It may seem that we take our reproductive health somewhat for granted. In fact, a survey found that 25% of Britons experience reproductive health issues and the current prevalence of infertility lasting for at least 12 months is estimated to be around 9% worldwide for women aged 20-44. The encouraging news is that according to extensive studies, dietary and lifestyle interventions can have significant impact to help keep our sexual health in shape. This article highlights some interesting areas in this complex field of research.
Diet, lifestyle and Fertility
About one in six couples may have difficulty conceiving naturally, which equates to approximately 3.5 million people in the UK. Additionally, the older a couple becomes, the more difficult it may be to fall pregnant. While the focus of fertility tends to be predominantly on the female side, up to 40% of infertility issues are related to male health and may include such factors as poor quality semen. However, for about a quarter of couples, the reasons remain unexplained. Researchers evaluating the impact of lifestyle factors on fertility, such as nutrition, weight, exercise, psychological stress, environmental and occupational exposures, indicate that these may have significant effects.
From a nutritional perspective, it is thought that eating a healthy and varied diet may be a key part of maintaining overall good health. Whilst the merits of organic food in relation to general health and fertility remains open to speculation, there are certain vitamins and food groups that may have a greater influence on reproductive health than others.
General health recommendations are that we increase our intake of omega-3 oils by eating oily fish, such as salmon and mackerel, two to three times a week. This advice, whilst primarily targeting cardiovascular health, has also been demonstrated in other areas of research to potentially have secondary benefits regarding fertility. This is as essential fatty acids are required for the synthesis of prostaglandins which help support both male and female reproductive health. In a preliminary study it has been found that a high intake of saturated fats was negatively related to sperm concentration whereas higher intake of omega-3 fats was positively related to sperm morphology.
Ongoing research into male fertility suggests a wealth of interest regarding the potential opportunities of specific nutrients, including zinc, vitamin D, L-arginine, L-carnitine, and Co-enzyme Q10. One particular study demonstrated that supplementing with ubiquinol, the reduced form of coenzyme Q10, produced positive results in cases of idiopathic oligoasthenoteratozoospermia (characterised by low sperm count, motility and morphology). Further research into this important antioxidant may provide additional understanding as to its broader applications in fertility, along with its important role as an antioxidant and mitochondrial nutrient.
It has been suggested that antioxidants may be potentially beneficial in fertility, as they play a pivotal role in the body by scavenging free radicals thus helping protect cell membrane integrity and limiting
inflammatory processes. A 2011 Cochrane review determined that men taking antioxidants had a statistically significant increase in their partners’ pregnancy and live birth rates.
In females, on the other hand, the impact of free radical damage on cellular and reproductive functions remains unclear. This imbalance between pro-oxidants and antioxidants may lead to a number of reproductive conditions such as endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and unexplained infertility. Whilst there is a considerable body of data suggesting that antioxidant supplementation may be effective in controlling the production of free radicals associated with fertility related disorders, a very recent 2013 Cochrane review concluded that antioxidants were not associated with an increased live birth rate or clinical pregnancy rate in sub-fertile females.
Conversely, an earlier 2013 review investigating the possible benefits of micronutrients on female fertility, suggests that supplementation with folic acid, vitamins B6, C, D and E, iodine, selenium, iron, and DHA (from fish oils) might have a positive impact on fertility.
Marginal zinc deficiency has been found to reduce libido in both men and women. The benefits of zinc in relation to fertility have been highlighted by a positive opinion issued by European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Although there appears to be a relationship between stress and infertility, it is uncertain which is the cause and which is the effect. However, seeking out activities that aid relaxation such as daily meditation or getting in touch with nature and going for long walks, may prove beneficial. Limiting coffee intake may exert a positive influence as even as little as one cup a day can halve a couple’s chance of conceiving. It has been suggested that certain nutrients such vitamins B complex and C and/or adaptogenic botanicals such as Rhodiola rosea may also provide a supportive element in helping alleviate stress and support homeostatic regulation.