Eat these key foods to help balance hormone levels and increase your chances of getting pregnant.
Medically reviewed by Dr Louise Wiseman MBBS, BSc (Hons), DRCOG, MRCGP and words by Zita West
Trying for a baby? Fertility issues affect around 10 to 15 per cent of couples. However, research shows that changes to your diet and lifestyle can boost fertility by up to 69 per cent.
We spoke to fertility and pregnancy expert Zita West about how you can increase your chances of conceiving by incorporating more of these fertility boosting foods into your diet.
Can food boost your chances of conception?
While I can’t say that certain foods improve ovulation, fertility is a whole body event and women are ruled by their moods, foods and hormones. There are certain foods that can ensure that hormone levels are kept balanced and manageable so that you feel in charge of your body, while boosting your chances of conceiving.
Sugar is one of the main issues women have when it comes to foods, as they very often crave it during their reproductive years and at certain times during their monthly cycles.
The problem being that sugar can cause an imbalance in both blood sugar and hormones as the two are closely linked. As sugar is a quick-release carbohydrate, blood sugar rises quickly after consumption, followed soon by a crash – this leads to peaks and troughs in both energy levels and mood.
In order to ovulate and release an egg every month, there is a complex interplay of certain hormones, and blood sugar imbalances can affect that interplay.
Surrounding your ovarian follicles is a follicular fluid that contains hormones and nutrients. These nourish the egg before it leaves the ovary. However, this fluid can contain free radicals that may harm the egg. So foods that contain antioxidants are important to help neutralise the effects of free radicals.
Vitamins A, C and E are antioxidants. The minerals beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene and selenium are also antioxidants. The following foods are rich in these antioxidants:
- Vitamin E: berries, citrus fruits, leafy greens, vegetables and red peppers.
- Vitamin C: nuts and seeds (including their unprocessed oils).
- Selenium: beef, chicken, pork, salmon, trout, broccoli and oranges.
- Co-enzyme Q10: lamb turkey, cod, halibut, salmon, sardines, tuna and brazil nuts.
- Lycopene: guava, grapefruit, Sharon fruit, tomatoes and watermelon.
- Zinc: beef, chicken, lamb, pork, spinach, oysters, pumpkin seeds, nuts, wheatgerm and cocoa.
- N-acetylcysteine: chicken, duck, pork, turkey, dairy, eggs, broccoli onions and red peppers.
Additionally, a natural compound called myo-inositol found in such foods as beans, brown rice, lentils, citrus fruits, nuts and seeds may help improve the follicular environment for the egg and help balance blood sugar.
There is increasing evidence that Vitamin D deficiency is linked to ovulatory problems so ensure you get out into the sun, our main source of Vitamin D, or take a supplement.
Oestrogen imbalance can affect the fertility of both men and women and is increasingly problematic in the modern world. Foreign oestrogens are found in our water and in our soil as a result of pesticides as well as in materials, such as plastic food and drink packaging.
Reducing your exposure to these is one way to minimise their impact and support your liver to help it detoxify them effectively.
Certain foods can help balance oestrogens
- Gut-friendly bacteria:from the likes of live yoghurts, kefir and fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and miso, will help your gut draw nutrients from your food and expel anything your body doesn’t need.
- Dietary fibre:encourages regular elimination, preventing oestrogens being reabsorbed into the bloodstream.
- Reduce the amount of saturated fat you eat:as a diet too high in this type of fat can limit the amount of oestrogen your body excretes.
- Phyto-oestrogens:found in some plants such as alfalfa, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and broccoli, fennel, nuts, oats, olive oil, onion, pulses and beans. These bind to the body’s oestrogen receptors, preventing foreign oestrogens from attaching.
- Vitamin B6: found in foods such as avocados, bananas, cabbage, eggs, lentils and wheatgerm may reduce your susceptibility to the stimulating effects of oestrogens, helping to maintain balance.
Foods to avoid for fertility
There are certain foods that are worth avoiding when trying to conceive:
Low-fat foods in particular can cause issues. Many women switch to low fat foods thinking that they will not gain weight, however, for fertility and weight management the principle is flawed. There is some startling evidence for how low-fat products can hamper conception. In one study in the US, women who ate two or more low-fat dairy products a day were twice as likely to have problems conceiving.
There is the important factor that a large number of foods that are classed as low fat actually have a large amount of added sugar for taste and this does not make them healthier.
Ovulation rates were 38 per cent better among women who used full fat milk rather than low-fat milk. Skimmed milk, for instance, can contain an unnatural preponderance of androgens (male hormones).
Complex carbohydrates found in beans, pulses, vegetables and whole grains are slowly broken down into glucose, which the body uses as fuel – and are steadily released into the bloodstream keeping blood sugar levels stable.
However, simple carbohydrates that are high in refined sugars or artificial sweeteners release sugar into the bloodstream too quickly, causing insulin imbalance, energy and mood swings. Try to cut down on fizzy drinks, sweets, cakes and processed fruit juices.
Nutrient-dense foods both nourish and satisfy you, so keep processed foods to a minimum.
The quality of your food is paramount. Nutrient-dense foods both nourish and satisfy you, so keep processed foods to a minimum – eat foods as close to source as possible. That way you are maximising the amount and variety of vitamins and minerals you are getting from each meal.
Lifestyle factors, such as being overweight and underweight, stress, alcohol intake and cigarette or drug use rob the body of vital nutrients needed for fertility so managing your weight, reducing your stress levels, limiting alcohol intake and cutting out smoking and drug use are important lifestyle decisions to make when you wish to improve your chances of conceiving.
Replenishing depleted nutrients due to lifestyle factors is also important, ideally through taking in a wide range of vitamins, minerals and essential fats, eg omega 3, through your diet. If this is not possible or you want to ensure that your intake is sufficient in both quantity and breadth of nutrients, then supplements can help.
From a medical point of view it stands to reason that although there is no miracle food for fertility, having a good diet enhances your general health greatly and this cannot harm your fertility and in some cases could theoretically enhance it. Also being excessively under or overweight may impair your ability to conceive. We also have strong evidence that folic acid supplementation is strongly recommended prior to and during pregnancy to reduce the chance of neural tube defects in babies.