Nutrition for infertility: The top 5 nutrition, lifestyle, and environmental tips to feed your fertility (yes, for men, too!)

nutrition for infertility

Nutrition for infertility is, sadly, a hot topic.

Estimates of female infertility range from 10% to 19% (1,2). Information on male infertility is harder to find but hovers around 10%. 

In this age of declining fertility in the Western world, the two most critical questions are:

  • Why is fertility declining?
  • What can we do to reverse the trend? 

These are enormous, complex questions with even more complex answers. But they have one unifying concept: epigenetics. 

Tip 1: The Connection Between Nutrition for Infertility and Epigenetics

Epigenetics is a term that describes changes in gene expression as a result of environmental and lifestyle factors. It means above the gene” or beyond the gene.” However, the DNA sequence itself does not change. 

Essentially, we can change our genetic expression and optimize female and male fertility by addressing modifiable factors in the areas of nutrition, lifestyle, and environmental exposures. 

When we focus on nutrition for infertility, our epigenetic regulation shifts. This means that the way our genes work—including genes that code for proteins connected to conception—can be positively influenced. 

And these influences are inherited by our babies! For example, sperm and egg health can be improved. This change then gets passed to the epigenetic expression of the yet-to-be-conceived offspring.

Epigenetic knowledge is powerful stuff. Our genes are not our destiny. Even if we have a family or personal history of infertility, research shows that we have the power to change the pattern. 

Tip 2: Going Deeper: Genetic Mosaicism

Think of a mosaic—a picture created from small, distinctly separate elements. 

Genetic mosaicism refers to the presence of two or more populations of cells, each with a distinctly different genetic makeup, in one person. 

And it’s surprisingly common. 

It’s likely that every person alive is a genetic mosaic, meaning they have cell subpopulations with genetic material that’s slightly different from the DNA present when they were microscopic zygotes.

The concept that all cells in an individual are genetically identical because they originate from a single fertilized egg is incorrect.

There are various causes, including exposure to genotoxic substances such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, aflatoxin B, and cadmium chloride, cigarette smoke, or anything that causes an error in mitosis—the division of cells in our body. 

In most people, genetic mosaicism is completely harmless. However, for decades it has been a known cause of miscarriage and congenital disabilities (4). It’s also a predisposing factor toward disease states such as Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. 

Genetic mosaicism can occur at any point in life. However, the rapid replication of cells and the process of cell differentiation during embryonic and fetal development explain why these early life stages represent a particularly vulnerable window.

So, what does genetic mosaicism have to do with nutrition for infertility? 

We can’t avoid every factor that affects mitosis. But we can do our best to avoid miscarriage-associated toxicants such as cadmium, especially in sources such as cigarette smoke. And we can eat foods rich in nutrients that support optimal cell division, such as vitamin A, vitamin D, iron, folate, and vitamin B12 (5).

Tip 3: Nutrition for Infertility Isn’t Just for Females

Nutrition during the preconception period deserves special attention in women and men.

Nutrient-dense foods support the health of sperm as well as eggs and male hormones as well as female hormones. 

Most of us need more fat-soluble vitamins—vitamins A, D, E, and K, more antioxidants and extra choline (think liver and egg yolks), as well as the raw materials to build bones and connective tissue.

The best foods for infertility start with proper sourcing. 

Fresh, organic, pasture-raised, wild-caught, and local: Sourcing matters. 

Industrial agricultural products and practices deplete nutrients from foods and often contain toxic substances. Pesticides and herbicides can contribute to infertility and harm the developing fetus. 

Your foods should be fresh, local, and organic to the greatest extent possible. Additionally, meat, eggs, dairy, and poultry should come from pasture-raised or grass-fed animals or healthy game animals.

Fish should be wild-caught from clean waters. Choose low-mercury fish such as wild Alaskan salmon and cod. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that can damage both parent and fetus.

Liquid Gold: Egg Yolks

Egg yolks contain cholesterol, a critical nutrient for the production of progesterone, testosterone, and estrogen. They are also one of the best sources of choline, a nutrient that helps the baby’s brain and nervous system develop optimally. 

Focus on eating whole eggs during preconception and pregnancy—don’t reach for the packaged stand-alone egg whites. While egg whites are a fantastic source of protein, they lack the cholesterol and choline found in the yolk.

Probiotic Foods

Probiotic-rich foods, such as sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables, yogurt, kefir, and kvass, support digestive, immune, and endocrine functions. Most are easy to make, and vegetable ferments don’t require a starter like yogurt and kefir.  

Fresh Seasonal Vegetables and Fruits

There’s an excellent reason that “eat your fruits and vegetables” has become rote: they’re amazingly beneficial for us and the friendly bacteria in our gut. 

Vegetables and fruits supply antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, fiber, and phytonutrients. Including a wide variety of fresh seasonal vegetables and fruits in our diet helps ensure that we get all the hormonal and conception-supporting nutrients we need, plus the added benefit of a balanced microbiome to pass on to our baby during birthing and breastfeeding.

Broth and Stocks

Properly prepared stock or broth made from meat, bones, and connective tissue is a nourishing source of amino acids. Add in veggie scraps for extra minerals. 

Broth is an ideal base for vegetable or blended soups or when cooking grains or legumes. Luckily, many stores now carry great organic broth options (usually in the freezer section). But you can easily make your own at home—learn more in this podcast episode.

Tip #4: Lifestyle Matters as Much as Nutrition for Infertility 

Stress reduction, self-care, and the power of positive thinking get a lot of attention. But psychological habits are sometimes more difficult to change than diet. If you’re investigating nutrition for infertility, be sure to check your mindset and stress levels, too. 

Mindset

What’s your general outlook on life? 

We are all subject to factors outside of our control. But if you’re able to approach difficult situations with an attitude of positivity and gratitude, it might just affect your genes and the genes of generations to come (9). 

Existing functional genomics studies focusing on gene expression changes related to various mind-body practices and therapies precisely showed how these kinds of therapeutic approaches are able to generate an overall reduction of the expression of genes related to inflammatory response…(9).

This can feel like an extremely tall order when life inevitably gets stressful. But a mindset of love, humility, and even survival takes practice, just like learning how to cook broth or eating a whole-food snack instead of junk food.  

Stress Response

Stress seems inevitable. We’re bombarded with our careers and the work it takes to keep our lives afloat. The news reports divisive stories, and sometimes it’s hard to remember that we have the choice to take a step back and breathe.

So how do we not overwork and stress out when life takes a difficult turn?

The best solution I’ve found is scheduled rest. 

It’s completely regimented and lacks spontaneity, but it works. Book yourself into your calendar just as you would schedule paying a bill or cooking dinner. Your mental health is just as important as those other needs. 

Even five minutes of deep breathing can make a world of difference (10). 

If passive stress techniques don’t work for you, get active. Any form of movement, from jumping jacks to bowling, allows your body to metabolize stress hormones and regain balance. 

And if you’re struggling with infertility, it’s worth the effort. 

Women, especially, have been the focus of studies and articles reporting that the demands of balancing a job with family obligations can affect their psychological and possibly their physical well-being (10, 11).

In men, stress can negatively affect the quality and function of sperm (13). 

Tip #5: What’s Under Your Sink? Environmental Exposure Awareness

As you prepare for conception, begin to identify possible toxic exposures. Consider what’s under your sink—the kitchen and bathroom are the perfect places to start due to home cleaning and body products.   

Also, consider high-risk habits such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and the use of recreational and perhaps even prescription drugs. These substances can decrease fertility, increase the risk of miscarriage, and cause low birth weight.

Phthalates, BPA, and BPA-Like Chemicals

Phthalates are present in almost all plastic objects, as well as personal care products, toys, and, sadly, in some convenience foods (14). They are potent endocrine disruptors that affect hormone balance, fertility, and fetal development (15). Like many materials in plastic, they contain estrogen-mimicking substances. 

Phthalates can cause DNA damage. During pregnancy, phthalates in the mother’s body cause developmental damage and even congenital disabilities to male fetuses. Girls exposed to high levels of phthalates have a higher risk of premature sexual development (16, 17).

Bisphenol-A, or BPA, is an industrial chemical most famously found in water bottles and is also estrogenic. But even BPA-free (read: newer and less studied) plastics contain toxic chemicals and estrogen mimickers that disrupt the endocrine system (18).

Phthalates and BPA lurk in numerous consumer products. Because many pesticides contain phthalates, they contaminate the food and water supply. They feature strongly in cosmetics and are an ingredient in perfumes, air fresheners, cleaning agents, and other scented products. They are present in many soft plastic children’s toys, particularly those manufactured before 2009. Additionally, many sex toys also contain phthalates. 

Mercury in Makeup (and More)

Thimerosal is a preservative and antimicrobial that is 50% ethylmercury. It’s a potent neurological and epigenetic toxicant and has a cumulative effect when absorbed. 

The developing fetus is particularly susceptible to damage from mercury exposure (19). 

Did you know that as long as thimerosal is under 65 parts per million and if it is classified as an “inactive ingredient,” the FDA allows thimerosal in cosmetics, eye drops, ear drops, and other over-the-counter and prescription products for children and adults? This article lists some of the products which still contain mercury.

Mascara is one of the most common products containing thimerosal, partly because the Minamata Global Treaty of 2013 banned it from a number of other products but concluded that for mascara, there were not sufficient alternative options to protect consumers from infection and extend product shelf life. 

Please note that the FDA allows cosmetic companies not to list ingredients that make up less than 1% of a product, so more mascaras than currently acknowledge thimerosal use may be using it at or under the allowed 65 parts per million.

You’ll learn more about mercury’s impact on fertility and pregnancy later in this blog series.

Home and Body Care

An overhaul of your home and body care routine takes time and effort but is easier and more affordable than you might imagine. By taking small steps, you can ensure that you keep moving towards your goal without getting overwhelmed or going broke in the process.

See more about transitioning to a non-toxic home from a place where your mindset is healthy, too, at Non-Toxic Paradigm.

Fragrances

Artificial fragrances are everywhere. They’re added to perfume, cologne, soap, detergent, fabric softener, air fresheners, scented candles, lotion, household cleaning products, and a slew of other home and body care products. “Fragrance” most often equates to chemicals that stress the liver and harm the endocrine and immune systems. Pregnant people and infants are especially vulnerable populations. 

Governing agencies in the US and globally regulate the term “fragrance” very loosely, protecting industry over individuals. The word is a catch-all that can include 3000 plus chemicals, many of which have decades of evidence linking them to things like cancer, reproductive toxicity, allergies, and sensitivities.

Other umbrella terms for fragrance include cologne, perfume, parfum, aroma, essence, or scent.

Please look into alternatives that are either unscented or lightly scented with pregnancy-safe essential oils. Learn more about the endocrine-disrupting effects of fragrances and tips for avoiding them by reading this post.

Body Care

Many body care products contain endocrine disruptors that can affect hormonal balance in men and women, developing fetuses, and growing children, even in minimal doses (20, 21).

For decades, studies of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) have challenged traditional concepts in toxicology, in particular the dogma of “the dose makes the poison,” because EDCs can have effects at low doses that are not predicted by effects at higher doses (19).

The numerous chemicals in everyday body care products represent a unique challenge to our detoxification systems. In the pre-industrial world that our bodies evolved in, we were exposed to toxins via our digestive tracts in the form of spoiled food or poisonous plants, but we did not regularly encounter toxicants on our skin.

The body evolved more systems to neutralize toxins coming in the oral route before they enter systemic circulation. But we are ill-equipped with systems to capture toxins applied directly to the skin.

A helpful measure when considering what to upgrade first is asking yourself two questions about the degree of absorption:

1) What stays on your skin longest? For instance, your skin might absorb more chemicals from lotion than from body wash.

2) What comes into contact with your most sensitive mucous membranes or your scalp? 

Finally, as you gradually evaluate your home and body care products, ask yourself whether or not you really need each product. Do you need a dedicated shaving gel, or might the same aloe vera gel you keep in your house for sunburns be a good candidate for this second job? 

The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database allows you to view ingredient and rating information for thousands of body care products, such as toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, sunscreen, etc. For more information, see my post on body care essentials.

 

 References

  1. https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/infertility 
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/infertility/index.htm 
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1383571815002673 
  4. https://dceg.cancer.gov/news-events/news/2017/mosaicism-early-marker 
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15189127/ 
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32378602/
  7. https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/144/12/1977/4575076  
  8. https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/13/11/3931 
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6056253/ 
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6137615/ 
  11. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210928-why-women-are-more-burned-out-than-men 
  12. https://www.theguardian.com/money/blog/2009/apr/15/women-work-infertile 
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4382866/ 
  14. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41370-021-00392-8 
  15. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/6776964_In_Utero_Exposure_to_Phthalates_and_Fetal_Development 
  16. https://legacyfiles.ijc.org/publications/03_phthalates-spring2004.pdf 
  17. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fenvs.2015.00003/full 
  18. https://ehjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1476-069X-13-41 
  19. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0887899414001957 
  20. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3386773/
  21. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3365860/?report=