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Pre-conceptional care

By: ELIZABETH HARTLAND | features@algarveresident.com

Elizabeth Hartland has a Bachelor of Science Degree in nutrition, together with a Diploma from the Institute of Nutritional Therapy. She is married with two young children and has a passion for good nutrition and helping others to find better health.

Before conception can take place, certain factors are essential. The man must be potent and producing healthy, mobile sperm. The woman must be ovulating and releasing a healthy egg in a womb that is receptive to sperm and capable of sustaining and nurturing the egg through a full-term pregnancy.

All these factors, in both partners, are vulnerable to pressures from poor dietary habits, lifestyle, general health and stress levels. Much can be done, therefore, to improve the situation before starting a family.

Diet and lifestyle

Maximising health before conception improves the quality of egg and sperm, increases fertility and reduces the chance of miscarriage. Sub-optimal nutrition on the other hand, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, or an excess of alcohol, cigarettes, stimulants, pollutants, pesticides, food additives and toxic metals reduce fertility.

What to eat:

A natural, unprocessed diet consisting of:

• Plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit (organic if possible)

• Whole cereals: brown rice, oats, millet, buckwheat, whole-wheat

• Beans and pulses (lentils, chickpeas, aduki beans)

• Nuts and seeds (pumpkin, sesame, sunflower seeds, almonds, brazils)

• Fish and organically reared poultry

• Goat’s milk, soya milk or organic dairy produce (milk, butter, and eggs)

• Live, plain yoghurt

• Cold-pressed unrefined oils (flax, sesame, hemp, extra virgin olive oil)

• Coffee substitutes (Caro, Bambu, Barley Cup, Yannoh)

• Tea alternatives (Rooibosch, herbal teas, fruit teas)

• Aqua Libra, Appletize or half fruit juice with sparkling mineral water

• Honey, concentrated apple juice for sweetening

• Tahini, nut butters, pure fruit spreads and honey for spreading!

Female fertility

Folic acid is now known to be one of the most important nutrients to consider for a female when planning a pregnancy.

Normal foetal development (especially during the first few days after conception) depends on adequate folic acid and B12. Low folic acid levels in mothers have been found to be the most significant factor in spina bifida babies.

To minimise risk of spina bifida, 400ug of folic acid is now a recognised and recommended daily dose to be taken at least two months prior to conception.

Zinc together with B6 is also important for females to ensure adequate levels of sex hormones are produced. Female hormones work alongside prostaglandins (hormone-like substances) which are derived from essential fatty acids (EFAs). Oily fish, nuts, seeds and avocados should therefore be regularly included in the diet to obtain optimal amounts of EFAs.

These fatty acids also need B6 and zinc to be converted into prostaglandins, as well as biotin and magnesium. One particular hormone, LHRH (luteinizing hormone releasing hormone) causes the pituitary gland to stimulate the development of the ovum and hence ovulation. B6 deficiency causes a deficiency in LHRH.

The production of progesterone is vital, for unless it is present in sufficient quantities, ovulation itself cannot take place. Without ovulation, there is no egg released to be fertilised.

If conception is successful but inadequate progesterone is present, a pregnancy cannot be maintained. A simple saliva test will establish progesterone levels and, if inadequate, natural progesterone cream can be applied to boost levels in the body.

Male fertility

Vitamin C intake is recommended for men as an important antioxidant prior to conception. It guards against cellular damage due to excess free radical production caused by toxins in the environment, cigarette smoke, alcohol etc. Obviously, the best place to start when thinking about starting a family is to give up smoking, avoid excess caffeine ingestion, reduce stress, cut back on alcohol intake and eliminate any non-essential medication.

Taking 500mg of vitamin C twice a day has been shown to increase sperm count. Other research has shown that vitamin C decreases the agglutination or the clumping together of sperm which is associated with impaired fertility.

Vitamin A is necessary for converting cholesterol into male sex hormones and is dependent on zinc for its release from the liver.

Vitamin E deficiency may induce fertility in both sexes by causing damage to the reproductive tissues, so a handful of sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds everyday would not go amiss!

Seeds are excellent sources of vitamin E, zinc and essential fatty acids (EFAs), as well as providing good amounts of calcium and magnesium.  

Sperm is incredibly rich in micronutrients and dependent on many vitamins, minerals and EFAs. Semen is rich therefore in prostaglandins (hormone-like substances) derived from EFAs found in fresh nuts and seeds, fish, lecithin and eggs. A deficiency of EFAs may reduce sperm production.

Zinc and fertility

Semen is the richest known source of zinc, so it is easy to see why a prolific sex life and an inadequate diet are a very real cause of zinc deficiency and infertility.

Zinc is essential for sperm production and sperm health and is an essential nutrient for the prostate gland, which produces seminal fluid.

Inadequate levels of zinc have been linked with impotence and infertility in men, as well as late sexual maturation and small sex organs in younger males.

Zinc deficiency can also result in damage to the testes, although all these problems can usually be corrected with adequate supplementation.

CoQ10 and fertility

Deficiency of Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) has mainly been documented in patients with heart disease. CoQ10 supplementation has been shown to play a role in all aspects of heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.

This nutrient may also be of value in male infertility, although additional studies are needed in this area. Because sperm production and function are highly energy-dependent processes, CoQ10 deficiency could contribute to fertility.

Supplementation with CoQ10 has been seen to increase sperm count and motility in a group of infertile men.