Unexplained infertility is on the rise and many couples are faced with tremendous challenges in conceiving their children. Infertility is a subject that rests close to my heart as I struggle with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome - a condition marked by anovulation and difficulty conceiving; indeed, I was told that I would never be able to conceive a child without serious medical intervention; fortunately, we were blessedly surprised by a beautiful chid born four years ago. I still struggle with anovulation and PCOS, so I understand the sting of infertility and a body that just won't function the way you want it to. While the cause of the infertility I experience has a name, between 10% and 15% of are left with no real explanation for their inability to conceive. It seems that diet may play a strong role in infertility just as it plays a role in other challenges to health and well-being. Whether you're currently trying to conceive or struggling with unexplained infertility, paying a little extra attention to your diet won't hurt.
Gluten and Unexplained Infertility
The incidence of gluten intolerance or celiac disease is higher in women experiencing unexplained infertility than among the general population1. Gluten intolerance is not only related to unexplained infertility, but also to recurrent miscarriage2, and Intolerance to gluten, often undiagnosed, contributes to nutrient malabsorption as those suffering from the intolerance do not readily absorb micronutrients like iron, zinc and folic acid which are critical to reproduction3. Some researchers recommend that all women with unexplained infertility be routinely screened for gluten intolerance1. Strict adherence to a gluten-free diet usually resolves symptoms including unexplained infertility and recurrent miscarriage2. Gluten is a protein found in various grains including wheat, spelt, barley and rye.
If you're experiencing trouble getting pregnant, consider asking your physician to screen you for celiac disease. Alternatively, go on a gluten-free diet for a trial period for a few months. Give up processed foods in which allergens may hide as well as breads, cereals, most noodles and other sources of gluten. Instead, you can rely on pseudocereals which are naturally gluten-free such as quinoa, buckwheat, millet, amaranth as well as gluten-free cereal grains like rice, corn and certified gluten-free oats.
Skim, Part-skim Milk, Low-fat Dairy Products and Anovulatory Infertility
There's a big push for women to consume skim and low-fat dairy products while eschewing butter, cream and whole milk. Yet, this very advice might be limiting the reproductive health of women. Fat, including butterfat, is an important source of fat soluble vitamins - the very nutrients that are vital to the reproductive process. Skim and part-skim dairy products lack butterfat and the life-giving nutrients it contains. A recent study of over 18,000 women found that skim and low-fat dairy products may actually increase the risk of anovulatory infertility, while full-fat dairy products actually decrease the risk of infertility4. Similarly the same researchers found that women who adhered to a "fertility diet" that included high fat dairy products experienced more favorable outcomes than those who did not adhere to such a diet5.
Instead of consuming skim and part-skim dairy products, enjoy the real thing complete with all its natural, vitamin-rich butterfat. Note that the butterfat of cows fed on fresh pasture serves as a richer source of micronutrients than that of cows fed on grain in concentrated animal feeding operations. Ghee butter, cream, whole milk, whole milk yogurt and other full fat dairy products are delicious and may be particularly helpful for women who are trying to conceive.
Soy and Infertility
Soy worms its way into our diets in countless ways: as a filler, as a thickener, as an emulsifier, as a preservative and, ostensibly, as a feel-good health food. Soy is a potent source of xenoestrogens, or plant hormones that can have a remarkably strong effect on the hormones within our body - including those very hormones that drive our fertility and reproductive function. Soy isoflavones can create potent, adverse effects on both the male and female reproductive systems - particularly in their early development6. Genistein may harbor particularly deleterious effects by disrupting ovarian function7; moreover, genistein and other phytoestrogens of soy origin such as daidzein inhibit the production of human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) which is a hormone that plays a critical role in human reproduction8. Interestingly, removing soy from the diet may has improved the outcome of infertility in women in at least isolated incidences9.
If you're struggling with infertility soy-based foods and foods containing soy might be the first place to look when it comes to your diet. Avoid supplements and health foods that are rich in soy - particularly soy isoflavones. Additionally, scan labels and avoid foods that list soy, soy lecithin, soy protein, soy flour, texturized vegetable protein (TVP) - taking special care to avoid soy milks and soy-based meat substitutes. Instead, enjoy full fat dairy products and the meat from naturally raised animals. If you're a mother already, take great care to breastfeed your baby and avoid use of soy-based infant formulas.
Refined Sugar and Infertility
No matter which way you look, refined sugar is bad news for your health and your the health of your reproductive system is not excluded. Intake of refined sugar creates a vicious cycle when it comes to the inner workings of your body's hormonal and reproductive system. Consuming refined sweets causes your blood sugar to spike, which then causes your body to produce insulin and, over time, when your body is consistently exposed to high levels of insulin, it may become insulin resistant. Following a low-glycemic diet that limits consumption of refined sugars may improve fertility and pregnancy outcome5, 10. Sugar and refined carbohydrate consumption plays a particularly devastating role in polycystic ovarian syndrome. Women with polycystic ovarian syndrome may see improvements in their fertility by increasing protein and restricting or eliminating simple, refined sugars11.
Instead of relying on sweeteners, tasty and addictive as they may be, simply learn to enjoy foods that are naturally sweet, but also low on the glycemic index. Fruits and very limited amounts of natural sweeteners, if any at all, may satisfy a sweet tooth without negatively impacting fertility.
Coffee, Soft Drinks and Infertility
America has a love affair with caffeine: we love our coffee, our tea, our soft drinks and our energy drinks, but caffeine negatively impacts our health. Caffeine-rich foods and beverages may impair fertility. Indeed, women who habitually consume caffeine may increase their risk infertility and may experience delayed conception12. Furthermore, researchers have concluded that reducing caffeine intake may be a primary avenue for improving infertility13.
As hard as it may be, ditching your morning lattÃ© may very well improve your ability to become pregnant. Instead of relying on caffeine-rich coffees and soft drinks, switch to mineral-rich herbal tisanes and infusions in the morning and kick your soda habit by trying naturally probiotic, fizzy beverages like water kefir.
In the end, if you're suffering from infertility, take care of your body so that it might become ready to nourish and nurture the growth of your future children. Looking to your diet, and eliminating potentially problematic foods, might very well be an affordable and effective route to take to prepare your body to conceive.
1. Pellicano et al. Women and celiac disease: association with unexplained infertility. Minerva Medica. 2007. June.
2. Tursi et al. Effect of gluten-free diet on pregnancy outcome in celiac disease patients with with recurrent miscarriage. Digestive Diseases and Sciences. 2008. November.
3. Stazi et al. Reproductive aspects of celiac disease. 2005.
4. Chavarro et al. A prospective study of dairy foods intake and anovulatory infertility. Human Reproduction. 2007. May.
5. Chavarro et al. Diet and lifestyle in the prevention of ovulatory disorder infertility. Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2007. November.
6. Jefferson et al. Disruption of the developing female reproductive system by phytoestrogens: genistein as an example. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research. 2007. July.
7. Jefferson et al. Disruption of the female reproductive system by the phytoestrogen genistein. Reproductive Toxicology. 2007. April - May.
8. Jeschke et al. Effects of phytoestrogens genistein daidzein on production of human chorionc gonadotropin in term trophoblast cells in vitro. Gynecological Endocrinology. 2005. September.
9. Chandareddy et al. Adverse effects of phytoestrogens on reproductive health: a report of three cases. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. 2008. May.
10. Chavorro et al. A prospective study of dietary carbohydrate quantity and quality in relation to risk of ovulatory infertility. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2009. January.
11. Kasim-Karakas et al. Relation of nutrients and hormones in polycystic ovarian syndrome. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2007. March.
12. Derbyshire et al. Habitual caffeine intake in women of child-bearing age. Journal of Human Nutrition and Diatetics. 2008. April.
13. Silva et al. Impact of lifestyle choices on female infertility. Journal of Reproductive Medicine. 1999. March.