Is your diet the reason that you are struggling to conceive?
We’re going to show you some of the best ways to improve your fertility through your diet.
We are going to cut through the noise. There is so much conflicting information about the perfect diet to conceive and it is really difficult to know what to believe.
I’m an avid gym goer and have wasted many hours reading bogus ‘six pack diets’. However, the level of misinformation about summer bodies and six packs doesn’t compare to that on pregnancy.
I’m not a doctor! However, just from the sheer volume of contradictory content, it is clear that there are a number of falsehoods floating around.
The Fertility Secrets For Men & Women
There are some books out there that even claim to maximise your fertility in just 3 months!
In this article, we’re going to have a look at the best ways to improve fertility for both men and women.
You are going to get the honest truth.
I’m not going to advocate one diet or another but by the end, you should have a clear idea of the basic principles, some of the foods everyone agrees you should be avoiding and a few tricks that have worked for some.
At the end of this article, you will have a clear idea of how to improve your chance of conceiving and some of the dietary roadblocks that could be holding you back.
Dietary Secrets For Women
It seems that many of the articles, which are supported by studies, focus on the different stages of the cycle for women.
We are going to focus on the 4 distinct phases of a woman’s monthly cycle and some of the foods that can help at the different stages.
What Is The Menstruation Phase?
During the menstruation phase, women lose an average of 30-40 ml of blood. This number climbs to over 60ml during a particularly heavy period. During this bleeding phase, the iron that is attached to the blood is lost from the body.
If the iron that is lost from the body isn’t replaced through your diet then that can have a negative impact on your health and your fertility.
The answer to this problem isn’t particularly complicated!
You need to eat foods that rich in iron, they include beans, pulses, nuts, wholegrains and leafy vegetables.
It was only when I was doing research that I realised just how many foods are a good source of iron.
As an added bonus, some sources of iron, including leafy vegetables, also have anti-inflammatory properties that can help ease period cramping.
Studies have also shown that combining your increased iron intake with a bit of extra vitamin C will help aid absorption. Conversely, alcohol, caffeine and spicy foods can make the bleeding even heavier.
What Is The Follicular Phase & Why Should You Care?
This is the first phase of your period. It starts at the end of your previous period and ends when you ovulate.
The key part during this phase is the build-up of your follicle stimulating hormone (FSH). FSH stimulates the ovaries to provide 5-20 follicles which each house an immature egg.
Due to the build up of this hormone, gradually the follicles mature and ultimately one egg is released from the most mature follicle.
Sadly, often the other follicles die!
During this phase, there will also be an increase in the levels of estrogen which increases the volume of cervical fluids, reducing the acidity and giving the sperm a fighting chance of reaching the egg.
What Are The Perfect Foods For The Follicular Phase?
Considering the activity that is going on inside, the focus is on providing the right food to stimulate the maturation of the follicles and helping your body deal with the additional estrogen (there is a lot).
There are a range of ways that you can help your body metabolise the increased level of estrogen.
These include getting enough Vitamin D, magnesium and ensuring you’re having enough beauty sleep.
Possibly the most important nutrient during this phase is vitamin E. Vitamin E is vital to the fluid protecting your egg housed in the follicle. A deficiency in vitamin E can lead to negative changes in your ovaries and uterus.
Dr Axe have created this great infographic that really breaks down the foods with the best vitamin E content:
You can see their full article on vitamin E foods here: https://draxe.com/top-10-vitamin-e-rich-foods/
The Ovulation Phase – The Main Event
I have to admit before doing the research for this article, I hadn’t realised just how many vitamins and minerals there are that play a role in conceiving.
How people were able to get pregnant before all of the science became available on the Internet?
By making these changes and improving by a percentage point at a time then we’re improving our chances.
Even though we can’t ever reach 100% 🙁 Or even 50%!
I used to view the ovulation phase as the most important.
I naively thought, “this is the main event”. This is the time when the sperm aren’t just going for a swim, they’re going for a swim with a goal in mind.
Sperm with a purpose.
Foods To Nail Your Ovulation Phase
At this time of the month, the focus is on ensuring your egg has all it needs to have a healthy release of the egg and to encourage implantation.
Essential fatty acids play a vital role. Essential fatty acids play a vital role in stimulating blood flow in your ‘special place’ and allow the follicle to open, to release the egg.
You will need to get used to having more essential fatty acids in your diet because they’ve been proven to help with your baby’s heart, eye and brain development.
While omega 3 is the fatty acid that is best known, you shouldn’t be forgetting about omega 6 and omega 9. Each of the three fatty acids have a role to play.
The great news is that your body is able to make omega 9 on its own, meaning it is a non-essential fatty acid. Omega 9 is also found in olive oil, sunflower oil and other oils.
Hands Up If You’ve Even Heard Of The Luteal Phase?
For those of you that don’t know (like me), the Luteal phase is the period between ovulation and when you actually have your period.
During this phase, your body will still be preparing for a baby, even if you’re not actually pregnant. It seems like the body likes have a practice run each month!
The phase typically last for 10-16 days, although this can vary.
While there is often quite significant variation in the length of the menstruation phase, the luteal phase is much more consistent and will seldom vary by more than a day or two.
Higher Progesterone Levels
During the luteal phase, progesterone levels are high and that can have an impact on your body. The progesterone levels are high because once the egg has been released from the follicle (the supporting cells turn into corpus luteum and start producing progesterone).
The progesterone is responsible for maintaining the endometrial lining which will support the growth of the egg. If no egg has implanted then the corpus luteum will stop producing progesterone and you will shed your uterine lining.
Simple as that.
Most noticeably, the progesterone levels can raise internal body temperature by around 0.4 degrees. While this seems like an insignificant change, it is a big change for your body.
If you’re physically active or a gym goer then you may see your performance drop during this period.
Don’t overdo it, it is important you’re able to understand that the drop in performance is due to what’s happening inside your body.
Cognitive Function Improves
Conversely, while your gym performance might suffer, your motivation probably won’t.
During the luteal phase, your cognitive function improves and your ability to control your actions is enhanced and this means you have a much greater chance of either breaking a bad habit or sticking to a good habit.
This is a great time to try and phase out a bad habit.
Short Luteal Phase & Low Progesterone
While the luteal phase often doesn’t get much of the attention, having a short luteal phase can have a major impact on your ability to conceive. A luteal phase of under 10 days is a sign that your body is not producing a sufficient amount of progesterone.
While this means that it can be difficult for you to conceive, it can also point to a number of health issues.
Progesterone is absolutely vital to your health and if you’re not getting enough of it then you can have trouble sleeping, slow your metabolism and impact on your bone health.
If you want to find out more about the influence of progesterone then this article by AvaWomen is a really good resource. Progesterone is kind of a big deal.
Foods To Boost Progesterone Levels
If you are struggling with low progesterone then HormonesBalance.com have put together this really great infographic resource. It outlines the top 9 ways to boost your progesterone levels:
Other Nutrients During Luteal Phase
In addition, during the luteal phase beta-carotene is a really important nutrient.
Beta-carotene can be found in carrots, oranges, sweet potatoes and a range of other foods.
Bromelain is another important nutrient during the luteal phase and a good source of this is pineapple.
While the science around the impact of pineapple on conception is still limited, the anti-inflammatory properties of pineapple can only be a good thing.
Other Dietary Roadblocks
While we have covered the different stages of the cycle in detail, there are other dietary considerations when you’re trying to conceive. Many of the changes you can make and the foods we are going to talk about are known healthy foods.
If you’re to take nothing else away from this article, takeaway that taking care of your own health is more important than any of the specifics that have been listed above.
It is a fact that if you’re not healthy then having a bit of pineapple or some almonds in your follicular phase, isn’t going to have the impact that you’re hoping for.
For many of the foods and much of the advice listed, you will already be aware of the health benefits and know that you should be adding these things to your diet.
Keep Your Insulin Levels To A Minimum
There have been some studies that have suggested that having high insulin levels can inhibit ovulation. This is because eating foods that are high on the glycemic index can lead to insulin resistance.
You don’t have to completely cut out all of the foods that are high on the glycemic index, be sure to at least be having more on the lower end of the scale. You’ll boost your insulin sensitivity, boost your health, potentially lose weight and improve your chance of conceiving.
Below is a great chart to get an idea of where different foods fall on the scale:
Another contributor to high insulin levels and potential insulin resistance could be the number of trans fats that you are eating. Trans fat are found in many of your people’s favourite treats.
Foods High In Trans Fats:
- Breakfast sandwiches
- Frozen pizza
- Fried fast food
If you want a great list of foods to avoid and the reasoning behind it, then check out the article on ClevelandClinic.org.
These foods could all be holding back your chance of conceiving.
Eating these trans fats won’t just lead to insulin resistance but it is also linked with strokes and heart disease. Trans fats will increase the levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower your levels of good cholesterol (HDL).
While you don’t need to cut them out completely, it is definitely a good idea to keep an eye on your intake, even if you’re not currently trying.
While you’re chopping out the trans fats, it is the perfect time to get some ‘good’ fats into your diet. These ‘healthy fats’ are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Consuming these fats will actually decrease the levels of bad cholesterol.
If you don’t want to become an insufferable avocado Instagrammer (those people that seem to post pictures of avocados every day!), you don’t have to.
It turns out, there are a heap of different foods you can have that’ll lower your bad cholesterol and make giving up some of the trans fats a little easier.
Foods High In ‘Healthy Fats’:
- Dark chocolate
- Some nuts
- Olive oil
These are just some of the dozens of foods that you enjoy. Eatthis have put together a more comprehensive list if you want to find more ‘healthy fat’ options.
The Low Fat Myth
On this same theme, while you may be heading for the low fat options, they might not be the right choice for your fertility or your health in general.
While the science and studies have been very limited, Walter Willett, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard has suggested that those consuming low-fat dairy, appeared to have more difficulty conceiving.
While the jury is definitely still out on this one, consuming more whole milk and full fat yoghurt is another good way of getting your quota of ‘healthy fats’.
All of you that depend on your daily fix of coffee can breathe a collective sigh of relief.
While excessive caffeine consumption (over 250mg a day) isn’t going to be good for you, that morning coffee isn’t going to be impacting on your fertility. There is still more research on-going but researchers haven’t found a link between moderate caffeine consumption and fertility problems.
To put the 250mg limit into context, it is estimated that the average cup of coffee has 95mg of caffeine. Admittedly, there are a wide range of factors that can increase this number.
Get Those Greens
You will have seen throughout the different phases, there were a couple of common themes. The first was eating plenty of green vegetables and the second was pumping up your iron intake, particularly during the menstruation phase.
While some of the things listed above are advisory, getting enough fruit and veg in your diet isn’t really optionable.
Yes, there are people that manage to get pregnant with horrible diets.
There are also smokers that live to 100 years old! It has been conclusively proven that eating more fruit and vegetables is going to improve your chances of conceiving.
The reason that they are so important is because they’re the best way of ensuring you’re getting enough vitamins and minerals in your diet. While there are a wide range of vitamin supplements, and indeed some of them will help you supplement, they should only ever be used as supplementation.
Important Note: Having a couple of multivitamins is no substitute for getting enough vegetables.
Vitamin Packed Fruit & Vegetables
For some of you, you’ll already have a vegetable-packed diet so the list below will serve as a tick sheet for you. For others, below is a comprehensive lists of the vegetables that you could and should be adding to your diet:
- Orange (vitamin C, potassium, calcium and folate)
- Grapefruit (vitamin C, potassium, calcium and folate)
- Clementines (vitamin C, potassium, calcium and folate)
- Kiwi (vitamin C, potassium, calcium and folate)
- Spinach (calcium, iron and folate)
- Kale (calcium, iron and folate)
- Swiss Chard (calcium, iron and folate)
- Blueberries (antioxidants, folate and vitamin C)
- Raspberries (antioxidants, folate and vitamin C)
- Avocados (folate, vitamin K and ‘healthy fats’)
- Quinoa (fibre, protein, folate and zinc) – I know this is a grain!
- Walnuts (magnesium, fibre and omega 3)
- Lentils (fibre, iron, B vitamin and folate)
- Beans (fibre, iron, B vitamin and folate)
You will see that folate is a nutrient that is found in virtually all of the foods in this list. It is vitally important not just when trying to conceive but when you’re pregnant too. There are folic acids supplements. These are a great way to make sure you’re getting enough of this awesome B vitamin.
For Men – Strong, Mobile & Functioning Sperm
While it is often female fertility that draws the spotlight and gets the media attention, male fertility is just as important. Some of the issues can include:
- Sperm abnormalities
- Low sperm count
- Lack of sperm
- Premature ejaculation
- Erectile dysfunction
- Retrograde ejaculation
Sperm abnormalities can be anything to do with your sperm morphology, referring to the size and shape of your sperm.
You want to have a minimum of 4% healthy ‘normal’ sperm.
I don’t know about you but that seems like an incredibly low number. When I read further, the healthy range is between 4-14%.
I expected that at least half of my troops would be up to the task at hand. When you factor in how many head in the wrong direction, get killed in transit and everything else, 4-14% doesn’t seem like enough!
There is quite the list of things that go wrong with them:
To me, rather than sperm, these looked like various children attempting to blow up their first balloon. Although, kudos to the kid that has blown the balloon with 2 heads or 2 tails!
However, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Your brain seems to know just how naff your sperm are, so it creates millions and millions of them. The average man can release between 40 million and 1.2 billion sperm cells in a single ejaculation.
When you apply that 4% figure then that means you have between 1.6 million and 48 million that are able to get the job done.
Although, I would think that having two tails when be a positive rather than a negative. It’d be a bit like a swimmer having an extra pair of legs. In fact, abnormal sperm are still able to fertilise the egg, they’re just not as well equipped for the journey.
What Causes Sperm Abnormalities?
While men can continue to father children into their later years, sperm do to tend have a higher chance of being abnormal as you age. Although, one of my classmate’s dad’s was able to father his sixth child at the age of 64. Age isn’t a barrier, even if there are a few more abnormalities to contend with.
Outside of age and genetics, there are a range of environmental factors that can either increase or decrease the percentage of your sperm that have abnormal qualities. The majority of these factors are not surprisingly:
- Recreational drugs
All of the above factors will increase the chance of your sperm having abnormal qualities.
Alcohol – Might Encourage Love Making – Isn’t Good For Sperm
In the testes, there are Sertoli cells that produce a protein that nurtures the sperm and allows them to develop properly. However, the consumption of alcohol will stunt the release of LH and FSH hormones. This leads to deterioration of these important Sertoli cells and leads to a higher percentage of abnormal sperm.
In some cases, excessive alcohol abuse can mean that no sperm are produced.
It seems like your vision isn’t the only thing that an extra drink can make squiffy!
The good news is that stopping drinking will reverse the impact in as little as 3 months.
In the case of those whose sperm production has stopped due to altogether, abstaining from alcohol brought the swimmers back in just 6 months.
As I started to do some research into the impact of recreational drugs, it quickly became clear that the impact very much depends on the drug. I would just like to make it clear that I’m not an advocate of recreational drugs. I’ve never tried them and never intend to.
That being said, everyone’s choices are there own so I’ve taken an objective look at the evidence available.
As you would expect, there are studies for virtually all recreational drugs suggesting that prolonged usage will have an impact on fertility and sperm morphology. There are clear links between consistent cannabis use and a decline in male fertility.
Cocaine is a big no no for pregnant women but might not be so damaging for men in small doses.
However, one of the biggest no goes is something that would often not be considered to be a recreational drug, steroids. While taking steroids will increase the level of testosterone in your blood stream, this testosterone can’t reach your testicles.
In order to try and combat the excessive levels, your brain will compensate by ceasing production in your testicles. This causes your testicles to shrink and your sperm production to halt.
I’m a gym goer and the allure of big gains is there but I don’t think it is worth the price your balls have to pay.
The good news is that after ceasing usage, you should return to normal in as little as 6 months. Still, I don’t think they’re a good choice, even if you’re not trying right now.
Caffeine – They’ve Supercharge The Sperm, Right?
There are a number of studies to suggest that having a higher volume of caffeine consumption will have an adverse impact on fertility. However, the challenge with caffeine related studies is that many of the high caffeine consumers have a range of other bad habits.
When I read through a more detailed caffeine study (full study here), they struggled to establish a clear link between caffeine consumption and sperm quality. Interestingly, it was only with cola based drinks that a drop was observed.
For me, I do enjoy using pre-workout supplements which are high on caffeine.
While there isn’t conclusive supporting research, I do think I will be steering clear of them for a little while. This is more due to my own fear, than hard scientific proof.
Smoking – Unsurprisingly Not Helpful
Again, like caffeine, it is often difficult to isolate smoking as the direct cause of changes in sperm morphology. Smoking can’t be seen as the only reason that an individual falls below that 4% threshold. However, smoking definitely doesn’t help your chance, according to the studies that have been conducted.
A study by European Urology suggested that the impact on sperm morphology is worst for moderate to heavy smokers.
Plus, in the case of smoking, although the links to sperm morphology aren’t 100% clear, there are so many other health reasons to give up smoking.
In a separate study, it was shown that smokers cells carried too little protamine which significantly increase the chance of DNA damage. DNA damage significantly increases the chance of miscarriage and makes it more difficult more to conceive.
No-one really wants DNA damage in there life, it just sounds bad!
Unfortunately, if you have a perfect diet and tick all of the other boxes but still have poor sperm morphology then it is going to be due to your genetics.
For those with poor sperm morphology due to genetics, there isn’t much you can do to correct the problem. However, if you are like me, then I’m sure you have a few vices to cut out before you can attribute the poor shape to your genetics.
To be honest, I find this the most scary problem. The others are something I could address. Genetics are something I’m stuck with.
Changes To Your Diet To Help Sperm Abnormalities
There are some that suggest that there isn’t really too much you can do to improve your sperm morphology. The Malpani infertility clinic suggests that the pressure on doctors means they are prescribing pills that won’t have an impact. Patients simply refuse to believe their isn’t a pill that’ll cure their problem.
The more information I read, then the more it seems that the Malpani infertility clinic has it right. The main steps you can take from a dietary perspective are to remove the negative factors listed above.
Some of the steps to improve morphology:
- If you drink then don’t drink to excess (a glass of wine or a few pints won’t hurt)
- Limit your use of recreational drugs
- Don’t consume caffeine in excess amount (over 300mg)
- Try to give up or limit your smoking
Low Sperm Count
A low sperm count (oligozoospermia) is when a man has fewer than 15 million sperm per millilitre of semen.
To me that seems like a lot of sperm per millilitre but that is the benchmark according to the NHS. The NHS suggest that you should only visit the doctor for a count check if you’ve not managed to conceive after a year of trying.
They also suggest that although you can buy over the count tests, their accuracy hasn’t been proven by a solid body of evidence. Most notably, these tests often set the benchmark at 20 million, rather than the 15 million international benchmark. I’ve not tried any of the home tests yet because we are just 2 months in but I will update the article if I give them a go.
I think I’m a little scared to give even the home test a try.
What Causes Low Sperm Count?
For many of the causes of sperm count, there is an overlap with the causes of poor shape and size. However, the main causes are considered to be:
- Genetic problem
- Genital infections
- Some medications
Below, I’ve briefly explained why each of the factors listed above can impact on your sperm count. Again, as mentioned earlier, people that tick one or all of these boxes could still have reasonable enough sperm count to make their partner pregnant. Nonetheless, if you do tick one of these boxes, you’re not improving your chances.
It is suggested that you need to having 20+ cigarettes a day for it to start to have a real impact on your sperm count. Heavy to moderate smoking has been proven to reduce the levels of antioxidants in the semen, these antioxidants are vital in protecting the sperm against free radicals. This along with the previous reasons listed making giving up smoking a fertility no-brainer.
Again, it’ll only be high levels of consumption that have the worst impact. High levels of alcohol consumption will lower testosterone and sperm production. Excessive alcohol consumption will also lower your libido and can cause impotence. Essentially, it’ll mean you have less sex, find it harder to have sex and when you have sex, less sperm will be there to fertilise the egg.
I knew that there was an on-going joke about cyclists cooking their balls. Having a laptop parked on your guys isn’t a great idea. There is overwhelming supporting science proving the impact the additional heat can have. There is even a website called DontCookYourBalls.com that talks at length about the issue.
I will now do my best to summarise the basics but feel free to click on any of the links to find about the studies and more of the science.
Sperm are produced at a temperature 3-4 degrees lower than your core body temperature. As the temperature rises, there is a drop in sperm production. This means that there is even evidence to suggest that men are more fertile in the winter months when the balls aren’t overheated as much!
Luckily the body has the cremaster muscle to either bring your balls closer to your body, during times of cold and further away during times of heat.
There are literally dozens of different ways that you can be overcooking your sperm, these include:
- Hot tubs
- Laptops on your lap
- Tight fitting clothes
- Undescended testicles
Reading this list, I was quite concerned because I did/do a number of these things. However, it appears that brief exposure to any of the above is OK. So long as you give your testicles a chance to return to a normal temperature. There are even some people that have taken to icing their balls during warm temperatures in the summer.
We have covered this in other articles about how often you should be having sex. So I won’t have go into too much detail. Basically, there is such a thing as having too much sex when you’re trying to conceive. It’ll take 2-3 days for your sperm to replenish fully after having sex. Having sex more often than this can lower their quality.
There are some genetic conditions that could be responsible for drop in sperm count. I’m not going to go into detail about each of the conditions. There is still a lot of research to do in this area. Some men do still suffer with unexplained infertility.
If you think you’re doing all the right things but still have a low sperm count then it is best to speak to your doctor. They’ll be able to arrange the necessary tests and potentially find the solution.
Changes To Your Diet To Help Boost Your Sperm Count
It is estimated that 1 in 6 couples fail to conceive in the first year and 30% of these cases are due to male fertility problems. If you’re struggling to conceive then you need to think about your diet and the things you might be doing that’ll impact on your ability to conceive.
Despite how far science has come in recent years, doctors will still often not be able to pinpoint the exact cause for male infertility. We’ve summarised some of the things that the doctors will suggest can improve your fertility.
While it is really strictly a change to your diet, giving up smoking can do nothing but improve your chances of conceiving. Sperm take 3 months to develop so giving smoking the elbow 3 months before trying is a great idea.
While there aren’t direct changes to your diet that will lower the temperature of your testicles, losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight is a good way to prevent one of the leading causes of overheating. In cases of obesity, the additional layers of fat can lay over the testicles and cause them to overheat. Overheated testicles won’t produce the right number or quality of sperm.
If there is an underlying infection that is causing a blockage or inflammation then the doctor should be able to diagnose it and provide the appropriate medication. This will often be in the form of antibiotics. If you’re already taking recreational drugs or steroids then you need to avoid these because they will also impact on the number and quality of sperm.
The more I trawled through the web, the more I discovered that there are hundreds of things that will ‘potentially’ improve your chances. Dozens of different theories have been proven to work in small samples. There are a few big red flags but really a lot more research needs to be done.
For example, as a cyclist, I was keen to learn if cycling was causing a low sperm count. I found some articles that suggested cycling was cooking my testicles and putting pressure that would restrict the blood flow to my testicles.
In contrast, a large study referenced on the BabyCentre suggested that for amateur cyclists, there was no link between cycling and infertility. LiveStrong goes further by suggesting that it is only prolonged cycling or cycling on rough terrain that’ll impact on your fertility.
Ultimately, what I’m taking from the research is that I should do the things that I know to be healthy. I should avoid cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, obesity and other things that I know are bad for my health. However, I won’t be making major changes to how I live or how I commute, until there is some conclusive proof.
Thank you for reading and please feel free to comment with your own experiences?
All the best,