When conception and pregnancy don’t happen “naturally,” fertility treatment can involve drugs and even surgery. Some women, however, are finding that improved nutrition and fitness is the best medicine.
When Theresa, 37, and her husband moved to the Seattle area, she had been unable to conceive, even with in-vitro fertilization (IVF). She asked Dr. Angela Thyer, MD, at Seattle Reproductive Medicine what else she could try, and took her suggestion to enroll in Food For Fertility before attempting IVF again. Last year, Theresa (who withheld her last name to preserve privacy) gave birth to healthy twin girls.
“I’ve always been a big proponent of nutrition for women who are planning a pregnancy,” Thyer said. “We want healthy eggs and sperm, healthy embryos and healthy babies.”
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Three years ago, Thyer and registered dietitian Judy Simon, MS, RD, CD, of Mind Body Nutrition developed the 7-week Food For Fertility class for women with infertility who would benefit from losing weight and improving nutrition. Simon said that most women she sees for infertility have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or insulin resistance. Some are not eligible for assisted reproductive technologies (ART) due to severe obesity while others are simply trying to increase their odds of ART success.
Although body weight is not always a concern, Thyer said that some ART procedures are less likely to work in women who are severely obese, and that excess fat tissue may contribute to chronic inflammation, which can interfere with conception. She said she works with her patients to improve health instead of focusing on a number on a scale.
“I see a lot of results with women who take an active approach to lifestyle changes,” she said. “Diet and regular exercise can sometimes promote ovulation without medication. We know that some women are going to be able to conceive just with [Food For Fertility] alone.”
Dr. Jorge Chavarro, MD, assistant professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health and author of “The Fertility Diet,” has published extensive research on the link between nutrition and infertility.
“What we have been able to look at suggests that diet is quite important in fertility, but it will not help everyone,” he said. What it can do is help with ovulation and sperm production.
Chavarro said that monounsaturated fats, lower-glycemic carbohydrates, plant-based protein and iron and folic acid from supplements are all associated with a lower risk of infertility. Soda and partially hydrogenated oils (trans-fats) are associated with an increased risk.
Simon includes evidence-based nutrition information as well as a cooking segment and a group walk in each Food For Fertility class. “We focus on diet and lifestyle to promote weight loss, but in a very positive light,” Simon said. “They learn how fun movement can be. Many have gone on to become exercise partners and support for each other.”
The feedback has been positive. “They feel that they eating healthier, they’re more active, more mindful, and they’ve learned to deal with some of the stress in making lifestyle choices,” Simon said. “Many of these women have gone on to conceive and have healthy children and are supporting those who are still on that journey.”
Theresa said she believes that nutrition, fitness and emotional support made a difference. “Dr. Thyer took a very holistic approach, which was different and I appreciated it. I took the drugs and showed up to my (previous) clinic for a long time and nothing was happening. It was only after we added in all the other facets that we got things to work.”
The benefits of optimizing nutrition and health don’t end with conception, Thyer said. “People love coming back to me and telling me how well their pregnancy went, how they didn’t develop gestational diabetes and they carried full term with no problems. I like to look beyond the fertility and the baby to the next 10 to 20 years.”
Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD is a registered dietitian nutritionist at Northwest Natural Health in Ballard. Her blog is nutritionbycarrie.com and her website is carriedennett.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.orgDo you have a nutrition question? Send it to email@example.com and your question might be answered in a future column.