Infertility is an alarming modern epidemic affecting more couples than ever. One out of six couples today experience difficulty achieving pregnancy. What was once seen as a woman’s problem is now known to affect men equally.
For example, gluten intolerance alone cannot cause infertility; however, the resulting inflammation in the gut can minimise your nutrient absorption and lead to deficiencies in the nutrients that you need for optimal sperm, egg and hormone production and a healthy pregnancy. Exposure to heavy metals, radiation and toxic chemicals in some foods, drugs and other products can damage DNA. Recent nutrigenomic (a study of the effects of nutrients on gene expression) research suggests what we eat can influence our gene structure and expression.
Exposure to toxic chemicals
Exposure to environmental toxins (in the form of industrial chemicals) both in-utero and neonatally may dramatically affect adult fertility. Most chemicals used in everyday life do not go through the same checks medicines do. Consequently, poisonous chemicals end up circulating in our environment, food supply, air and water.
The strongest evidence of heavy metals and environmental pollution adversely interfering with healthy reproductive function in women has been found for lead. Other compounds that can alter hormone function and result in adverse reproductive health effects include:
- Ovotoxicants: can disrupt or even stop ovulation.
- Endocrine disruptors: can interfere with hormone function and cause endometriosis and polycystic ovarian disease.
- Phthalates: in plastic food containers, cling wrap, IV bags, medical supplies, vinyl flooring and packaging at high levels have been associated with miscarriage and testicular toxicity. At low levels, they disrupt hormonal balance.
- Polyvinyl chloride chemicals: used in rubber tires, plastics and pesticides.
- Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon: released from cigarettes, car fumes and road tar
- Men are not spared
Sperm seems to be more sensitive to heavy metals and industrial pollutants than eggs. Many sperm abnormalities have been linked to these toxins. The majority of these chemicals can be found in the atmosphere, on the ground in cities and in the waterways. They have also been termed “reprotoxicants” for their negative effects on sperm development and maturation.
Studies confirm that male sperm counts are declining, and environmental factors such as pesticides, exogenous estrogens (Xenoestrogens), and heavy metals may negatively impact formation of sperm.
Six environmental toxins to avoid
Pesticides: found on non-organic fruit and vegetables, meat, dairy and unfiltered tap water
Formaldehyde: found in air fresheners, deodorants, floor polish, upholstery cleaners
Bisphenols: found in plastic containers and can leach into food and water.
Organic solvents: petroleum-based liquids found in household products, electronics, car repair, health care, photography, agriculture, printing, construction and cosmetics, dry-cleaning chemicals, paint fumes and many more. Occasional exposure to one or the other toxic chemical is not of concern. What is of concern is accumulation of these chemicals over a long period.
Unfiltered tap water: Our waterways are constantly being polluted by industrial waste and byproducts, pharmaceutical drugs, pesticides, herbicides and commercial cleaning products. There are many companies polluting the water, regardless of the country you live in. Either there is no environmental law at all, or there are loopholes in the law or there is no law for a particular chemical getting into the water.
Heavy metals: these are the most common of the reprotoxins reaching our water supply through industrial waste, jet fuel exhaust residue and a variety of other sources. Pharmaceutical drugs are commonly found in tap water.
Seventy-four per cent of the U.S. population takes prescription drugs. But because the drugs do not metabolise fully, small quantities are excreted via faeces and urine and flushed away. Toilet water is often treated and filtered before being discharged into lakes and rivers, thereby re-entering the water supply. The trouble is, many drugs are not filtered out via the regular filtration process. Minute quantities of chemotherapy drugs, contraceptive pills, antidepressants, anxiolitics, anabolic steroids, hormone replacement therapy, heart drugs, etc. have been found in tap water.
Use dual filtration system: Buy a dual filtration water system that filters particles smaller than one micron. This will filter out the drugs as well as heavy metals. Use the filter in your shower and your kitchen. Shower steam contains the same chemicals, which you can end up inhaling and can be absorbed through your skin.
Eat optimal fertility diet
In the first trimester of pregnancy, your growing embryo will increase 20 million times. In the first eight weeks, your baby’s organs, hands, fingers, legs, feet, head, eyes, nose, ears, etc. are being constructed. To ensure that the best possible foundations are laid during this phase, you want to make sure there are plenty building blocks in form of the right nutrients in the right combinations.
What does a fertility diet contain? An optimal fertility diet is about what to avoid, as much as it is about what to include. A fertility diet should be as fresh as possible and organic wherever possible. Key elements are good quality protein sources and good fats.
What should you eat?
You may eat organic meat in small quantities, game, small deep-sea fish such as sardines and red snapper, and organic legumes that are home cooked (not canned). Others are whole grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruit in season, organic where possible.
Increase your consumption of good fats and avoid dangerous fats. Good fats include monounsaturated fats in olive oil, polyunsaturated fats in oily fish and nuts and midchain fatty acids found in coconut oil.
For cooking, use clarified butter (ghee) or coconut butter (without flavour), as they do not become unstable when heated. For non-heated oil requirements (salads, etc), use cold pressed olive oil, flaxseed oil and nut oils.
Avoid dangerous fats
Did you know that consuming trans fats hidden in processed foods such as doughnuts, biscuits, lollies, candies, chocolate, chips, pies and fries and thousands of other unhealthy foods may increase your risk of infertility by as much as 70 per cent?
Scientists from the Harvard University School of Public Health advise women wanting to get pregnant to avoid all trans fats. The sole purpose of adding trans fats to food is to extend the shelf life. To minimise your consumption of trans fats, be diligent about reading the ingredients and avoid the most likely culprits altogether.
Trans fats are mostly listed as ‘hydrogenated fat’ or ‘hardened vegetable fat’ or simply ‘vegetable fat.’
Minimise animal-derived estrogens
Dairy products account, on the average, for 60-70 percent of estrogens consumed. Humans consume milk from cows in the second half of pregnancy when cow’s estrogen levels are high. We usually associate dairy and drinking milk with calcium, and never think about what else we may be consuming along with the calcium. Dairy, by the way, is not the best source of calcium. Here is a list of hormones that have been found in cows’ milk: Prolactin, somatostatin, melatonin, oxytocin, growth hormone, lutenizing releasing hormone, thyroid stimulating hormone, estrogens, progesterone, insulin, corticosteroids and many more.
Did you know that an excess consumption of all these hormones could disrupt your own hormonal balance? You bet! Consumption of milk has been linked to certain cases of male infertility. Excess estrogen and pesticide exposure has been linked to Polycystic ovary syndrome and endometriosis.
Studies have found higher concentrations of pesticides in cheese than in non-organically grown fruit and vegetables. The first line of naturopathic treatment I recommend for PCOS and endometriosis is to minimise intake of animal products. Animal products have a high content of hormones, pesticides and herbicides, which are known endocrine disruptors. They play havoc with your hormones and this can lead to anovulation (failure of the ovary to release ova over a period of time generally exceeding three months).
Avoid two most common allergens
The link between food intolerance and anti-sperm antibodies is now well established. Studies have found that women with multiple allergies and food intolerance were more likely to miscarry. An overactive immune system is more likely to attack its own body cells.
From an immunological point of view, an embryo and sperm cell are foreign bodies. But Mother Nature was clever; she programmed our immune systems to distinguish between an everyday invader and a sperm cell or embryo. A normal and healthy immune response to an embryo or sperm cell is orchestrated by Th2 cytokines. They suppress your killer cells (that’s what they are called) to leave the embryo unharmed. Because of this protection, many pregnant women are poor wound healers and can come down really badly with a cold or flu. Your natural protection has been suppressed so that your baby can develop properly.
An abnormal immune response to the implantation of the fertilised egg is orchestrated by Th1 cytokines. Rather than suppressing your killer cells, they stimulate their activity. This can lead to defects and loss of the foetus. The two most widely spread food intolerance are gluten and dairy. I advise my patients to have an IgG immunoglobulin test done to check if they are dairy and gluten intolerant. But since most people have some level of allergy to gluten and/or dairy, it’s advisable to avoid gluten and dairy altogether during the preconception and pregnancy period.
Have an STD check
Most people believe both they and their partner are free from sexually transmitted diseases. However, there are some STDs which can be asymptomatic, meaning that you may not be aware you have them, as there are no obvious symptoms. One such STD is Chlamydia.
In men, a Chlamydia infection can lead to sperm abnormalities, including sperm antibodies. In women, it can lead to scarring, blocked tubes and miscarriage.
A study found that 60 per cent of asymptomatic male partners of infected females attending a fertility clinic were found to be infected with Chlamydia. Most STDs are easy to treat, so it pays for both partners to have an STD check. There is no point in only one partner going for a test, as the other partner can re-infect them.
Allow for 120 days before trying to conceive
There is a common misconception that egg and sperm quality cannot be improved. In fact, it is possible to improve the quality of your egg and sperm. However, it takes 120 days. This is because it takes approximately 120 days for eggs to mature and sperm to develop. During the generation and maturation of gamete cells (sperm and ovum) that form an embryo, everything that you and your partner ingest, inhale or are exposed to will influence the health of your eggs and sperm — for better or for worse — and the ultimate quality of the genetic building blocks you pass onto your child.
This is why it’s crucial to follow a good preconception plan for a minimum of four months before conception. A baby is a 50-50 product of his or her parents; therefore, optimising the quality of eggs and sperm is of paramount importance.
Sperm disorders contribute to 40 per cent of infertility cases. Women who suffer from recurrent miscarriages often have partners with low sperm count and visually abnormal sperm. Therefore, both partners should detox, follow a fertility diet, take preconception supplements and avoid reproductive toxins discussed in this article for a minimum of four months before conception.
Avoid coffee, smoking and alcohol
You may not want to hear this, but drinking coffee decreases fertility. A large study from Connecticut, United States of America, found as little as one cup of coffee per day increases the risk of not conceiving by 55 percent. And if you have two or three cups per day, that risk rises to 100 percent and continues to increase with an additional cup up to 176 percent.
And did you know that women who drank coffee before and during pregnancy had twice the risk of miscarriage?
Alcohol is harmful to women’s eggs and men’s sperm and as little as one glass can reduce fertility by 50 percent! This can further lead to damage of the developing embryo and may result in miscarriage. And although it’s been known for a long time that drinking while pregnant is a no-no, drinking before pregnancy has been largely ignored. This doesn’t stop with coffee and alcohol.
Smoking and recreational drugs can also reduce your odds of conception. A study tested the effects of cigarette smoking on semen quality in men and found that sperm motility (ability to propel forward) decreased in light smokers, while heavy smoking produced abnormal sperm shape.
Scientists have discovered that quitting smoking may increase sperm count in men who quit smoking for between five and15 months by 50 percent to 800 percent respectively.
Use good preconception/pregnancy supplement
Regardless of whether you are eating organic produce and a healthy diet, you are unlikely to be getting all the nutrients your body needs for optimal fertility from your diet. This is why supplementation is important.
Getting pregnant and growing a new human being with your own reserves require a surplus of nutrients and energy. In your body’s accounting terms, pregnancy is a luxury, a splurge of energy and nutrients. Some of the key nutrients for fertility are zinc, selenium, magnesium, calcium, B12, B6, Folic acid, Vitamin C, and Omega-3 fats.
IVF vs. root cause of infertility
Conventional IVF and other assisted reproductive technology treatments don’t address root causes of infertility. These root causes include nutritional deficiencies, toxin exposure, stress, food intolerances, allergies and immune deficiencies. These subtle but critical factors interact synergistically to impact the quality of your eggs and sperm, affecting your ability to conceive and the health of your embryo.
Financial cost of IVF
Recent media reports of grandparents funding their children’s IVF treatments in the hope of a grandchild illustrate the financial strain these treatments can pose to couples. While celebrities and wealthy couples can afford it, many struggle with treatments costing thousands of dollars ($5,000-$150,000 per live birth is typical).
IVF, the last option
IVF should be the last option after all natural treatment options have been exhausted. It should never be the first option. The rate of success of IVF is, on the average, 25 percent per single attempt. Studies show that by following a natural preconception programme prior to attempting IVF, the success rate increases to 47.1 percent per single attempt.
I always advise couples to undertake a preconception programme as a first step and reserve IVF as a final option. Most infertility can be treated without IVF. However, if IVF is needed, the success rate of each attempt is nearly doubled by combining it with a natural preconception programme.
Prof. Oladapo Ashiru is regarded as the first doctor to successfully conduct the In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) procedure in Nigeria on a couple and deliver a healthy baby. This has earned him many awards in the field of medicine. Ashiru, an Officer of the Federal Republic of Nigeria