In recent years, there has been more and more research coming to light which has identified certain time periods both before conception and during pregnancy where the genes of the growing foetus are influenced by exposure to environmental factors. Studies have suggested that there may be an association between these influences and adverse outcomes in childhood, all the way up to adulthood. These adverse outcomes include increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and allergies, amongst many other health conditions. Therefore, the time period just before conception and the 1000days thereafter is such an important opportunity for parent-to-be, parents and healthcare professionals to intervene with the aim to optimise future health. How can we optimise this future health? Through Nutrition!
Nutrition optimisation isn’t just important for you baby’s health, but can also significantly impact a couple’s chance of conceiving. It is estimated that infertility impacts between 8-12 percent of reproductive couples worldwide, with approximately 30 percent being attributed to male complications, 30% attributed to female complications, 30% attributed to both male and female complications and 10% to unknown complications.
So, how do we define infertility? From a medial perspective, infertility is defined as being unable to conceive a child after having unprotected sex for at least 12 months. Even if you have had a child in the past, you can still have ‘secondary infertility, which is much more common than previously thought. As science has advanced, we now have a wealth of knowledge of the primary causes of infertility. However, this subject does remain very complicated and I’m sure we will find out even more in coming years! In general, one or more of the following factors are the leading causes of infertility:
1) Sperm/egg production.
2) Problems with the structure or the function of the female/male reproductive systems.
3) An imbalance in hormones.
4) Issues with a person’s immune system.
5) Thyroid disorders.
6) Weight (too low or too high).
With all the statistics out there showing us how difficult conceiving can be for some couples, it is really important to try and optimise your chance of conceiving from every angle- this is where nutrition and seeking help from a registered dietitian who specialises in fertility can really help. Generally speaking, there are four stages in a couple’s journey to conceive where a dietitian can offer support and make a significant difference to conception outcomes:
If you are thinking of conceiving, even if you don’t have fertility problems, optimising your diet can help shape your baby’s future through the power of genetic programming. As touched upon above, a person’s genetic profile is determined from a month before a woman is pregnant up to a child’s second birthday. These genes will have the capacity to impact the development of the brain, the immune system and overall health. Ensuring your nutrition is optimised during this period will set up your baby for optimal health.
If you have a medical condition such as diabetes, coeliac diseases, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or endometriosis, these can significantly affect your ability to reproduce. Having a dietitian to fine-comb your diet and improve it can make all the difference between conceiving or not, whilst also optimising your baby’s health. For example, it may be that we are working to optimise your blood sugar control if you have diabetes, or reduce inflammation if you have PCOS.
If you require assisted reproduction therapies to help you conceive, diet optimisation can help improve the success of these therapies. They may involve ovulation induction injections, medications or genetic testing. A dietitian specialising in fertility will understand the hormones which impact ovulation and how dietary modifications can have an effect on these hormones.
For women who are undergoing IVF, a dietitian’s goal is to strengthen your outcomes. This is where I would utilise my knowledge on existing research on foods and supplements that strengthen IVF outcomes, the nutrients that impact egg health and how to optimise embryo implantation.
Everyone is different, which is why it’s so important that you receive tailored advice just for you. There is no one-size-fits-all approach and that’s where a dietitian can play such an important role in analysing your diet in detail, making recommendations individualised to you and ultimately, increasing your chance of a successful pregnancy and optimise the health if your future child.