We offer a Nutritional Therapy Service specialising in supporting fertility, pregnancy and IVF with a scientific approach to diet throughout Oxfordshire.
When trying to get pregnant it can pay dividends to be nutritionally savvy from the offset - not just once your periods stop and the morning sickness starts.
The reasons for this aren’t obvious until you realise that it can take 2½ - 3 months to develop fully-mature, ready-to-be-ejaculated sperm. Equally it can take just as long for an egg to mature before it reaches ovulation. During this process of maturation certain nutrients are essential in both the mother and the father for the crucial stages of cell DNA replication and transcription. A healthy diet for both partners can ensure that when the sperm and egg finally meet they’re carrying all their correct genetic information and both are resilient enough to finish the journey.
To help you get in the best nutritional stage for yourself and your baby, make sure that you have plenty of the following in your diet before you even conceive of conceiving.
This mineral is commonly associated with male fertility and is crucial for cell division. Found in seafood and asparagus (hence their reputation as aphrodisiacs) but also in eggs, fish, whole grains, lean meat and seeds and nuts.
As the neural tube is one of the first things in the developing embryo (the precursor to the central nervous system) it is crucial that you keep folate levels up. It’s so important in fact that many health providers recommend that the mother supplement with folic acid before and during pregnancy. Recent research has shown that vitamin B12 is additionally vital for the same reasons. Consequently ensure that your daily multi-vitamin has a broad spectrum of B vitamins which specifically include folic acid and B12. Alternatively ensure your diet is rich in yeast products, pulses, leafy green vegetables and whole grains.
Not only important for sex hormone synthesis but Omega 3 polyunsaturated oils have been also recommended to increase sperm quality and count. Most easily found in oily fish but also flaxseeds walnuts and pumpkin seeds.
Several nutrients can work as cellular anti-oxidants which is important when cell multiplication is happening so rapidly. These include selenium, co-enzyme Q10 and vitamins E and C. Whole grains, seeds and nuts are good sources of selenium and Vitamin E whilst Vitamin C can be found in abundance in all fruits and vegetables. Co-enzyme Q10 can be found in fish, sesame seeds, broccoli and eggs.
As with folic acid iodine is important in the development of the early central nervous system, specifically the brain. Research has shown that low levels in pregnancy have been connected with many mental health issues in the child such as cretinism, ADHD and autism. Iodine is most easily found in fish, seafoods and seaweed but also dairy products.
Used again as the basis for sex hormones but equally needed for sperm creation and cellular replication. There are many sources of protein but look for quality sources such as lean meats, eggs, fish and dairy which will help you to obtain all the essential amino acids.
Apparently it takes two to tango. (Also to ballroom dance. A few more for Morris dancing but let’s not go there). It also takes two to make a baby and the father plays a bigger role than he may realise.
A prospective mother and her eggs may be in the healthiest state possible but if the prospective father has a low sperm count or the sperm that are there, are unable to swim further than the vaginal canal without a sat nav, then chances of conception fall rapidly. There is only one egg released a month and although, equally, it takes just one sperm to turn it into a baby, the more sperm that get within sniffing distance of the egg the more chances of fertilisation there are. (literally, it turns out that sperm locate the egg by smell).
These issues, of: quantity, motility, strength, genetic resilience and substrate-rich seminal fluid can all be helped by decent nutrition. It takes around 74 days to develop sperm to maturity, 74 days a man has in which to provide the correct nutritional building blocks and make lifestyle choices to help his sperm be as healthy as possible.
Nutrients, for example, such as zinc which is involved in testosterone synthesis, egg penetration, DNA and cell division. Antioxidants such as selenium, vitamin E and vitamin C protect against free radicals and oxidative damage. Adequate and quality protein sources prevent against motility issues, without the amino acid L-arginine for example the head of the sperms don’t mature.
Yet, even if one successful sperm manages to reach the egg and also manages to penetrate it, miscarriage can still occur. If there is chromosomal damage in the sperm or DNA fragmentation then the resulting zygote is going to be challenged for the rapid cell division which occurs as it develops into an embryo. Many pregnancies are spontaneously miscarried at this stage.
Some lifestyle factors can also impede sperm production. Certain careers such as chefs, garage mechanics or professional cyclists may have repercussions for sperm quality. Sperm develop outside the body for the cooler temperature, anything that affects this such as standing next to hot ovens, friction from saddles or heat from laptops will impede synthesis. Other lifestyle factors such as alcohol or caffeine consumption, smoking or over strenuous training will exacerbate the issue.
There are some issues, unfortunately, which cannot be helped by nutritional or lifestyle changes (such as zero sperm count, blockages or sperm antibodies). Otherwise men should consider this 74 day cycle of sperm production as a project with the end game of making you and your partner’s pregnancy as successful as possible. With successful completion comes the reward of a punishing cycle ride, followed by a large espresso with vodka chaser and an hours cooking by a hot stove….
IVF is stressful and expensive so maximising the success chances of each cycle is only sensible. Taking a scientific approach to diet helps that happen.
Unless conception will be achieved by sperm donation, as with unassisted conception, the nutritional protocol for IVF should also include the prospective father. Admittedly, unlike normal insemination, the sperm don’t have to be particularly great swimmers and there doesn’t even have to be a particularly generous sperm count. But unless one is considering Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI) it still pays dividends for the sperm donor to follow the recommendations for sperm synthesis so that, at the very least, the sperm head is strong enough to penetrate the egg and the genetic information being carried is as robust as is possible. Even if fertilisation is successful, without robust DNA and RNA development embryo miscarriage may still occur. As a simple example of the power of nutrition one study highlighted the beneficial effects the antioxidants selenium and vitamin E had on sperm function by improving IVF success rates from 19% to 29% after just one month’s treatment.
Being excessively overweight or underweight can also adversely affect IVF outcomes and we would provide a protocol which would address these issues whilst being nutritionally replete. Whereas being underweight can alter menstrual cycles and dampen fertility, being overweight (particularly around the abdomen) can increase inflammation and affect hormone production differently but still negatively.
From the female point of view, the protocol would be similar to that for normal conception. However in this case the prospective mother also has the added complications of artificial hormonal cycles which can be physically and mentally stressful. The liver would need additional support particularly to help metabolise the extra hormonal burden. Low blood sugar levels would be addressed to prevent feeling tired and irritable on top of the exacerbated hormonally related mood swings. (Particularly pertinent if you have arrived at IVF with a history of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome). Essential fats and pertinent amino acids from quality protein would need to be specifically included to assist hormone production and to facilitate the additional egg creation resulting from ovary stimulation.
Assisted conception can be stressful and if a way can be found to lower these levels and reduce the “flight or fight” situation with its raised levels of adrenaline and cortisol it can help facilitate a positive result. Low intensity exercise such as yoga or Pilates, mindfulness exercises such as mediation or breathing exercises and simply taking half an hour sitting outside can all help. The latter having the advantage of increasing Vitamin D levels, one 2010 study showed that women who successfully completed an IVF pregnancy had significantly higher serum levels of Vitamin D than those with unsuccessful cycles.
Once you're pregnant, what nutritional steps can you take to get the best chance of a healthy pregnancy and a problem free birth?
Everyone knows the adage “eating for two”. Well it’s true but only if you consider that the second one of you is not your size but starts off microscopically small. So there is really no excuse (unfortunately) to start doubling your intake of sausage rolls and pork pies. Yet that microscopically small being is still multiplying at an amazing rate and as each part develops certain micro nutrients do come into play. Indeed a diet for pregnancy starts before conception because even before you notice the outward signs of pregnancy your baby’s central nervous system is developing and requires essential levels of folate (or folic acid), a shortage of which can result in spina bifida. Iodine at this stage is also crucial for the baby’s developing brain - insufficient maternal iodine can result in cretinism.
Not all nutrients though are time critical. Others, such as iron, are initially taken from maternal stores. However, unless you ensure your diet is good going forward you may still be at risk of ante-natal anaemia, particularly in the second and third trimesters.
Other nutrients such as Omega 3 polyunsaturated oils, zinc and Vitamins C, D and A, alongside certain macronutrients such as protein also have vital roles to play in maintaining a healthy pregnancy and growing a sturdy strong baby.
However there is very little extra requirement for energy, only an extra 300-500 in the second and third trimesters. Again, hold off on those pork pies. Instead look at nutrient dense foods such as avocados, seeds or nuts.
Occasionally issues such as pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes arise, sometimes predisposed by conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome, sometimes unexpectedly.
A nutritional approach can help protect your pregnancy here by moderating serum sodium and balancing glucose levels.
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