These are tough times. Not only are we faced with disruption to our daily life, but all private and NHS fertility treatments have been suspended, with no clear end in sight.
Trying for a baby can be lonely and isolating at the best of times. It’s an emotional and hormonal rollercoaster without a global pandemic being added into the mix. It’s okay to find this difficult and acknowledge the hurt. It’s okay to feel lost.
This time doesn’t have to be wasted. Perhaps our altered pace of life can bring hope and offer the opportunity to empower us to take back control.
It takes twelve months to make a baby. There is a wealth of compelling evidence that good nutrition and lifestyle during preconception can support a healthy pregnancy, impacting ovulation, egg health, implantation and even the future health of your child.
A woman is born with all of her eggs, but it takes three months for each egg to fully mature. Spermatogenesis (the process of sperm production) takes approximately the same amount of time. The conditions to which the cells are exposed during this preconception period are critical. To be clear, what we do today will impact egg and sperm health three months from now. Our current situation gives us a precious window of opportunity to prep and prime your body. You can make a difference, whether you are in your 20s or early 40s. Now could be the time, without the lure of a whirring social life to knock your plans off kilter.
I understand that for some food is a big source of stress at the moment. Just do your best to nourish your body with what is available to you. Here are some of my suggestions…
Protein is essential for building and repairing – that includes our hormones and our baby’s body. Having a palm-sized amount of protein with every meal is a good guide and will help keep you feeling full for longer - less temptation to hit the biscuit tin!
Some good options are lean meat, seafood, eggs and plant-based proteins (pulses, legumes, nuts and seeds).
We have come a long way from the fat-fearing messaging of the 1980s. We now understand just how essential healthy fats are. Testosterone, oestrogen and progesterone are made from cholesterol. Each of our cells is surrounded by a lipid (fatty) membrane. ‘Good’ fats are vital for the health of every cell in our body and for a baby’s brain development. In contrast, commercial fats (found in pre-packaged foods such as biscuits, cakes, crisps, chips and margarine) are linked with increased risk of ovulation and fertilisation difficulties.
Good fats to focus on are olive oil, butter, avocados, nuts, seeds and oily fish.
Swapping the fluffy, white carbohydrates for complex carbs is a good rule of thumb. Brown rice and pasta, quinoa, oats and lentils are less processed than their white counterparts and have a good fibre content to support digestion. Taking longer to break down, complex carbs keep our blood sugar and energy levels more stable - important for hormonal harmony. For PCOS sufferers, it’s crucial.
Colourful fruit and vegetables
Try and include colour and variety to provide your body with an array of oh-so-necessary vitamins, minerals and fibre. Fruit and veg also contain antioxidants, these mighty molecules protect us from free radical damage, which can cause oxidative stress (and DNA damage) to both egg and sperm. This is particularly important if you are over 35, as antioxidant defences decrease with age.
Some good sources are berries, beetroot, butternut squash, carrots and sweet potatoes along with dark leafy green vegetables.
Thirsty? With the disruption to our normal routine, a lot of us are drinking less than usual. Water accounts for 60-70% of our body weight and babies are 78% water when they are born. Dehydration affects all of our organs, including our digestion and detoxification systems.
Semen production and volume take a real knock when we don’t get enough water, slowing the sperm down on their big journey. Proper hydration also favourably impacts a woman’s cervical fluid, giving those swimmers an extra helping hand.
What a brilliant de-stressor and right now we really want to keep our stress levels under control, particularly as high cortisol (our stress hormone) plays havoc with hormonal balance and negatively impacts fertility for both sexes. With online workout classes more widely available it’s much more convenient to carve out a small pocket of time for self-care. Moderation is key though as extreme exercise can act as a greater stress on the body.
Making the most of your hour outside to take a walk will help. Time in nature can also alleviate stress. Getting outside between 11am and 3pm on a sunny day also tops up your vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is associated with improved natural pregnancy rates, while deficiency is linked to a number of pregnancy complications.
And finally sleep! Most of us need 7-8 hours, minimum. When we don’t get enough, inflammation increases and can disrupt the delicate balance between oestrogen and progesterone. Lack of sleep impairs production of melatonin, which is not only our sleepy hormone, but also a powerful antioxidant that helps regulate our menstrual cycle and protects our ovaries. Even nudging bedtime forward by, say, 15 minutes each week is going to help.
Sometimes it’s the small things that can make the biggest difference. Rather than let COVID-19 snatch away those goals and dreams, I want to plant a seed of hope for all parents-to-be. Use lockdown as a positive opportunity to enhance and preserve your fertility. You can emerge healthier, more in control and ready to go when the clinic doors re-open.
Alison Hall is a Registered Nutritional Therapist and Functional Medicine Practitioner who works with couples to improve their fertility and women to tame their hormones, naturally. She sees clients on-line or (when not in lockdown!) in her North London clinic.
For the next few weeks, Alison is offering a number of one-off diet and supplement reviews for £80 – redeemable against longer packages, if needed.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.