Leading conception and pregnancy expert Zita West highlights the importance of good nutrition for healthy eggs and sperm, improving your chances of successful fertility treatment.
Zita West is the founder of the renowned Zita West Fertility Clinic, which is part of the CARE Fertility Group, combining our world-leading science and commitment to highly personalised care with the Zita West focus on pre-preparation and the micro-management of your treatment.
Want to learn more? Dr Gillian Lockwood, Medical Director of CARE Tamworth, discusses global research and good nutrition for fertility in this blog. Zita has also written a blog about supporting your immunity from home, including explaining where to find important nutrients, antioxidants and fatty acids in common foods.
Eating a healthy and balanced diet is crucial for both of you when preparing to conceive. Remember… You are what you eat! You should ensure you are eating at least five servings of fruit and vegetables per day and preferably 8-10 servings for vitamins, minerals, trace elements and antioxidants. Eat foods from each of the five food groups:
Ensure you avoid foods high in fat and sugar such as cakes and biscuits.
Taking vitamins and minerals will help boost your fertility and will definitely improve the health of your pregnancy. You can benefit from these essentials vitamins:
In addition to a healthy and balanced diet you may wish to take a multi vitamin and mineral supplement especially designed for pre pregnancy, known as prenatal vitamins. As a general rule most prenatal supplements contain a greater amount of folic acid, iron and calcium so simply taking an ordinary multi vitamin will not suffice when trying to conceive. There is good evidence that a healthy diet together with appropriate vitamins will improve outcome and additionally reduce the risk of miscarriage by as much as 50%.
You should also take a folic acid supplement, starting at least a month before beginning your treatment cycle. Folic acid is essential for normal cell division, especially during early pregnancy. It also protects against certain developmental abnormalities such as spina bifida. The dosage of folic acid taken should be 400mcg or 0.4mg daily and you should ensure that the supplement you use does not contain vitamin A or fish liver oil. Folic acid can be found in foods such as leafy green vegetables, fruit juices and fortified beans and breakfast cereals.
Several studies have shown the beneficial effects of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants on sperm quality. We would therefore recommend that men start taking the following supplements 3 months before starting treatment:
Being overweight or underweight can reduce the chances of conceiving. Women who are underweight often have problems with ovulation. Women who are overweight or obese tend to have more fat in their bodies, this fat can actually increase the amount of oestrogen inside the body. Obesity in men also has a detrimental effect on sperm motility and erectile function.
Exercise is an integral part of any healthy lifestyle and will of course help you with any weight issues. When exercise is pursued in healthy moderation, it can actually help to increase fertility. Exercising 30 minutes a day, three to four days a week, can help you on your way to pregnancy.
Alcohol disrupts the hormonal balance of the female reproductive system, leading to menstrual irregularities and even anovulatory cycles (menstrual cycles where ovulation fails to occur). These changes can drastically decrease a woman's chance of becoming pregnant and thus affect fertility.
Excessive alcohol intake is also detrimental to sperm quality. Men who continue to consume alcohol on a regular basis, can decrease their sperm count and even affect sperm quality, both of which are important factors in achieving fertility. We would recommend where to possible both partners cut down on alcohol or preferably stop completely during treatment and pregnancy.
You should try and cut back on caffeine where possible. Research suggests that high caffeine intake can affect both male and female fertility, so it's best for both partners to keep track of how much coffee, tea, cola and chocolate you consume before and during treatment. As a general rule men and women should limit their caffeine consumption to about 2 cups of tea or coffee per day. In addition to the potential impact on fertility, caffeine can impair your body's absorbtion of iron and calcium. It has also been linked to an increased risk of miscarriage.
Cigarette smoke contains many toxic substances that impact on both male and female fertility. Men who smoke have been shown to have abnormalities in sperm production. Both sperm quality and quantity are affected.
For women, smoking causes hormonal changes that can lead to menstrual irregularities and even anovulation (menstrual cycles where ovulation fails to occur). Women who smoke ten or more cigarettes per day are three times more likely to experience difficulty conceiving than non-smokers. There is clear evidence that smoking reduces the chance of success in an IVF cycle by about a third, therefore couples trying to conceive should quit smoking immediately.
When trying to conceive, it's best to avoid taking any drugs, prescribed or otherwise. Some medicines can decrease fertility, so tell your GP or specialist that you are trying for a baby if you need a prescribed medicine. If you are on long term medication, your GP may be able to prescribe an alternative if the original drug is known to have an affect on fertility. If you are unsure about any medication you have been prescribed or have bought over the counter, please do not hesitate to consult a member of the medical/nursing staff at CARE.
Going through fertility treatment definitely falls under the heading of ‘a stressful experience’ you are both likely to feel a range of emotions before, during and after treatment. There will be highs and lows, as well as the stress of the actual treatment programme itself, whilst juggling all the other things that are going on in your lives; jobs, home, social life and the rest.
Whilst we cannot completely remove the stress of going through fertility treatment there are some things we advise to try to help reduce your stress levels:
As a complementary treatment for IVF it is claimed that it works by improving blood flow to the reproductive organs, however there is no convincing evidence that it improves ovarian blood and it’s use during stimulation with fertility drugs has as yet not been shown to improve follicle growth, egg quality or endometrial thickening. Acupuncture is not harmful though and if you use it you may find that it reduces stress. Some of our male patients also use acupuncture.
"As a woman who had never struggled to conceive I had a very naïve view of IVF – you only hear about success stories in the media or from friends so the reality took a while to get my head around.
My doctor was very straight about DH's sperm issue and told us we needed to improve the quality as much as possible and the increase of anti-oxidants was crucial. This was coupled with seeing a BBC program which used anti-oxidant rich fruit smoothies with men who had been identified as having male factor fertility issues and their experiment saw incredible results – i.e. pregnant wives!!
We both started taking daily vitamins with added anti-oxidants and my hubby who is not a natural fruit eater had a berry based smoothie every night. We both had acupuncture, me 6 months in advance and through IVF cycle and DH did 3 months before treatment. Pretty much gave up alcohol and greatly reduced intake of tea and coffees.
When we had our 2nd ‘fresh’ cycle we immediately felt things were more positive as my DH results showed over a 40% improvement – considering how many sperm tests he had with zero change we were and still are convinced these little changes made all the difference and then for both embryo's to take and have 2 healthy little boys was the cherry on top.
Emotional prep – having a couple close to us share their ups and downs gave us an insight into the ‘roller coaster’ ride of IVF. I felt it was important that we sat down and agreed on how much we were prepared to spend and roughly outline how many attempts we felt was fair. I don't know if we would have stuck to our original plan but I feel it gave us as a couple a plan that we were both happy with – I think when you are in treatment you are so focused on having a baby and when it fails you are devastated more than you can anticipate and the drive to have a baby can be all consuming. You can lose focus on the rest of your life and possibly forget what you already have in your life.”
Janine & Nicholas, CARE Fertility Manchester patients
“Before treatment I did a very low calorie diet, I am overweight and felt that it couldn't do any harm and it also provided all the essential nutrients and vitamins I needed, so I was potentially more balanced than my usual diet.
I also changed jobs, I'd been working in a high pressure job with very long hours, so had little time to relax. I changed to a 9am – 5.30pm role, so I knew I'd have more 'me' time and that if the treatment was succesful, I'd be more relaxed.
My husband I went abroad just before treatment started and had a very relaxing break.
I treated myself to lots of pampering, things I enjoyed and that helped me chill out. I got some lovely Clarins oils and lots of girlie books. My friend also gave me a step-by-step book of IVF, which I read a chapter of daily on the run up. I felt this knowledge helped put me at ease, knowing what to expect and I also utilised the CARE forum. Being able to chat with people experiencing the same thing was great.
I had a routine every night, when I did my injections – I recorded a tv series that was on daily and I did my injection in my bedroom, then I would lie down and watch my programme and just have a little chill. It really made the process easier and also, helped any ‘icky’ feelings pass, as I was lying down just watching tv.
I took pregnacare prior to and throughout treatment. I also really wanted to start aromatherapy but no-one in my area specialised in fertility treatments – so opted not to ultimately.”
Sue and Andy, CARE Fertility Nottingham patients