Forget faddy diets Nutritionist Christine Bailey explains how to boost your chances of conceiving a healthy baby by optimising your intake of essential fertility nutrients.
My research and experience as a nutritionist has shown me that nutrient dense, unprocessed food (and supplements as necessary) forms the bedrock of getting your body baby-ready and of making healthy eggs and sperm. There is now much scientific evidence to indicate that micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) 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. It is for this reason I wrote my latest recipe book Eat Yourself Pregnant with fertility expert Zita West.
Here are some of the top nutrients you and your partner need to give you the best chance of conceiving a healthy baby.
Most of us will be aware of the role of folic acid in preventing spina bifida in your baby, so it is essential that you get plenty both before and during pregnancy. However folic acid together with other B vitamins (especially B12 and B6) are also vital for the production of genetic materials DNA and RNA, not only of the egg but also the sperm. They are also involved in helping to lower a compound called homocysteine in our blood. Elevated levels of homocysteine have been linked to an increase risk of miscarriage.
Top Foods: For folate: Leafy green vegetables, citrus, lentils, avocado, asparagus. B6: sunflower seeds, wheat germ, banana, avocado, milk, eggs. B12: eggs, dairy products, fish, meat and poultry
Zinc has been widely studied in terms of fertility for both men and women. It is an essential component of genetic material and a zinc deficiency can lead to reduced fertility and an increased risk of miscarriage. It is equally important for men: zinc is found in high concentrations in the sperm. Insufficient levels are linked to reduced sperm count.
Top Foods: pumpkin seeds, lean meat and poultry, shellfish particularly oysters
Selenium is an important antioxidant that helps to protect your body from damaging chemicals known as free radicals. It is therefore helpful for protecting the egg and also important for sperm formation. Blood selenium levels have been found to be lower in men with low sperm counts.
Top Foods: Brazil nuts, oysters, fish, sunflower seeds, pork
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
These essential fats have a profound effect on healthy hormone functioning and lowering inflammation in the body. If you have been following a low fat diet or avoid fish it is likely your diet will contain insufficient levels. It is also harder to obtain enough of the active components known as DHA and EPA if you are following a vegetarian diet since oily fish is the best source. For men essential fatty acid supplementation is crucial because the semen is rich in prostaglandins, which are produced from these fats. Sperm quality can be improved by having an optimum levels of these fats.
Top Foods: oily fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, anchovies, kippers), flaxseed and chia seeds, walnuts, leafy green vegetables, tofu
Vitamin E is another powerful antioxidant and has been shown to support fertility in men and women. It may be particularly important for ovulation and healthy sperm.
Top foods: Eggs, leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds, wheat germ, cold-pressed oils
Vitamin C is also an antioxidant, and studies show that vitamin C enhances sperm quality, protecting sperm and the DNA within it from damage. It may also improve motility of the sperm by preventing them from clumping together
Top Foods: citrus fruits, leafy green vegetables, Kiwi Fruit, Red Pepper
Beta-Carotene and Vitamin A
Beta-carotene is the vegetable precursor to Vitamin A and safe during pregnancy. Beta-carotene is a powerful antioxidant, which helps to protect egg and sperm DNA from damage, which can affect the quality of both the egg, and sperm. Vitamin A is a vital nutrient for the production of healthy eggs and mucosal tissue. High doses in supplement form are not recommended during pregnancy.
Top foods: sweet potato, butternut squash, yellow fruits and vegetables, milk and dairy products, green leaf vegetables, fish, eggs
Women in particular can be prone to low iron and anaemia especially if they experience heavy periods. Low levels may increase the risk of miscarriage.
Top Foods: Meat, fish, eggs, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, dried fruit
Iodine is essential for the production of thyroid hormones and thus important for a women’s hormonal cycle control as well as for the development of the foetus.
Top Foods: sea vegetables, fish and shellfish, eggs
Vitamin D is the workhorse of the immune system. It also supports healthy blood sugar balance and bone health. As the main source is sunlight the majority of people are low in this vitamin for most of the year. Low vitamin D deficiency is significant for male fertility, as it affects the motility of the sperm the sperm nucleus. It may also be associated with lower libido.As it is a fat soluble vitamin it is best to get your levels checked before supplementing. This can be done via your GP or through a home spot test kit
Top Foods: oily fish, eggs, mushrooms
Epigenetics: changes that happen in your lifetime can be passed on to your child
While the genetic content of your baby’s DNA is fixed at the moment of egg and sperm fusion, its development and growth depends on particular genes being activated and amplified or suppressed at key points during pregnancy. The relatively new science of epigenetics considers what the mechanism is for this control. It appears that chemical marks are laid down on the DNA that affect how cells copy themselves in turning genes on or off by allowing or preventing the gene from making proteins necessary for the process. These epigenetic marks are influenced by the environment of the developing baby and will not only have effects into its own life after birth, but can even carry forward in its genetic makeup to following generations.
So what you do and eat before and during pregnancy could have far reaching effects for your unborn family. Having the right nutrients at the right time is critical.
Further information and healthy recipes to support fertility and a healthy pregnancy can be found in Eat Yourself Pregnant by Zita West and Christine Bailey (Nourish Books)