4 "Unisex" Reproductive Health Tips in the Kitchen
Last updated September 13, 2021
Male and female fertility is often discussed separately, but there are a lot of commonalities – perhaps not surprisingly, since men and women share 99.7% of the same genes. So, a lot of the tips that apply to one sex for reproductive health also apply to the other. Here are the 4 pieces of "unisex" advice that apply to both men and women, when it comes to flexing your kitchen for your reproductive health.
1. Go Mediterranean.
Researchers agree that eating patterns similar to the Mediterranean diet benefit both men and women on the reproductive health front.
For example, a study of 357 women found that women who followed the Mediterranean diet more closely had a higher chance of having a baby (44%) than those whose diet was less Mediterranean (31%). Another study reported a similar result, with the benefit of the Mediterranean diet more pronounced among women under 35 than those between 35 and 41 – among the younger age group, a 5-point increase in adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with a whopping 2.7-time increase in having a baby.
On the male side, the evidence is more mixed and sometimes incomplete, with studies using sperm quality parameters as study endpoints rather than pregnancies or live births – i.e., we don’t know if the observed superiority of sperm quality led to a successful pregnancy. However, multiple studies have found that men who eat closer to the Mediterranean way had better sperm parameters. This includes sperm motility (the sperm’s ability to move), sperm count, concentration and morphology (physical shape of the sperm).
Mediterranean diet is considered one of the healthiest eating patterns of the world, and doctors recommend this way of eating for various health benefits beyond fertility, including cardiovascular health. This is the diet that Rebecca Fett, the best-selling author of the book “It Starts with the Egg” recommends to people preparing for a healthy pregnancy (with a recipe book, too). Defining features of the Mediterranean diet include:
- Plant-based foods as the building block of meals. This includes fresh vegetables, whole grains and beans/legumes.
- Fish and seafood featuring heavily.
- Olive oil as the main cooking and dressing oil.
- Fresh fruits and yogurt taking the lead role in the dessert course.
2. Protect eggs and sperm with antioxidants.
Antioxidants are the micronutrients that help the body fend off damages from reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROSs can damage proteins, lipids and DNA of our cells, including our eggs and sperm, which are particularly vulnerable to oxidative stress during cell division. Antioxidants inhibit the chemical process that produces ROS, thus helping the body avoid cell damage.
Vitamins A, C and E are antioxidants, as are some minerals like zinc and selenium. CoQ10, or coenzyme Q10, also plays a role as an antioxidant. Aim to include foods rich in these antioxidant for reproductive health.
- Zinc: Zinc plays a crucial role in facilitating normal cell division. As such, zinc is an essential facilitator of male and female reproductive processes, including spermatogenesis, oocyte maturation and maintenance of healthy pregnancy. On the male side, zinc is found in semen in high concentrations, protecting the integrity of sperm DNA. Whole grains and dairy are good sources.
- Selenium: Normal levels of selenium among women have been found to be associated with lower risks of pregnancy complications, as well as the healthy development of the baby after birth. While the relationship between female reproductive health and selenium is still an emerging area of study, in animal studies, selenium has been suggested as an important regulator of granulosa cell growth – the cells that provide structural and nutritional support to the growing oocytes. On the male side, selenium is considered an essential element during spermatogenesis, with a normal level of selenium having been found to support sperm motility. Brazil nuts, by far, are the richest source of selenium, followed by seafood like tuna and halibut.
- CoQ10: For a while now, reproductive endocrinologists have been recommending CoQ10 to both men and women on the TTC journey, but especially to women over 35. As an antioxidant, CoQ10 protects eggs and sperm from ROSs, just like other antioxidants do. CoQ10 has another notable role in reproductive health: it drives mitochondria’s production of cellular energy, which eggs and sperm need to undergo cell division and develop normally. CoQ10’s reproductive health support is better understood in men – via sperm quality – than in women, but the mechanisms appear to be similar. Oily fish, such as salmon and tuna, organ meats and whole grains are good sources of CoQ10.
3. Seek out the good fats: Omega-3.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of fatty acids found in plant and fish oils. The three types are ALA (found in oils from nuts and seeds), EPA and DHA (both found in fatty ocean fish like sardines and mackerels). While Omega-3’s most studied benefit is in heart health, studies have also suggested a possible role of Omega-3 in reproductive health, as well as the cognitive and neurological health of the baby.
Several studies have found a correlation between low Omega-3 fatty acid intake and lower fertility rates among women, with one study showing an 8% increase in pregnancy and live birth rates for each percentage point increase in serum Omega-3 concentration. While the mechanism of action hasn’t been well understood, one study that found a reduction in FSH levels (the reproductive hormone that rises as women edge closer to menopause) after Omega-3 supplementation may provide a clue. An animal study has also shown that Omega-3 may prolong female reproductive lifespans.
On the male side, a healthy intake of Omega-3s has been associated with better sperm quality, including count, motility and morphology.
Scientists think that the association between the Mediterranean diet and better pregnancy outcomes may in part be due to the higher presence of Omega-3 in the Mediterranean diet, in the form of fatty fish like sardines. Aside from sardines, other foods with high amount of Omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
- Milk and dairy products enriched with Omega-3
4. Get enough Vitamin D.
Last but not least on this list, Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that supports human health from the systemic level. Its role in calcium homeostasis and bone health is well known – and particularly important for the development of the baby’s bone and protection of the mom’s during pregnancy – but many studies have also been conducted to understand its role in male and female reproductive health.
In men, a normal Vitamin D level has been found to support sperm quality and healthy androgen levels. In women, adequate Vitamin D levels have been found to reduce the risk of infertility and adverse pregnancy outcomes. A 2019 study of healthy women with no fertility issues also found a dose-dependent increase in pregnancy rates, with every 10 ng/mL increase in serum Vitamin D levels associated with 10% higher chances of pregnancy.
Some people can get enough Vitamin D from foods rich in Vitamin D and sun exposure, but in the United States, less than 1 in 4 of us, regardless of sex, have enough Vitamin D in our blood. If you fall into the other ¾ of the US population, you may need a high-concentration Vitamin D supplement to achieve a sufficient level of Vitamin D to support you on the journey and during pregnancy.
Bonus: Vitamin D webinar
Interested in learning more about Vitamin D? Register for the expert webinar on Vitamin D and reproductive health with Dr. Bruce Hollis. It'll air on Thursday, September 16 at 12:30 EDT. More info here, or sign up below.
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Reproductive health isn't just women's health or men's health - it's a combination of both. Incorporate the Mediterranean way of eating, antioxidants, Omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin D into your day-to-day, and reap the benefits for both you and your partner. Please reach out with questions - we are with you.
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