Over the past 20 years, technological advances in fertility have been quite remarkable. Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that much of the attention rests on the fancy terminology and procedures that make up the modern fertility landscape. However, it is astounding how little attention is given to the basics of fertility. Fertility is still a biological process that can be enhanced naturally. Many reproductive practices require no equipment nor do they culminate in costly medical bills, just a well thought out diet and lifestyle regimen.
In the United States, about 9% of men and 11% of women of reproductive age have experienced fertility issues. In about 1/3 of these cases, the cause is related to the man, another 1/3 is associated with the woman and in the final 1/3, the cause remains unidentified. Interestingly enough, most if not all, of the fertility conversation focuses on women even though men play a vital role in the final outcome as well. There are action steps men can take to improve sperm count and quality, thereby creating Olympic grade swimmers!
In contemplating fertility, how often is lifestyle, diet and nutrition fully explored? Often it is an afterthought, only given a brief overview. It is imperative to examine some basic tenets of reproductive health that are often overlooked in practice. These tenets can significantly enhance fertility success with or without advanced medical techniques.
Stress is the most underestimated fertility killer. Many women who express frustration about the inability to conceive often lead very busy lives. High-achieving women are used to accomplishing everything they set their sights on; not being able to realize the goal of conception may be especially difficult to manage psychologically. Compared to men, women tend to take on more of the emotional toll, as much of their perceived self-worth is tied into the ability to create life.
High-grade stress triggers the overproduction of cortisol and adrenaline released by the adrenal glands. When disruption occurs, the hormonal pathway favors cortisol production over sex hormones. Since the same precursor hormones are used to synthesize both cortisol and sex hormones; levels of testosterone, estrogen and progesterone decline.
Any mother knows stress only intensifies once the baby makes its arrival. When pursuing a pregnancy ask yourself some pertinent questions: How will I make time for a new or additional baby? Have I streamlined my life to accommodate a new family member? What are the dynamics of my household? Have I considered the toll a baby will take on my partner? How will we dole out responsibilities? Consider seeking out a licensed therapist to examine these concerns and to assist in removing potential roadblocks that may be contributing to feelings of anxiety or depression.
In life’s hierarchy of physical survival needs, sleep is often the first need to be sacrificed. There are many reasons we do not get enough sleep, a common justification is a lack of time. Time management practices can aid in providing structure to the day thereby increasing efficiency. There will always be surprises in scheduling, but having a consistent routine makes it easier to get back on track.
Insomnia is a sleep disorder in which an individual cannot get to sleep or stay asleep, it is important to investigate all possible causes with a sleep specialist. Stress can affect sleep cycles as well. Cortisol is highest in the morning then gradually declines throughout the day until it reaches its lowest levels around bedtime. The opposite occurs under stressful conditions. Insomniacs tend to have higher levels of cortisol and brain activity than average, resulting in more frequent arousals. Having an erratic sleep schedule upsets the brain’s process of recharging while we are asleep. In this scenario, sexual arousal is affected as well and we all know how babies are born. Do not rob yourself of your body’s natural process of renewal. Establish a realistic bed time and stick to it, make sleep a priority now before the baby arrives.
For those struggling with infertility, constant medical appointments can be depressing. It is vital to keep one’s spirits uplifted and positive. During this time, it is essential to avoid internalizing any fearful thoughts. Incorporate daily reflection into your life by way of prayer, journaling and/or meditation. Others may benefit from receiving a massage, acupuncture treatment or reading a book. Participate in any activity that invites you to slow down, reset and focus on creating more joy in your life. One unique practice is to recite fertility affirmations while visualizing the child that you wish to create. Repeat this affirmation daily: I let go of all stress and focus completely on having a healthy pregnancy. A quality self-care regimen is a basic tool that will improve the mental and physical conditions to increase the fertility odds. Alternatively, not having a self-care regimen can substantially alter or compound the toxic mental and physical state that contributes to infertility.
What is the best diet for preconception? The same diet that benefits everyone, an antioxidant-rich whole foods diet plentiful in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Research has shown that women who consume more vegetable protein demonstrate lower rates of infertility. Antioxidants are found in plant-based foods and are responsible for the vibrant colors seen in dark leafy greens and bright red tomatoes. They help neutralize free radicals that alter and damage cell DNA. Whole foods contain the cofactors needed for metabolic functioning and promote energy, both essential to conception.
The following nutrients are the most researched with a positive correlation to fertility: Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Selenium, Alpha-lipoic acid, CoenzymeQ10 (ubiquinol), Carnitine, and the anti-inflammatory antioxidant-rich compounds Proanthocyanidins and Catechins. Supplementation can be achieved under the supervision of a naturopathic doctor, and consumption of foods containing these nutrients will lead the way to improved reproductive functioning.
The National Infertility Association reports that 30 percent of infertility cases are due to weight extremes, which can alter hormone levels and disrupt ovulation schedules. Recent studies demonstrate an association with obesity and poorer oocyte (egg) quality. According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, male obesity may alter testosterone and other hormone levels. In male fertility testing, it is not uncommon to observe low sperm count and poor sperm motility in overweight men. Moderate exercise not only burns fat, but has an additional benefit of increasing endorphins to abate the anxiety accompanying the disappointment of another negative pregnancy test. Conversely, extreme fitness programs can lead to irregular periods and decreased sperm counts.
When it comes to baby-making, one can no longer overlook the impact of stress, sleep deprivation, self-care, proper nutrient intake and weight management. For further assistance, seek out a naturopathic doctor with fertility expertise who can ensure that your foundation is optimal prior to conception.
Dr. Jennifer Pierre, ND, MPH is a licensed Naturopathic physician, the owner of JenteelNature Health in New Haven, CT, and winnes of Natural Nutmeg’s 2019 & 2020 10BEST Chinese Medicine / Acupuncture. Dr. Pierre successfully treats many women’s health issues including infertility, stress/anxiety, thyroid, autoimmune and chronic disease. She is a passionate public health advocate striving to increase patient access to integrative medicine. 203.806.5152