Did you know, than some rabbits can become impregnated, carry their babies to term, and give birth to 6 or more babies each month? In a year, this is upwards of 72 offspring. That’s a lot of bunnies, and it almost seems too easy.
For humans, reproducing is not so easily done – and in fact, we are one of the least fertile species on the planet! Infertility rates also seem to be on the rise in North America, with likely contributing factors:
- Couples are waiting until later in life to have children (and fertility does decline with age)
- Environmental pollutants (in our food, water, air) disrupting hormones
- Declining overall health of the population (and unhealthy bodies aren’t exactly equipped for pregnancy!)
Every individual is of course different, and depending on the physiological reason for conceiving difficulties, there could hormonal balancing and other fertility treatment options to consider (an entirely separate article on its own!). What I want to do here is provide you with some concrete ideas and actions that you can start working on now to optimize your pre-conception health, in order to prevent reproductive issues you can have an effect on. Because baby-making, like bunny-making, should be easy, right?
For Men & Women
Whether it’s brisk walking, running, hiking, cross-fit – you name it – regular exercise that has your legs moving increases healthy blood flow to the pelvic area. Healthy circulation ensures that your baby-making tissues (ovaries, testes) are receiving adequate nutrients in order to do the job they were intended for. Also try to avoid things that cause blood to stagnate in the pelvic area such as sitting for long periods of time. You can tell your boss you need to get up from your desk hourly because you are trying to get pregnant (let us know how that conversation goes!)
High Antioxidant Diet
Antioxidants are damage-fighting nutrients that help your body recover from the stressors we have put it through – including poor sleep, over or under exercising, alcohol, smoking, and high sugar diets. If you are someone who lives a work-hard play-hard lifestyle, your body may have been subject to oxidative damage (cellular degeneration) and over time this can lead to health issues. Making sure we get enough of these nutrients in our diet can help to support our brain, skin, circulatory, immune, and reproductive systems. High antioxidant foods include most fruits & vegetables that are bright and colorful:
- Berries! Blueberries, cherries, strawberries, cranberries. Eat them fresh when available, but also make use of frozen berries in the winter months to make sure you are keeping them in your diet.
- Dark leafy green vegetables – kale, spinach, collard greens
- Apples, citrus fruits, peppers, carrots
- Green tea
Regular Bowel Movements
So what does “regular” bowel movements mean exactly anyways? Well that’s a topic for an entirely separate article – but in sum, you want to make sure that you are having a well-formed (not loose, but not hard) bowel movement at least once daily. In my clinical experience, most patients who are in fact experiencing what I would consider constipation (less than 6 bowel movements a week) do not think there is anything wrong with their bowel habits. To which I say, oh no we need to gets things moving down there.
My favourite go-to’s to address constipation are dietary:
- Increase water consumption (funny how many ailments this magically addresses!) to the recommended 8 cups+ per day
- Ground flax (1-2 tbspn) daily. The flax should be refrigerated and can be added easily to smoothies, salads, oatmeal, soup, etc.
If your bowel movements are regularly loose or hard, or are accompanied with excessive pain or bloating, you should check in with your physician.
Avoid Hormonal Disruptors
These are chemicals foreign to our bodies that can disrupt healthy hormonal signals, and ultimately hormone production. Xenoestrogens in particular – chemicals that mimic estrogen in the body – can disrupt hormonal balance for both men and women. How we can avoid them:
Choose organic produce whenever possible. Herbicides and pesticides are full of hormone disrupting chemicals, and organic or farm-fresh foods tend not to have been treated with sprays. Read labels ask questions of your local grocer.
Drink out of and store foods in glass, stainless steel, or BPA-free plastic containers. BPA (a xenoestrogen found in most plastics) can transfer into our water and food.
Avoid heating food in plastics, or keeping hot drinks in plastics (unless BPA-free).
For men, it’s all about the sperm; healthy sperm is high in numbers (sperm count), proper shape (morphology) and active (motility). Talk with your doctor about performing a semen analysis to assess your sperm quality. If your results are abnormal or below average, fear not as it typically takes 2-3 repeat tests to get an accurate picture of sperm health.
This mineral is crucial for healthy sperm production, and many men may be deficient due to zinc-depleting lifestyle habits (stress, pollution, alcohol, smoking). High dietary sources of zinc include: sesame and pumpkin seeds, meats, oysters, quinoa, and beans. If you have a low sperm count or poor sperm physiology, you should talk to your doctor about additional supplementation (typically 15-30mg/day).
Keep the Pelvis Cool
Increased scrotal temperatures have been linked to low sperm count. This means you will want to avoid having your laptop directly on your lap, and overuse of hot tubs and saunas when trying to conceive.
Cut Out Toxins
Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption have both been linked to poor sperm attributes – low count and disrupted shape and movement. Smoking is also known to contribute to erectile dysfunction, and typically that just will not do when trying to conceive. Moderate alcohol consumption is okay, but it should be limited to no more than 6 drinks/week, and be accompanied with an otherwise healthy diet and lifestyle. Avoiding toxins is of course also important for women hoping to conceive.
Essential Fatty Acids
These famous fats (otherwise known as omega-3 and 6) are important dietary nutrients that can help to balance hormones, increase blood flow to the uterus, and encourage healthy cervical mucus production (which helps the sperm reach the egg). Getting them (particularly omega-3) is easy with a health diet, including:
- Nuts & seeds
Some people choose to use an omega-3 oil source in addition to dietary sources, just to make sure they are getting enough of these important fats. If you choose to go this route, I recommend looking for a high-quality cold-pressed fish oil that has been tested free of impurities (including heavy metals).
This is an important B vitamin, necessary for proper neurological (brain and spine) development of the fetus. While folic acid (along with other B vitamins) can of course be found in foods part of a healthy diet (beans, nuts/seeds, fruits/vegetables) it is still recommended to supplement. 400mcg is the recommended daily dose, and this can be found in most daily multi and B vitamins.
These very important vitamins are essentially for energy production in the body, and as such they can have a positive effect on a number of important body systems. In addition to supporting reproductive health, they also balance our mood, can help with anxiety and memory, make us feel energetic, and relieve PMS. B vitamins are depleted by stress (mental, emotional, physical) and as such, many women may benefit from supplementation. B6 (pyridoxine) in particular is involved in balancing female hormones, and as such is an important part of a pre-conception routine. Oral birth control pills have been linked to the depletion of B6, so if you have taken birth control pills previously, you will want to make sure you are getting enough B6.
Like folic acid, we do consume B vitamins as part of a healthy diet. In my clinical experience however, I do find that many patients can benefit from additional B vitamin supplementation.
As always, I recommend speaking with your health care practitioner about which nutritional supplements would be best for you, given your digestive and nutrient health history.
When to Seek Laboratory Testing
- If you have been trying to conceive for up to 1 year with no success, then it’s time to have some general labwork (and sperm analysis for the guys) to rule out any hormonal or nutrient imbalances
- For women – if your period is irregular, very painful, or absent altogether
- For women older than 35 years who have been trying to conceive unsuccessfully for 6 months – it’s time for some further testing
When do you want to start working with your Naturopathic Doctor or other natural health practitioner? As soon as you get the baby-making idea into your head! There are a host of things that your naturopathic physician can help you with from a preventative and optimization standpoint – including how you are digesting and absorbing nutrients, dietary advice, hormonal balancing, and even detoxification (ridding your body of toxins that could be disrupting your hormones) if necessary. The time to act on getting your body in its prime reproductive form is now.
Dr. Courtney is a Naturopathic Doctor and co-founder of Aurora Integrative Medical, a modern integrative health clinic near Vancouver BC.