How to increase fertility through nutrition
If you’re trying for a baby, you’ll want to do everything you can to help improve your fertility and increase your chances of getting pregnant. And good nutrition is especially important at this time.
Most of the time, you can get everything you need to support your fertility from what you eat. But sometimes, you may need a supplement for extra help.
So read on to find out which nutrients you should be getting more of, and discover the supplements and foods that might help boost your fertility.
Important nutrients for male and female fertility
Whether you’re male or female, it’s important to get plenty of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients when trying for a baby. Here are some important nutrients that can affect fertility or the development of your baby:
- folic acid – known as folate or vitamin B9 in its natural form, folic acid is important when you’re trying to get pregnant because it helps your unborn baby’s brain, skull and spinal cord to grow properly during early pregnancy, helping protect against problems such as spina bifida
- vitamin D – having normal vitamin D levels has been associated with more pregnancies and births in women undergoing fertility treatment. Vitamin D deficiency (low levels) has also been associated with poorer semen quality, but research has so far shown supplements don't help with this
- omega-3s – these essential fatty acids play an important role in every system of your body, including your reproductive system, and are needed for healthy hormones. Men with poor sperm quality, abnormal sperm, poor motility or low count, may have inadequate omega-3 levels. These fatty acids are also crucial for the brain development of the baby, so are important during pregnancy
- zinc – is a widely studied nutrient in terms of fertility for both men and women, and a zinc deficiency can cause chromosome changes leading to reduced fertility and an increased risk of miscarriage. It’s also found in high concentrations in the sperm and is needed to make the outer layer and tail of the sperm
- iron – iron deficiency is very common, especially if you have periods, and can lead to problems with ovulation and fertility. Deficiency can also lead to male fertility problems, making it more difficult to conceive. If you’re trying to get pregnant it’s a good idea to have your and you partner’s iron levels checked before you start trying
- vitamin C – research suggests that this antioxidant vitamin may be able to improve female fertility and help to reduce the effect of some causes of female infertility. It may also help improve sperm quality. More evidence is needed to prove this is the case
- vitamin E – research suggests that this antioxidant may help support female fertility, especially if you’re over 35 and have age-related fertility problems, but more evidence is needed to prove this
- selenium – good levels of this antioxidant mineral are important for supporting proper sperm formation
- L-arginine and L-carnitine – these essential amino acids help support normal sperm cell function and production. Higher levels may help to increase sperm count and quality
Diet and fertility
Although what you eat can affect your chances of getting pregnant, there’s no specific diet that’s guaranteed to improve your fertility. It’s generally recommended that you follow the same diet that you’d eat for general health and wellbeing – that way, you should get a good range of the nutrients listed above.
A healthy, balanced diet should include:
- wholegrain, high-fibre foods such as wholemeal bread, brown rice and wholewheat pasta
- at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables every day, including lentils and beans
- lean meat or plant-based protein
- dairy products – full fat products have been shown to help with ovulation if you have infrequent periods so try to include 1 portion of full fat milk or yoghurt every day
- omega-3 fatty acids, found in oily fish and some nuts and seeds
- unsaturated, ‘good’ fats, found in avocados, nuts, oily fish and seeds
It’s also a good idea to cut down on sugar, salt and trans and saturated fat. To do this, try to limit processed foods and drinks, including sweets, biscuits, cakes, fizzy drinks and meats such as bacon and sausages.
If you’re wondering which specific foods you can add to your diet to help boost your levels of the important nutrients listed above, these may help:
- Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, spring greens, peas, spinach, broccoli, chickpeas and kidney beans,lentils liver (but avoid this during pregnancy), breakfast cereals fortified with folic acid, yeast and beef extracts, wheat bran and other whole grain foods, poultry, pork, shellfish contain folate (folic acid)
- oily fish like salmon, sardines, pilchards, trout, herring, kippers and eel contain some vitamin D. Red meat, egg yolks and fortified breakfast cereals and spreads can also provide some vitamin D. Milk may also contain vitamin D depending on the season, and some yoghrts may contain added vitamin D. Liver and cod liver oil are also good sources, but should be avoided during pregnancy
- oily fish like mackerel, trout, salmon, herring, crab, whitebait, swordfish, sardines, kippers and pilchards contain omega-3 fatty acids. Nuts and seeds like pumpkin, seeds, linseeds (also known as flax seeds), walnuts, chia seeds, tofu, plant oils including walnut, linseed, soybean, rapeseed can also be good sources
- meat, shellfish and dairy foods such as cheese are good sources of zinc. You can also get zinc from plant based sources like hemp, flax, chia seeds, tofu, sundried tomatoes in oil, wheatgerm, wholemeal breads and cereals, lentils and red kidney beans
- red meat, eggs, beans like red kidney beans, chickpeas and edamame, and spinach, sweet potatoes, peas, broccoli, kale, strawberries, watermelon, raisins, tofu, nuts, bran and oat cereals, fortified breakfast cereals and soybean flour can help boost your iron levels. There are 2 forms of iron – heme (found in meat) and non heme (found in vegetables). Heme is more easily absorbed by the body than non-heme, but getting plenty of vitamin C rich foods, like those listed below, can help you absorb more iron. Fizzy drinks, large quantities of milk and dairy products, tea and coffee and eating too many high fibre cereals can reduce iron absorption when consumed close to mealtimes. So, try avoiding these for at least 1 hour before eating iron-rich foods
- citrus fruits, strawberries, apple, banana kiwi, broccoli, raw tomato, peppers, Brussels sprouts and potatoes contain plenty of vitamin C
- tomato juice, avocado, cranberry juice, apricots, leafy greens like spinach and broccoli, nuts and seeds, plant oils such as rapeseed, sunflower, soya, corn and olive, and wheatgerm (found in some cereal products) can provide vitamin E
- tuna, halibut, oysters, crab, pork, beef, chicken, eggs, brown long grain rice, sunflower seeds, wholewheat bread, milk, brazil nuts,baked beans and whole oats are good sources of selenium
- turkey, chicken, pork loin, beef, soy beans, chickpeas, dried seaweed, pumpkin, watermelon, sesame seeds, walnuts, pine nuts, raw peanuts and almonds all contain L-arginine
- beef, pork, bacon, are high sources of L-carnitine. Milk, cod, chicken breast, ice cream, avocado and cheddar cheese contain lower levels
The best fertility supplements
While you should be able to get most of the nutrients you need from your diet, you may require some extra support from supplements. For example, it’s very difficult to get enough folate (folic acid) for pregnancy from your diet alone.
Fertility supplements for women
If you’re female and trying to get pregnant, consider topping up your nutrients by taking:
- folic acid – anyone trying to get pregnant should take a folic acid supplement to help prevent birth defects such as spina bifida. It’s recommended you take 400mcg a day for at least 2 months before trying for a baby and continue until 12 weeks of pregnancy. If you're at higher risk of your pregnancy being affected by a birth defect, you may need to take a higher dose whilst you are pregnant, around 5mg is usually recommended
- vitamin B12 – if you follow a plant-based diet or you have low levels before pregnancy, your doctor may suggest you take a B12 supplement in addition to folic acid
- vitamin D – you may benefit from a daily 10mcg vitamin D supplement before and during pregnancy, especially if you’re of South Asian, African, Caribbean or Middle Eastern origin, follow a vegan diet, or have a body mass index (BMI) of more than 30
Male fertility supplements
If you’re male and trying to conceive with a partner, it’s recommended you get all the nutrients you need from your diet.
Taking supplements and ‘fertility vitamins’ unnecessarily can cause levels of nutrients to go over the recommended daily allowance, which may lead to health problems, including infertility.
When to see a doctor
It’s a good idea to speak to your doctor before taking any supplements, female fertility vitamins or changing your diet.
You should avoid homeopathic products or herbal supplements if you're trying for a baby. And don’t take any supplements that contain vitamin A, as high doses can affect a baby's development.
Talk to your doctor if you’re worried about your fertility, or you think you may have nutritional deficiency.
- getting the right nutrients can help support both male and female fertility
- you should be able to get most of the nutrients you need by eating a healthy, balanced diet
- if you’re female and trying for a baby, you should take a folic acid supplement, and may need a vitamin D supplement, especially if you are darker skinned, follow a vegan diet, or have a BMI over 30
- taking supplements unnecessarily may cause your levels of some nutrients to go over the recommended daily allowance
- talk to your doctor before making changes to your diet or taking any supplements or vitamins for fertility