Infertility is a complex problem that is stressful and emotionally painful for couples. It’s a global issue that impacts close to 50 million couples around the world, about 1 in six couples here in Canada and the United States. At times, it may seem like the ability – or inability – to get pregnant is out of your control, but there are many diet and lifestyle habits we can pursue to take further charge of fertility.
What Is Infertility?
Medically, infertility is defined as a couple who is unable to get pregnant after 12 months of having sex without using birth control. It has long had the stigma of being a ‘woman’s problem’, but men are a large contributor to infertility too. Up to a third of fertility problems are due to the man alone, plus their health status plays a role in about half of infertility cases. The causes – and solutions – to successfully getting pregnant are dependent on both parties.
What Causes Infertility?
The causes of infertility are multi-layered. The causes below – in no particular order – are some of the fundamental reasons I have seen individuals and couples struggle with infertility in my practice.
Hormones are vital to our body’s communication networks and their messages have profound impacts on our physiology. They need to be in balance much like all of the instruments in a symphony need to be tuned. When the hormones are ‘out of tune’, symptoms and disease can ensue. Hormones like estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) often contribute to fertility issues – but don’t forget about stress hormones, thyroid hormones and blood sugar regulating hormones, which can also play a role.
Some common hormone imbalances in women that can impact fertility include polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis. The main sex hormone that affects males are testosterone and FSH. You can read more about testosterone – how how to increase it – here.
Stress and Lack of Feeling Safe
We have evolved over thousands of years from little creatures that lived in the ocean into intellectual problem-solving beings. As we progressed through our evolutionary path, our brains developed more parts. Think of our brains as a computer. As more hardware is added, higher levels of processing is possible.
If we look at the most basic part of our brains, which has only one role – survival, we can see that it is mirrored in the brain of a reptile. Therefore, we entitle it the “reptilian brain.” The reptilian brain is the most basic part of out brain. We can learn a lot by studying a reptile’s brain and, thus, their hierarchy of needs. Why? Because this reflects our fundamental innate needs.
There are three fundamental needs of every animal, and they operate on a hierarchy. I’ll use the example of a snake to illustrate my point.
1. Safety: A snake will not leave its burrow until it knows that it will not be eaten and that the “coast is clear.”
2. Sustenance: Once the snake has checked that the coast is clear, it will slither about looking for a nice warm meal to obtain nourishment.
3. Procreation: Once the snake knows its environment is safe and there is enough food to support a family, it will go and find a mate and procreate.
So how does this relate to us humans? If we don’t have safety and sustenance, we are not fit for bringing another life into the world. Mother nature employs certain physiological mechanisms to ensure life can be supported (or unsupported).
The fundamental need of every human is safety. When we perceive something as threatening, whether it be financial issues, getting cut off by a car, or even a violent movie, we enter the fight or flight and fright response. This is associated with the release of stress hormones and thus a physiology that reflects danger. Evidence indicates that high levels of cortisol, one of our main stress hormones, can result in infertility by impacting a woman’s menstrual cycle and inhibiting men’s sperm production.
The food we consume has a massive impact on our fertility. What couples eat before, during and after conception matters: the nutrients they eat, the nutrients they don’t eat and the foods that detract from reproductive health.
Evidence indicates that Western-style diets, those that are high in refined sugars, refined grains and flours, red meat, sugary drinks, fast food, trans fats and poor quality fats all contribute to infertility.
In this study, research midwives surveyed 5598 women about what they ate before getting pregnant. The women who consumed less fruit and higher amounts of fast food took slightly longer to get pregnant than those who didn’t. For men, this review of 35 studies concluded that their consumption of processed meats, sugary foods and drinks, dairy products, coffee and alcohol were associated with lower semen quality.
On the other hand, generally speaking, diets that are rich in:
- fruits and vegetables
- low-glycemic foods
- omega-3s and other unsaturated fats
- fish and poultry
- quality proteins and
- whole grains
are all linked to better fertility and pregnancy outcomes for both men and women.
As I mentioned earlier, men’s health is a key contributor to a couple’s infertility. Men’s sperm is measured by its quality, concentration and motility. Any of the factors I’ve reviewed in this post (diet, stress, hormones, age, toxins, etc.) can impact one or more of these. There is also evidence that cannabis (marijuana) and smoking can impact semen. At the end of this post, I’ve included some key nutrients to improve male fertility.
Physical abnormalities such as the shape of the uterus, blocked fallopian tubes or a block in any tubules in the penis can impact fertility in terms of sperm and eggs getting where they need to be, and staying where they need to be.
For decades, we assumed that the women’s age played the most important role in fertility because both the quality and quantity of her eggs decrease as she gets older. While this is true, recent research also shows that men’s sperm quality and motility can decline as they age. Older fathers are also linked to an increase in pregnancy complications (pre-term births, gestational diabetes), as well as a higher risk of birth defects and childhood cancers. In one study of IVF procedures, males over the age of 35 had a fertility rate of 25%, while the rate for men under 35 was 52%.
As many couples are choosing to have children later in life than they used to, age has become a considerable factor in infertility.
Birth Control Pill, Medications and Other Medical Treatments
The birth control pill has allowed generations of women more reproductive freedom. On the negative end of the spectrum, the pill may also lead to yeast overgrowth, hormone imbalance and estrogen dominance. Oral contraceptives can cause deficiencies in nutrients that are crucial to conception and a healthy pregnancy including folic acid, Vitamin B12, Vitamin E, selenium and zinc.
Women and men are exposed to a substantial number of toxins that can lead to infertility. These sources of toxins include:
Bisphenol A (BPA)
BPA is an endocrine disruptor and a xenoestrogen, a compound that mimics the production of estrogen in the body. It accummulates in the body, acting as a hormone disruptor and can increase the risk of infertility, hormone-dependent cancers and polycystic ovary syndrome, as well as impact sperm quality. BPA is mainly found in plastics – read more about plastics and where they are hiding.
Water is essential to our health. Unfortunately, our waterways are being polluted by plastics, microplastics, medical drugs, cleaning products and personal care products – in a nutshell, what we are putting down the drain often makes its way back to us in some form. These toxins impact water, soil, and the animals in or near the water (including us). If you are considering a water filter, here are some things to think about.
Pesticides in Food
Conventional produce can be loaded with pesticides that affect fertility. In this study of 325 women having fertility treatments, consumption of high-pesticide vegetables and fruits was associated with a lower likelihood of pregnancy and live birth. Studies on men have shown that pesticides on fruits and vegetables are linked to lower sperm counts, motility, and impaired semen quality.
Toxins in Beauty Care/Personal Care Products
Conventional beauty care products can contain:
- Sodium lauryth (or lauryl) sulfate (SLS)
- Mineral oil
- Propylene glycol
Household Cleaning Products
Similar to beauty care products, cleaning products have:
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
- Sodium lauryth (or lauryl) sulfate (SLS)
And these can interfere with hormones and disrupt fertility.
I often work with individual clients or couples on detoxification protocols as a first step to reduce and release many chemicals before attempting to get pregnant.
Key Nutrients for Male Fertility: Spotlight
Sperm cells take up to 75 days to mature, making the three months prior to conception a key time to shore up your nutrition and health habits. Men need to ensure that they’re doing everything they can to provide the healthiest genetic material possible, as this isn’t discussed enough compared to the amount of information available for women. These are some key fertility-boosting nutrients for men.
Vitamin B12 helps keep the body’s blood and nerve cells healthy, and also helps make DNA. Vitamin B12 deficiencies in men can result in reduced sperm counts and lowered sperm motility, as well as some cases of recurrent miscarriage. Some evidence suggests that B12 supplements may improve sperm count and activity.
Where to get it: Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products, so vegans need to be especially careful to ensure that they aren’t deficient. Vegan B12 supplements are available.
Folate is a water-soluble B-vitamin that is needed in the synthesis of DNA and is necessary for the production of new cells. According to a study from the University of California, men with lower levels of folate in their diets have higher rates of chromosomal abnormalities in their sperm. Other studies have shown that folate, as well as folate plus zinc, have a positive effect on sperm concentration.
Where to get it: Folate occurs naturally in liver, leafy greens, legumes and citrus fruits.
Fat-soluble vitamin K2 is essential for male fertility. Osteocalcin, which stimulates testosterone production and is required for sperm production and survival, depends on Vitamins D and K2. Vitamin K2 is also key in healthy facial and dental development.
Oxidative stress can have a major negative impact on sperm function, so antioxidants like Vitamin E have been shown to be very helpful in preventing and addressing male infertility. Other antioxidants such as Vitamin C have also been shown to be beneficial.
Where to get it: Sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach and other greens are all good sources of Vitamin E.
Where to get it: Meat and fish are the richest sources of L-carnitine, but it’s also available in tempeh and avocados.
Pre-conception planning when it comes to health is important and hasn’t quite hit the mainstream, though it is gaining traction. There are many things couples can do prior to trying for a baby that may impact or increase their chances. I highly recommend this guide to pre-conception planning for lots of steps and ideas.
Infertility is difficult and challenging to handle and there are many ways we can address it. I recommend consulting with a practitioner to come up with an individualized plan, but in the meantime making an effort to improve your diet and remove common toxins is a great place to start.