Life in the Modern World
The CDC estimates that nearly 17% of women ages 15-44 are either unable to get pregnant or are currently experiencing great difficulty. 1 This statistic does not take into account the number of men, who are the sole cause for infertility in 40% of all couples trying to conceive. 2
While there are still many babies being born, complications during pregnancy have become the new normal. Conception has not always presented such challenges. In 1800, the average number of children per U.S. household was seven! 3 Over the course of the next century, that number was cut in half as American moved from an agricultural to an industrial society.
Many of us likely have pictures of our grandparents or great grandparents who came from families with upwards of seven siblings. While childhood diseases were more common in those days, fertility was not an issue. The question is what's changed?
Modern times certainly offer many conveniences, but we have failed to notice that there is a downside. The majority of consumers give little thought to food preparation and sourcing these days. We buy a pre-made dinner at the grocery store and throw it in the oven...or the microwave. Alternatively, we stop off at a fast food place on our way home from work and pick up a ready-made meal for the entire family.
There has never been a time in human history when people have had to think so little about their food. Yet, the connection between diet and fertility is one that often escapes us.
Depleted Soils, Animals and People
The University of Texas did a study in the 1950's that found "reliable declines" in the vitamin and mineral content of 43 different vegetables and fruits. 4 That was in 1950. We are now 65 years into the future. Minerals and certain vitamins must be derived from the diet. The body cannot manufacture them. When they are lacking, we become susceptible to illness, chronic disease and degeneration.
In addition to growing food in devitalized soil and using pesticides which leave behind harmful residues, the processing of food itself has changed. A century ago, vegetable oils found in today's butter substitutes, salad dressings, crackers, cookies, chips, breads and tortillas were nowhere to be found. Americans primarily consumed natural fats derived from animals raised on a pasture. Such fats included butter, lard and beef tallow. The animals from which these fats were derived lived outdoors. They basked in sunlight and consumed natural grasses grown from mineral rich soils.
Today, the meat we buy at the store is produced from animals raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFO's. Animals are fed grain and corn diets so that they'll grow more quickly, which increases profitability. They're herded closely together, so antibiotics are administered to prevent the spread of disease. Chickens in such environments receive little to no sunlight. Why is sunlight important? It's how we make Vitamin D. It's how animals make Vitamin D too. Chickens raised on a pasture produce eggs that contain 3-6 times the amount of Vitamin D as chickens raised indoors. 5 Plus, foraging enables chickens to convert nature's menu into food that's both flavorful and nutritious for us!
Substitutes that aren't
The vegetable oils we have substituted for natural fats are also depleted in nutrients. Even worse, they're adulterated during processing. In order to extract the oil from the seed, high pressure or a commercial solvent like hexane is necessary. The resulting offensive odor and unappetizing gray color are subsequently addressed through a deodorizing process and the addition of a yellow dye. It now looks like butter, but that's where the comparisons end.
Altering the structure of fats in this way leads to the creation of Free Radicals. Oils are protected while they're still inside the seed. Once they are exposed to high heat and oxygen, however, they become oxidized. This results in a loss of electrons and the creation of Free Radicals. We've all heard of Antioxidants, which combat damage caused by Free Radicals. Antioxidants are found in natural fats such as beef and dairy. Specifically, they are the fat soluble vitamins of A, D, E and K. These nutrients are not present in vegetable and seed oils processed with high heat and chemicals. On the contrary, processed oils now contain many damaged molecules along with Free Radicals.
How does all of this impact fertility? Dr. Bernard Jensen and Mark Anderson write in the book Empty Harvest, "The removal of electrons damages the protein of the body and genes. The worst damage is to cells that reproduce most rapidly—the cells of the ovaries, testes, bone marrow, bowel and skin." 6
Sugar, disrupter of hormones
Further adding to the body's stress is the large amount of refined sugar found in processed foods. Consumption of sugar leads to dramatic spikes in the hormone insulin. Over time, cells become increasingly desensitized to insulin and develop what is known as "insulin resistance."
This condition causes the body to release greater quantities of insulin to achieve the desired effect. As levels of insulin and glucose begin to fluctuate, the body's regulatory mechanisms swing wildly between high and low sugar states. The adrenal glands are increasingly called upon to release the hormone cortisol to restore homeostasis. Cortisol is created from cholesterol, the same substance from which sex hormones are made. Cortisol production takes priority over the creation of sex hormones because blood sugar balance is far more important to the body than reproduction.
Fluctuating hormone levels can disrupt the proper balance of estrogen, which is essential for conception. Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome or PCOS commonly develops in women who suffer from hyperinsulinemia. The PCOS Foundation estimates that 70% of ovulation related infertility problems are linked to PCOS. 7 If a woman does conceive, it is 50% likely that her daughter will develop PCOS as well. 8 PCOS is characterized by numerous small cysts that develop on the ovaries. PCOS can affect menstruation, hormone production, fertility and is even linked to heart disease and diabetes. 9 It is a growing threat to a woman's health today and early diagnosis is crucial to preventing long term symptoms and problems.
Often overlooked in the regulation of hormones is the role played by minerals. In her book, The Magnesium Miracle, Dr. Carolyn Dean cites a study that explores the relationship between PCOS and low blood serum levels of magnesium. 10 She mentions the connection between magnesium and Insulin Resistance saying, "Without magnesium, insulin is not properly secreted from the pancreas, and what does get into the bloodstream doesn't work correctly. At the cell level, magnesium is required to open pathways into the cell for the entrance of blood sugar. If magnesium is in short supply, sugar stays in the bloodstream." 11
Diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity and PCOS are the result of Western diets high in sugar and refined carbohydrates. The resulting hormonal fluctuations affect the body's ability to conceive and carry a child to term. The body simply does not have the endocrine balance necessary for a woman's reproductive system to operate as designed.
Fat was framed
Further driving hormonal dysregulation and contributing to infertility is the decline of healthy fats and fat soluble vitamins in the Western diet. Government and conventional medical entities have preached against the consumption of saturated fats for over 50 years. As a result, Americans have consumed less eggs, full-fat milk, butter and red meat out of fear over a suggested link between saturated fat and heart disease.
After decades of such rhetoric, last year's June 15th issue of Time Magazine featured the front cover headline, "Scientists labeled fat the enemy: Why they were wrong." The article went on to outline how a single researcher misled the government and the American public into thinking saturated fat was the cause of heart disease. In fact, he was not only wrong, but his recommendations doubled down on the true cause of heart disease and furthered its frequency among Western populations.
Heart disease is not caused by the consumption of saturated fats or cholesterol. For more information, read my blog on The War on Fat.
Saturated fats and cholesterol rich foods are actually important for the production of steroid based hormones, including estrogen. Foods high in saturated fat are also high in fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. These vitamins are critical for fertility as Weston A. Price Foundation's founder Sally Fallon Morrell stated in a recent online interview. 12
What's more, saturated fats serve to satiate the body and make you feel full after a meal. Fats do not cause spikes in insulin levels as refined carbohydrates and sugars do. They therefore will not create hormonal imbalances related to blood sugar, cortisol or the creation of sex hormones. As a side benefit, fats don't make you fat. Insulin is the hormone that results in sugar being converted to and stored as fat. Insulin is only released when you consume sugar and not fat itself.
Did we see this coming?
Nearly a century ago, a physician researcher named Dr. Francis Pottenger arguably began the most intriguing study on fertility that's ever been done. Pottenger was searching for a cure for adrenal gland insufficiency and was using cats to help him standardize an extract. They were initially fed a diet of cooked meat, raw milk and cod liver oil. Pottenger found the animals to be of good health although many of them didn't survive the surgery needed to standardize the extract.
As his experiments continued, Pottenger acquired an overabundance of cats. There were so many, his supply of cooked meat ran low and he had to switch to raw meat scraps from a nearby meat packing plant. Before long, Pottenger noted a dramatic improvement in the cats who consumed the raw meat and their ability to survive the surgery. He was so impressed, he began a new experiment that varied the diets of cats to ascertain what effect cooking food had on its nutrient availability.
To summarize the results, the cats who were fed a diet of raw meat, unpasteurized milk and cod liver oil presented the best appearance, health and reproductive capabilities. The cats fed cooked meat, pasteurized or condensed milk and cod liver oil were of inferior health and completely infertile after the third generation. To see a video synopsis on Pottenger's cats.
While there are limits to Pottenger's study when applied to people, we should take away the importance of ensuring that there are some raw foods in our diets. Uncooked foods contain many nutrients and enzymes that are best consumed without cooking. The back cover of Dr. Edward Howell's Enzyme Nutrition reads, "Enzymes make the digestion of food possible…our normal ability to produce enzymes internally promotes rapid growth, and in most cases prevents serious illness. But as we age, our internal enzymes become depleted." 13
Enzymes assist with countless chemical and biological processes in the body. When we're young, the presence of enzymes grants us vitality and health. As we age, we need to gain such nutrients from food sources to ensure that our bodies can maintain themselves and avoid nutritional decline and degeneration.
Nutrition plays a critical role in maintaining all of the body's processes and abilities including fertility. The foods currently consumed by the majority of Americans no longer contain the vital nutrients necessary for reproduction and healthy offspring. What's more, they lead to degenerative diseases, hormonal imbalance and overall impaired health. Switching to a nutrient dense diet of whole foods can help reverse the damage and ideally lead to improved health and fertility.
Nutritional Recommendations for Conception
First, consider venturing beyond your normal grocery store to purchase staple foods such as meats, eggs, dairy and vegetables. Grocery stores cannot match the nutrient dense quality of foods sold directly to you from the farmer or rancher. Visit our resource page for the best local sources for nutrient dense foods.
Re-acquaint yourself with the kitchen and spend more time cooking foods from scratch. Avoid using the microwave and already prepared meals. Invite the entire family to help with the preparation of food. It's what life used to be like in our country once upon a time.
Increase your consumption of Saturated Fats, particularly eggs, whole milk and butter. Full fat dairy based foods are an excellent source of fat soluble vitamins necessary for conception. Ensure the sources for such foods are organic and raised outdoors on a pasture. The label should say "pastured" and not just "cage free." The nutrient quality of such foods will be far superior than those from animals raised in CAFO's. Raw milk (or at least low temperature pasteurized) is preferred. In addition, consider cooking your eggs over easy/medium and leaving the yolks runny. Visit our resource page for the best local sources for nutrient dense foods.
Eat red meat. Grass-fed red meat is high in Vitamin B12, zinc and iron, all of which are important for fertility and fetal development. 14
Add a Cod Liver Oil Supplement to your morning regimen. Cod Liver Oil contains the correct ratio of Vitamin A/Vitamin D. A good source of Cod Liver Oil can be found at Radiant Life .
Increase your consumption of properly prepared seeds and nuts in their whole form. Sunflower seeds and almonds are particularly high in Vitamin E. Tocopherols, one of the primary components of Vitamin E, are a combination of two Greek words which literally translate as "the bearing of children." Seeds and nuts should be soaked overnight and dehydrated before consumption to improve nutrient bioavailability.
Decrease your consumption of refined sugars and carbohydrates such as breakfast cereals, cookies, chips, pasta, breads and sweets.
Decrease your consumption of processed oils such as vegetable, canola, corn, and cotton seed. Such oils are commonly found in foods high in refined sugars (breakfast cereals, chips, cookies and sweets), but they're also prevalent at fast food restaurants in the form of fried chicken and French fries. To avoid such oils altogether, you should substitute your store bought salad dressings with homemade dressings made from olive oil. For ideas, visit Wellness Mama. A very simple dressing can be made from just olive oil, Apple Cider Vinegar and Dijon mustard.
Begin a weekly exercise routine. Exercise improves the body's ability to utilize insulin and can help to lessen symptoms of Insulin Resistance.
Increase your consumption of foods which strengthen the liver. The liver plays an important role in maintaining the proper balance of hormones. Garlic, beets, leafy greens and green tea are all beneficial. For a more complete list, visit the Huffingpost article on Food for the Liver. Foods high in B vitamins, such as organ meats, wheat germ oil or Brewer's Yeast also aid in improved liver function. Folate, or B9, is universally recognized as necessary to prevent certain birth defects.
Magnesium supports both proper liver function and blood sugar regulation. Epsom Salt baths are a great way to absorb Magnesium transdermally or through the skin. Soak in a warm bath with 1-2 C of Epsom Salts several times a week for 20 minutes. Most supermarkets and Big Box stores carry Dr. Teal's magnesium sulfate.
Men should eat foods which contain an ample supply of zinc such as oysters, ginger root, lamb chops and pecans. Supplementing with CoQ10 is also recommended—as are foods high in B12.
It's important to remember that once you begin making transitions in your diet that you don't try to conceive immediately. Give your body 4-6 months of consuming healthy foods before trying to get pregnant.
Also, half of a child's genetic material comes from the father! The man's diet is every bit as important as the woman's when it comes to making a baby. Both prospective parents should be eating healthy prior to conception to ensure the proper development and growth of the child.
This article covers many important dietary considerations that one should consider prior to conception. Infertility can have a host of additional causes, which are broader than what can be covered in a single publication. For specialized help with dietary choices and fertility related nutritional support, consider a one-on-one consultation. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
6 Jensen, Bernard & Mark Anderson, Empty Harvest, 1990, p. 16
10 Dean, Carolyn, M.D., N.D., The Magesium Miracle, 2007, p. 139.
11 Ibid, p. 126
13 Howell, Edward. Enzyme Nutrition, 1985.