This articles forms part of a series covering the Paleo diet and lifestyle to support reproduction from fertility to conception, pregnancy and nursing.
Part 1 - Female Fertility
The proliferation of the human species is dependent on its ability to reproduce and humans have proven to be extremely resilient when it comes to both fertility and reproduction. Humans have continued to grow and multiply on this planet despite the many harsh conditions and stressors affecting them. They have continued to remain fertile through famine, drought, extreme temperature changes, diseases, plagues and wars.
On an individual and personal level however, you may find yourself struggling to conceive on the one hand, or may be looking to further understand and support your fertility so that both you and your soon-to-be-conceived baby are set and primed for success. This is where the Paleo diet and lifestyle can be extremely helpful.
It needs to be stressed that each woman is a unique individual with her own genetic code, her specific hormonal balances, her own personal health conditions, lifestyle choices, age factors, and more that all contribute in her ability to both conceive and carry a child to term. This is why on occasion she might be doing everything 'right', her diet and lifestyle are on point, yet she may still experience fertility challenges.
A woman’s fertility is tied to so much more than her food, but diet is a great place to start as it can set the stage for what is to follow. Nutrient intake forms the foundation of health on numerous, and fertility is no exception. The efficiency of the digestive tract, the toxic load on the liver, hormone dysfunction and the sensitivity or lack thereof in both the thyroid and adrenal glands can all have significant impacts on reproductive health. Diet impacts each of these areas and plays an important role in the management and balancing of hormones
The Paleo approach to nutrition provides a framework for balancing the hormone insulin which is extremely relevant when discussing fertility. You may know insulin a little better as the hormone that regulates blood sugar and it is directly responsive to your diet.
The Paleo diet and lifestyle removes many of the inflammatory foods that prevent insulin from working efficiently. These include refined and processed carbohydrates and inflammatory crop oils high in Omega-6 fatty acids. Consumption of these problematic foods may lead to high insulin levels which are a major cause of female infertility. When these levels remain chronically elevated they stimulate the production of androgens (male sex hormones), which impairs female fertility. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), a disease that causes insulin resistance among other problems, is the most common cause of female infertility.
With its focus on whole, nutrient dense foods, the Paleo diet is not necessarily a low carbohydrate approach to eating. Insulin sensitivity is highly individual and it is important to remember that eating nutrient dense carbohydrates is not a cause of high insulin levels or insulin resistance on itw own and restricting your carbohydrate intake is not always the answer. Carbohydrates are a physiological signal to your body that food is plentiful and when your body feels that food may be unavailable, it will not prime itself for reproduction. Eating a diet that supports healthy insulin function for you, whatever that diet happens to be.
Weight and extreme fluctuations in weight can also impact your fertility. How much or how little body fat you carry can create hormone abnormalities affecting your ability to conceive.
Very low weight reduces fertility as fat tissue is necessary in order to send the hormonal signals to your hypothalamus that your body can support a healthy pregnancy. Without enough body fat, your body will simply shut down reproductive as this may not be ideal for you or your baby.
Similarly, very intense physical activity also impairs fertility, even if you are eating enough to support your expenditure. Moderate exercise improves fertility but again, what this entails will vary from person to person.
Carrying excess body fat and obesity are also associated with reduced fertility. Excess fat tissue can produce too much estrogen, and obesity typically comes with a higher level of insulin resistance. Following a Paleo diet will greatly support achieving your natural body and fat loss has been shown to improve fertility. This is where the quality of your food choices can make a difference as a weight loss program high in processed and refined foods can reduce fertility.
The right fats are particularly important when trying to conceive.
When following Paleo principles man made trans fats are removed from the diet. These fats are highly inflammatory and increase insulin resistance. Furthermore, the removal of high amounts of Omega-6 fats which are found in industrial crop oils and soy. The focus of a whole food nutrient dense diet is on naturally occurring fats and a good ration of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fats.
The inclusion of Paleo friendly saturated fats may also prove helpful in supporting and promoting the ability to conceive and are associated with healthy menstrual cycles.
Vitamin D is important for fertility, and may help reduce the risk of endometriosis. It is important to get outside and expose your skin to the sun safely and often to ensure you are getting adequate Vitamin D. You can get more from high quality supplements (please consult your health care provider for recommended brands).
Although a Paleo diet is rich in vitamins and minerals and getting your nutrients from whole food sources provides them in their most bio-available form, when trying to conceive you may benefit from supplementation with folic acid, vitamins B6, C, and E; iodine, selenium, iron, and Omega-3 fats.
A note about folic acid:
Most doctors recommend folic acid supplements for women trying to conceive or already pregnant. This is commonly understood to help prevent birth defects. Folic acid is a manmade form of the natural nutrient Vitamin B9, or folate. The body best knows how to absorb natural nutrients and consumption of foods rich in folate, including broccoli, beets and asparagus is always your best option. When supplementation is necessary (as in when certain genetic mutations may be present) taking a non-synthetic form of B9 will always be closest to a food source.
When it comes to micronutrients, studies on supplements are confusing. A Paleo type diet rich in all different fruits and vegetables is the best prenatal vitamin of all.
There is no precise one-size-fits-all diet to ensure fertility; however, there are definitely foods that contain nutrients known to be supportive of reproductive hormone production, thyroid function, insulin sensitivity and fetal development. These foods also happen to support gut health, are anti-inflammatory, promote proper digestion and are components of a well-rounded Paleo diet.
Rich in folate and copper, a nutrient needed for proper thyroid function, asparagus is a fertility booster and a powerful anti-inflammatory.
Avocados are rich in pantothenic acid, a nutrient necessary for energy production and fiber. A crowd pleasure and universal favorite, these green gems are a wonderful fertility and prenatal food.
Another food rich in folate, beets are also a good source of fiber and manganese, an antioxidant that supports fighting inflammation.
Bone broth supports proper digestion and intestinal health thanks to amino acids glutamine and glycine. It also contains high levels of collagen and a good amount of protein, making it a good blood sugar-balancing addition.
You can make your own or get Pete's Paleo to do the work and deliver it straight to you.
Rich in natural folate, broccoli also contains 245% daily recommended intake of vitamin K, which is essential for a healthy pregnancy as it promotes proper clotting. Women who have clotting disorders that are causes of infertility should make sure they discuss their vitamin K dietary intake with their health care providers.
Cold Water Fatty Fish
Seafood is the exclusive food source of the long-chain omega-3 fats EPA and DHA (which is particularly important for fertility and pregnancy). Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for fetal brain development, and prior to conceiving, for its anti-inflammatory benefits and healthy protein. Cold water fish are rich in vitamin B12, which is necessary for proper utilization of folate, and vitamin D, which is strongly associated with fertility. Salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines are excellent sources of DHA.
Although there have been some fears surrounding eating fish pre-conception and during pregnancy due to concerns about mercury levels, those concerns seem to have been greatly exaggerated.
Eggs, especially the yolks, from pastured chickens are especially rich in choline which helps protect against neural tube defects and play an important role in brain development.
Although neither technically nor strictly Paleo, the addition of well-sourced grass-fed dairy products can be a nutritious choice for those who can tolerate it. Dairy is rich in saturated fat, which is especially beneficial for fertility. It is also a good source of the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, K2 & E) and a healthy, natural trans-fat (not to be confused with artificial, man-made trans-fats, which are harmful) conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Naturally fermented dairy products including yogurt and kefir are a good source of probiotics. This is significant as the health of a mother’s microbiome and digestive tract have significant influences on obth her hormonal balance and on the lifelong health of her baby.
Liver from ethically raised ruminants and fowl is one of the most nutrient-dense foods one could eat. It contains high amounts of the fat soluble vitamins that are crucial for reproductive health, and difficult to obtain elsewhere in the diet. Liver is also a good source of highly absorbable iron, which helps prevent miscarriage and maternal anemia, as well as Vitamin B12, which is required for proper formation of red blood cells and DNA. Furthermore liver also contains high amounts of protein, zinc, and folate.