The Fertility Detective: how does underlying health affect fertility and how can diet and lifestyle help?
Grace Dugdale, a reproductive biologist and award-winning writer with a background in molecular biology & genetics, is speaking at The Fertility Show (fertilityshow.co.uk), Olympia, November 4-5th November:
“There is a huge amount of evidence-based information to show that health and lifestyle factors can affect male and female fertility. The things that we do to our bodies in terms of what we eat, stress, exercise, medication, and exposure to environmental pollutants, as well as our underlying health, all affect the biological functioning of the key body systems involved in producing sperm and eggs, and achieving a healthy pregnancy. My main areas of interest include metabolic health; the microbiome or “good bacteria” in our gut and throughout our bodies; mitochondrial function – the energy producing “battery” of the cell; epigenetics – how lifestyle factors affect our genes; foetal programming – the way development is directed according to the conditions at the point of conception; and the optimisation of embryonic development through modifiable factors in both the father and mother. My research into biological function in sex and fertility has led to the development of an evidence-based fertility and preconception care programme for both men and women trying to conceive, which is currently running at The Leeds Centre for Reproductive Medicine.
“I strongly believe that people can take control of their own health through dietary and lifestyle factors that can impact reproductive success and the future health of the child. So, my focus is on diagnostic, personalised medicine to assess the many underlying health factors that can contribute to difficulties conceiving. Subfertility can be seen as a protective mechanism by the body to stop you getting pregnant when conditions aren’t right, and can be an opportunity to optimise health before trying for a baby. Many common health problems such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and depression have their origins in our mother’s womb, as a result of underlying biological dysfunction that can accompany infertility: systemic inflammation, impaired metabolism and a depleted microbiome being typical examples.
“The good news is that male and female fertility is responsive to changes in lifestyle and there are numerous positive things that people can do to address any underlying biological issues. Diet is key, and here are three golden rules to prepare for conception, a health pregnancy and the lifetime health of your child:
Dietary diversity; eat a wide range of different home-cooked foods to ensure you have a broad spectrum nutrient intake and to promote a healthy microbiome, which has a huge impact on our overall health. Most people tend to get into food “ruts” without realising, buying the same ingredients and eating a quite narrow range of meals week in, week out. For example, it’s easy to overload on wheat, if you’re eating cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner. This over-reliance on one type of food means you miss out on vital nutrients provided by fruit, vegetables, meat, beans, nuts, and so on.
Ditch the bad: cut down on sugar, refined carbohydrates, and ready-made supermarket meals. Cooking your own food is a vital step in adopting a healthy lifestyle, which is why I offer cookery classes to patients, not just dietary advice. Also, fast food and fizzy drinks (sugared and diet varieties) may be convenient and easy for today’s fast-paced life, but they provide empty calories, with limited or no nutritional value, and quickly lead to hunger, food cravings and, ultimately, nutrient deficiencies.
80/20 rule: it’s important that we enjoy what we eat, and have a good emotional relationship with food, so it doesn’t become a “religion” or unhealthy obsession. So, I recommend that 80% of a client’s diet is super-healthy, varied and nutritious, based around seasonal fruit and vegetables, good quality meat and fish, with 20% left for occasional home-made treats such as desserts - made from scratch, of course!