
Essential fatty acids are a group of oils known as long-chain polyunsaturated acids. They come in two types, omega-3s (linolenic acid) and omega-6s (linoleic acid). Omega-9s are not considered an essential fatty acid as our bodies can make them from omega-3s or 6s. Omega-3 and 6s are better than 9s. Our bodies cannot produce omega-3s or 6s, so we have to get them through our diet.
Modern western diets tend to overdose on omega-6s and under eat omega-3s. Research has shown that men who have more omega-6’s than 3s in their body had reduce sperm quality. Omega-6s are mainly found in vegetable oils such as sunflower and corn oils, whilst the highest amounts of omega-3s are found in certain types of fish, seeds and dark greens, such as:
- Cereal grasses
- Chia seed
- Pumpkin seed
- Rainbow trout
- Soybean (including tofu)
Prolonged stress upon the body, i.e. anxiety or dieting can put the body into a state of resistance, level 2 of the stress response, causing a reduction in lipid reserves. Lipids are an organic compounds made up of fats and oils that are important in bodily functions and fertility. As most people are stressed for more than 2 hours, the time needed to put the body into resistance phase, most people are deficient in lipids and fats. A poor lifestyle can also affect the metabolism of omega-3s in the body. These include:
- A deficiency of vitamin B6, zinc and magnesium
- Excessive consumption of alcohol, trans-fatty acids, sugar or animal fat
- Exposure to pollutants
Essential fatty acids are important in the production of hormones such as prostaglandins, which are needed in the body’s nervous system and to trigger labor contractions. As people tend to over consume omega-6s and under consume omega-3s, they are more likely to have a hyperactive immune system, a raised NK cell count and the need for intravenous lipids (intralipids) during an IVF cycle. Polyunsaturated fatty acids such as omega-3s are important for good fertility. They contain antioxidants such as vitamin E, which are needed to balance the level of free radicals in the body that can damage egg, sperm and prevent implantation. Fatty acids are used as an energy source during maturation of the egg and during the period it moves down the fallopian tube before implantation.
Essential fatty acids are particularly important during pregnancy, as they are required for the development of the baby’s brain and eyes. Women trying to conceive and who are already pregnancy should consume around 14g of essential fatty acids a day. Male babies have a higher need for essential fatty acids than girls. As most people’s diets are low in omega-3s, stores can often be depleted in a woman’s first pregnancy, especially if she is carrying more than one baby. Stores of essential fatty acids can then remain low, which can influence the second child’s intelligence level. Mothers who maintain good levels of omega-3s during their pregnancy are less likely to have a preterm delivery and their baby’s are born with a better birth weight.
Foods that enhance fertility are made up from different parts; blood, yin, jing and proteins. Protein is important in building up good levels of fertility, especially in men or women who don’t eat a lot of red meat or are vegetarian. A deficiency of protein can manifest as weak muscles, nails, hair loss, slow healing, general lack of energy and strength, poor concentration and emotional stability, persistent infections and allergies.
IVF clinics will sometimes recommend drinking large quantities of milk everyday to increase protein levels. However, milk only contains 3g of protein per 100g serving. Drinking large quantities of milk will weaken the digestive system and can damage fertility. Other foods offer higher levels of protein than milk without impacting on the digestive system. Below is a list of meat and non-meat foods that contain more than 15g of protein per 100g serving:
- Aduki beans
- Beef heart, kidney and liver
- Chicken liver
- Dry peas
- Natural yeast
- Nori seaweed
- Sesame seeds
- Sunflower seeds
Factors that can deplete protein include:
- Stress, worry, overwork and trauma
- Poor diet, refined sugars, alcohol and coffee
Red meat is good for your health and fertility. It is a rich source of protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12. We need to have some of it in our diet, but not too much. Excessive red meat consumption can be bad for health and fertility. Processed red meat that has been modified to increase its shelf life or alter its taste, such as smoking, curing or adding salt or preservatives. Foods such as bacon, ham and salami can increase the chance of developing bowel cancer by 18% when 50g of it is eaten a day.
In the United States, anabolic sex steroid hormones are administered to cattle and other animals for growth promotion 60–90 days before slaughter. Processed red meats have previously been shown to have higher concentrations of hormone residues compared with other meats raising concerns regarding the potential reproductive health consequences of consuming these foods. The best red meat to eat for fertility is organic lean red meat that hasn’t been frozen or processed. Basically, as close to Nature as it should be. Research has shown that too much red meat can damage male fertility. Men should reduce their red meat intake and replace it with fish and algae, i.e. spirulina.
Eating a lot of protein is important in helping fertility as it aids follicle growth as well as helps to maintaining a pregnancy. I recommend taking protein supplements when trying for a baby, but only those from vegetables, not meat based. Some IVF clinics will recommend taking protein shakes or bars in between meals to increase protein intake. These are usually made from either whey or animal sources. Whey protein shakes can be heavy on the digestion causing a weakness. Avoid soya-based protein as it might influence estrogen levels.
Sugars and sweeteners
Sugar is the new bad kid on the block, when once it was fats. Naturally occurring sugars are actually good for the body and help to fuel muscles, nerves and the brain. Naturally occurring sugars such as honey can also be used to sooth a sore throat. It’s the refined form of sugar that is the problem. A lot of people crave refined sugar, it’s like an addiction and acts on the brain in the same way as cocaine. Refined sugar passes quickly into the bloodstream in large amounts, giving the stomach and pancreas a shock. The digestive system is weakened and food cannot be digested properly. This leads to a blood-sugar imbalance and further cravings for sugar.
If you crave refined sugar, then your body is tired and deficient and wants quick energy. Instead of giving it sugar, have a nap, reduce your exposure to stimuli and eat protein and take iron. The body would rather have more blood than more sugar. Eating too much sugar can create heat (excessive yang) and deplete yin levels, thereby damaging fertility. Eating a diet that’s high in refined, processed sugar will affect insulin levels. High levels of insulin can increase levels of testosterone in the body causing PCOS.
Caffeine is similar to sugar; it’s a stimulant with bad side effects. It helps to move blood, giving us a false sense of having more energy. As caffeine moves the blood, it dries it out, thereby damaging it. Most coffee shops are full of women who are addicted to coffee (and the cake that often comes with it). Often, this is because as women loose blood every month through their menstrual cycle and have a hectic lifestyle, work and a poor diet (i.e. too many salads), it makes them weak and they crave a quick ‘pick-me-up’.
What the body really needs is more blood, so replace coffee with water, herbal teas or beetroot juice and eat protein, leafy greens and replace sugar with iron supplements. Research has shown that caffeine can delay the time it takes for a woman to fall pregnant. Caffeine from chocolate has been estimated to account for only 1.7% relative to caffeine from coffee, so it’s still ok to eat.
I often get asked if people can still drink alcohol when trying for a baby. I believe that having a couple of glasses of red wine a week can be of benefit to fertility, but no more than that. Alcohol helps the blood to move. It also aids in relaxation and fun, which can be of great benefit when trying for a baby as most couples are too stressed trying for a baby. You also don’t need to be put into awkward positions with friends when they ask why aren’t you drinking.
I say red wine is ok, as red mimics the color of blood, which forms part of Chinese dietary therapy, eating like for like. Spirits tend to be very yang in nature and beer/lager heavy on the digestion, hence why I recommend wine. Men should be careful not to drink too much alcohol, which can increase the amount of heat in their body and damage sperm production and DNA. More than 20 units of alcohol a weak has shown to significantly reduce fertility in men.
Too much alcohol reduces testosterone levels, which are important in both male and female fertility, although more so in men. Excessive alcohol intake causes increased levels of estrogen s in males and loss of libido, enlarged prostrate and fatigue. Increased estrogen due to excessive alcohol intake also increases the production of sex-hormone binding globulin (SHBG).
SHBG binds with testosterone and reduces the free circulating testosterone in the blood, thereby reducing the levels of testosterone needed for sperm production. Excessive amounts of alcohol also affect the pituitary gland and its release of sex hormones in men. I would limit alcohol for men to a couple of beers a week. Once pregnant, a woman should stop drinking any type of alcohol for the duration of her pregnancy.
Being adequately hydrated is very important. Water makes up 55-60% of our bodies. A good amount of water ensures blood moves smoothly and tissues are nourished. IVF clinics will often recommend drinking 2 liters (half a gallon) of water a day and I would agree to this amount. It sounds like a lot and drinking this much water a day takes practice and time. If you work from a desk, put a 2-litre bottle on it and that’s your daily quota. Sip from it throughout the day.
At the start you’ll be going to the toilet more until your body gets use to it. You’ll also find that as you drink more, you’ll feel thirstier. This is because the body believes it has come to an oasis after a prolonged draught and wants to stock up on fluids. Some IVF clinics recommend drinking a liter of milk a day. I disagree with this much milk intake. At this level, it overloads the digestive system, making it weak and reduces the level of energy and blood produced. It also increases the amount of estrogen in the body, which can affect fertility.
Salads, ice, ice cream and raw juices
Salads are seen in the west as being healthy and good for you as they are natural and no in calories. Have you ever seen a salad on a Chinese restaurant menu? The answer is most likely no as the Chinese don’t eat them. There is a reason for this. Salads are cold and raw and damage the stomach, making it weaker, which affects digestion and the production of energy and blood. It also damages yang and its cold and raw. Ice and ice cream do the same thing, they make the stomach cold and inefficient. The stomach likes to be warm, hence foods like ginger are good for it, as ginger is warming.
Another trend in the west at the moment are raw juices. Raw juices can stress the stomach, weakening it causing the stomach to bloat with loose bowels. If you must drink raw juices, always follow a recipe book as they should have done their homework and found recipes that work well for the body. Add warming foods such as ginger to the recipe, which helps to balance the coldness of the raw ingredients.
A good example of raw and cold food balancing is Japanese sushi. Sushi is a mix of raw and cooked foods served cold. To offset the coldness, ginger and soya-sauce with wasabi is added to the meal, thereby balancing the cold and warm, helping the stomach to remain healthy. Raw juices are better to take in the warmer months as they are cold in nature and can damage yang. In the colder months, switch from juices to soups.
More and more people are choosing to become vegetarian, especially with animal welfare being so bad and the inclusion of anti-biotics and steroids in meat. Being a vegetarian is not easy. It requires a very varied diet to ensure all minerals and vitamins have been included. Most vegetarians do not eat a varied diet and become weak, iron and protein deficient, leading to poor fertility. From a Chinese medicine point of view, most vegetarians have a lack of blood and yang. Yang is masculine and is related to testosterone, hence why vegetarians tend to have lower levels of testosterone. This can affect both male and female vegetarian’s fertility.
To be a vegetarian, you need to be very diligent with your diet and eat a wide range of good quality foods to maintain high levels of energy and blood as well as eat enough protein from non-animal sources. In today’s hectic lifestyle this is hard and most vegetarians grab at foods and don’t watch what they eat making them qi and blood deficient. If a vegetarian doesn’t have a good diet and has a high energy output life as well as a weak constitution (hereditary factors), they are more likely to develop poor health and infertility. This can manifest as unexplained infertility, hypothyroidism, recurrent spontaneous miscarriage, etc.
Strict vegetarians (vegans) can suffer with more exaggerated symptoms with lower levels of DHEA as their bodies try and produce more testosterone due to no meat in their diet. They also have higher levels of SHBG. However, vegetarians tend to have lower levels of mercury, which is good for their fertility.
Today, microwaves have become the norm for most people. They are quick and convenient. However, I believe food that’s been heated using microwaves offers little energetic value. Its qi has been zapped and lacks vitality. Essentially, it’s dead food. Eating microwave food regularly can lead to a lack of energy, tiredness and stomach upset as the heat from the microwaved food damages the digestive tract as it’s consumed. I recommend avoiding microwaved food or fluids whenever possible.
Often people don’t think of the implications of taking laxatives when trying for a baby. From a Chinese herbal medicine point-of-view, because laxatives act as a purgative, they should not be used in pregnancy. Laxatives may affect implantation even if the laxative is from a natural source. I therefore don’t recommend taking laxatives after ovulation or after an embryo transfer during an IVF cycle. If you have digestive problems that need movement, acupuncture and especially Chinese herbs are very effective in regulating bowel movements. Addressing your sluggish digestion before trying for a baby will also improve your energy and blood production, thereby improving your fertility.
I've put together an IVF diet plan based on the information above and research into foods that contain natural oestrogens and progestins to balance your hormones during IVF.