Ready to make a baby!? Fertility nutrition advice for men and women

pregnant woman holding fruit

Ready to make a baby!? Fertility nutrition advice for men and women

This is a guest post in collaboration with Alyssa Broadwater, fertility and prenatal dietitian

Why is a future mother or father’s health and nutrition so important when preparing to get pregnant? Because it can affect reproductive health and the future health of our babies through epigenetic changes (aka ‘fetal programming’)!

Basically, our parent’s behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect how our genes work. This includes having an impact both on the viability of pregnancy as well as the long-term health of a child. A father or mother’s nutrition preconception can impact the child’s growth, metabolism, and higher risk of various diseases in adulthood. 

For example, a dad’s nutrition status and environment can predispose their children to cancers, pancreas dysfunction, obesity, and sperm alterations. Mom’s nutrition status and environment can predispose their baby to cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, pancreas dysfunction, obesity, and endocrine changes

Read on to learn how you can best prepare your diet when trying to get pregnant.

The Mother

Pregnancy and breastfeeding use large amounts of the body’s nutrient stores so it is helpful to build up those stores before conception. Preventing nutrient depletion during pregnancy and postpartum can ensure the baby gets what it needs but also reduces the risk of the mother developing postpartum anxiety and depression, and other health conditions in the future.

Yet we know the first trimester of pregnancy can be rough! This is often when symptoms like pregnancy-induced nausea and food aversions are at their worst. However, there is less stress on the mother to eat “perfectly” during the first trimester if the time has been spent before pregnancy to optimize health and nutrition. She has more wiggle room with her nutrient needs. 

This is because before the placenta is formed and takes over nourishing the baby (around week 12), the baby is supplied with vital nutrients via the lining of the uterus. Pre-pregnancy diet is important because that lining and the nutrients within that lining are built up pre-conception. This is great news for those of us who could barely keep down any food for a few months!

Factors that Affect Fertility

One in seven couples struggles with conception.  The two most common causes of fertility problems in women are from issues with ovulation and infertility for which no obvious cause can be found.

woman holding positive pregnancy test

Lifestyle changes, including nutrition, can decrease the risk of infertility in both of these cases. Additionally, the most common cause of ovulatory infertility is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) of which nutrition and lifestyle changes can make a huge difference. 

Cervical mucus allows rapid sperm transport and filters out defective sperm. This is an important part of fertility but many women may have suboptimal cervical mucus. Nutritional factors that can negatively impact cervical mucus include folate, vitamin A, and zinc deficiencies. A nutrient-rich diet can improve cervical mucus production and function.

From the male fertility side of things, defective sperm can be a result of poor nutrition and lifestyle behaviors. The lower the sperm quality, the less chance of fertilization. When a less than optimal sperm does fertilize the egg, chances of implantation issues or miscarriage are higher. 

Preconception Planning – when to start preparing for a baby?

For all of the reasons listed above, everyone thinking about becoming a parent should consider getting their body ready for a healthy pregnancy. It is ideal to take the preconception trimester (3 months) at a minimum to prepare for conception. 

Interestingly, it takes a similar time for an egg to reach maturity as it does for sperm – roughly 3 months. This is the minimum time period necessary to make impactful changes to egg quality. But a year may be necessary for those who need to make major lifestyle changes.

During those processes, it is possible to improve the health and function of those cells. This is also when epigenetic changes or fetal programming can occur, impacting how the future child’s genes function. 

It is also helpful to stop hormonal contraceptives and use another method of contraceptive (for example barrier methods) a year prior to trying to conceive. This allows adequate time to address any hormonal imbalances that were present prior to starting hormonal contraceptives or that have developed since.

Hormonal contraceptives may mask those issues if they are present. Additionally, hormonal contraceptives deplete many of the nutrients in the female body vital to fertility including folate, magnesium, selenium, vitamin B2, vitamin B6, vitamin C, and vitamin E. 

Those with thyroid conditions or endocrine conditions may consider taking a longer time period to prepare for improved fertility and health of the future child.

Healthy fertility nutrition for males

The male partner is at least part of the cause of half of the infertility cases. When infertility does occur, a semen analysis is the easiest first step to determine why infertility is occurring and how to improve it.

Male infertility can come from low sperm production, poor sperm motility, abnormal morphology, or other issues. Half of the baby’s genetic material comes from the sperm DNA, so if the DNA is damaged, the success of the pregnancy may be affected.

 As noted above, nutrition and lifestyle do impact the health of the sperm.

Here are some nutrition tips to support healthy sperm and fertility health in males:

  • Eat a nutrient-dense diet that includes adequate zinc, selenium, vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin C, vitamin D, folate, and omega 3 fatty acids
    • Healthy Foods to increase male fertility that are high in those above nutrients include shellfish, red meat, fish (especially salmon, sardines, anchovies, and herring), seaweed, eggs, grass-fed full-fat dairy, organ meats, nuts and seeds, beans and lentils, citrus, kiwi fruit, berries, bell peppers, leafy greens, asparagus, beets, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and avocado
    • Adequate sunlight exposure is necessary for optimal vitamin D
    • Avoid trans fats
  • Limit oxidative stress
    • Aim for at least 5 cups of fruits and vegetables daily
    • Avoid smoking and pollutants
    • Eat antioxidant-rich foods (berries, a variety of different colored vegetables, cocoa, nuts, beans, green tea)
  • Limit alcohol
  • Get regular physical activity
  • Sleep 7-8 hours nightly
  • Manage stress
  • Keep testicles cool
  • Avoid endocrine-disrupting chemicals as much as possible (more on that below).

Fertility diet plan for women

woman eating yogurt and toast

While a woman should be focused on improving her overall health preconception, there are certain areas that require a bit more attention. It is very helpful to have a comprehensive thyroid screening prior to conception because poor thyroid function can increase the chance of miscarriage.

During pregnancy, the thyroid increases hormone production by more than 50% to provide enough for the developing baby. Until week 16-20 the baby’s thyroid gland isn’t mature enough to produce its own hormones so it relies on the mother’s. Mom’s thyroid hormones continue to be transferred across the placenta throughout the entire pregnancy. 

Hypothyroidism is associated with miscarriage, low birth weight, anemia, pregnancy-induced hypertension, preeclampsia, postpartum hemorrhage, fetal distress, and possibly neuropsychological defects in the child. A baby’s brain is highly dependent on thyroid hormones for development in utero. 

It is estimated that half of US women have insufficient iodine intake which is needed for thyroid hormone production. Women who are deficient in iodine are half as likely to conceive in any given cycle. Requirements are also increased in pregnancy to 250ug/day, which many women don’t meet either. 

Other areas of concern include a women’s microbiome. The baby’s microbiome is seeded by a mother’s microbiome via vaginal delivery and breastfeeding. Changes in the normal infant’s gut microbiome are linked to an increased risk of asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, and metabolic disorders.

Eating fermented foods regularly and maintaining a healthy fiber intake (25-30 grams daily) can support a healthy microbiome.

Here are some other fertility nutrition tips to prepare a woman’s body for pregnancy and a healthy baby:

  • Eat a nutrient-dense balanced diet that includes adequate vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B6, iron, folate, choline, iodine, zinc, magnesium, and omega 3 fatty acids.
    • Rich sources of the above nutrients include shellfish, red meat, fish (especially salmon, sardines, anchovies, herring), seaweed, eggs, full-fat dairy, organ meats, nuts and seeds, beans and lentils, bananas, leafy greens, asparagus, beets, brussels sprouts, broccoli, carrots, sweet potato, avocado, and cocoa.
    • Adequate sunlight exposure is necessary for optimal vitamin D
    • Start taking a good quality prenatal vitamin including iodine and folate (preferably in MTHF form) during the preconception trimester (a prenatal multivitamin cannot take the place of a nutrient-dense diet).
    • Avoid trans fats
  • Balance blood sugar by limiting simple carbohydrates and eating adequate protein and high fiber foods with each meal
  • Eat fermented foods
    • Yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, natto, kimchi
  • Limit caffeine intake to <200mg per day (about 2-3 cups of coffee)
  • Limit oxidative stress
    • Avoid smoking and pollutants
    • Eat antioxidant-rich foods (berries, a variety of different colored vegetables, cocoa, nuts, beans, green tea)
    • Aim for at least 5 cups of fruits and vegetables daily to ensure adequate antioxidant intake
  • Limit alcohol
  • Exercise regularly 
  • Sleep 7-8 hours nightly
  • Manage stress
  • Avoid endocrine-disrupting chemicals as much as possible

What environmental issues hinder getting pregnant?

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals can decrease fertility in both females and males. Unfortunately, these substances are everywhere in our environment and impossible to avoid completely. But limiting exposure is important and supporting the body’s natural detoxification pathways is helpful. 

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals can be naturally occurring or synthetically derived chemicals. Examples include dioxins, PCBs, chlorinated pesticides, brominated flame retardants, BPA, triclosan, perfluorinated compounds, parabens, and phthalates. 

These toxins can induce genetic and metabolic changes that can impact the lifelong health of the baby. For example, babies exposed to triclosan may have altered brain development. BPA exposure can increase miscarriage risk. Glyphosate, a herbicide, can impair female reproductive development in utero.

Here are some tips to avoid endocrine-disrupting chemicals in your environment:

  • Limit exposure to scented products such as air fresheners, dryer sheets, or anything with “fragrance” or “parfum”
  • Choose paraben-free personal care products
  • Avoid nonstick pans 
    • Opt for stainless steel or cast iron instead
  • Use a water filter that filters PFCs
  • Avoid household or personal care products with words like “fluoro” or “perfluoro” or “PTFE” in the ingredients
  • Avoid aluminum foil or aluminum pans, deodorant with aluminum, and aluminum-containing antacids
  • Avoid plastic food containers and especially do not reheat food or store hot food in plastic
    • Glass contains are good alternatives

This list can get overwhelming so if these things aren’t something you have considered yet, start slow and just make 1 change at a time. 

Fertility Nutrition – A Summary

Everyone should consider preparing their bodies for pregnancy. Even 3 months of simple lifestyle changes can make a big impact on fertility, reduce the risk of miscarriage, improve the enjoyment of the pregnancy, reduce complications during pregnancy, and set the child up for a healthier life into adulthood. 

Things will never be perfect and you’ll always have an area to work on, so no need to be overwhelmed. Start simple: what is the easiest change that will make the biggest impact? Start there. Maybe that is simply putting extra focus on preparing food at home and eating out less. 

Once those things have become a habit, dive deeper. Does the quantity of fruit and vegetables need to increase? Does consumption of alcohol need to decrease? Maybe a supplement could be added. Could the choice of which fruit and vegetables you’re eating be improved? Individual care working with a fertility dietitian may be necessary.

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