Planning a family, or already expecting? What the experts recommend
COUPLES planning to start a family often go to great lengths to ensure their home is in good order — but they should be concentrating on getting their body in order first, say experts.
A growing wealth of scientific evidence suggests that having the right balance of vitamins and minerals not only boosts the likelihood of a successful pregnancy, but can even affect the lifelong health of the child, says Grace Dugdale, a reproductive biologist and co-author of The Fertility Book, along with the former chair of the British Fertility Society, Professor Adam Balen.
‘It’s incredibly important to be taking on the right nutrients,’ she says. ‘It can make a huge difference to your fertility,’ — and your child’s future health.
Indeed, a Dutch study, published in the journal Human reproduction in 2012, showed that when men and women undergoing IVF treatment were told to eat recommended daily amounts of fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and wholewheat products, it led to an impressive 65 per cent increase in their chances of a successful pregnancy.
‘Yet studies have also highlighted the fact that many women enter pregnancy with low levels of key nutrients,’ adds Grace Dugdale.
For many struggling to conceive, it can be difficult to obtain all the nutrients needed from their diet, and taking key supplements may be an important backup to healthy eating.
research by the university of Surrey, which looked at couples with a history of infertility, found that making changes to their lifestyles and taking nutritional supplements led to an 80 per cent conception success rate. This is important also for those planning to try to conceive in the near future.
Grace Dugdale warns that women who have had low nutrient intake for many years — perhaps because of restricted eating habits — will usually need to take supplements in the short term to get their bodies ready for conception.
‘ You should start planning about a year before trying to conceive,’ she says. ‘ The immature follicles that contain eggs at the earliest stage of development take about nine months to reach maturity. You should try to create a healthy environment during that development period.’
So what are key supplements for couples wanting to start a family
— and for pregnant women?
WOMEN who are pregnant or trying to conceive are advised to take 400mcg of folic acid a day — or up to 500mcg if they have a body mass index (BMI) over 30. Grace Dugdale adds: ‘Folic acid supplements are also associated with reduced levels of infertility and miscarriage, and improved chances of conceiving with IVF.’
STUDIES have also found that women deficient in the so-called ‘sunshine vitamin’ can struggle to conceive.
A 2017 study in the journal Fertility And Sterility, involving 132 women, found those who got the recommended daily amount of 10mcg of vitamin D were more than twice as likely to have a successful pregnancy than those whose intake was below this.
GRACE DUGDALE and Professor Balen point out that anyone taking vitamin D supplements should also be taking vitamin K.
This is because the body needs vitamin D to help it properly absorb calcium, but also vitamin K to ensure the calcium is absorbed by the bones (rather than soft tissues, such as blood vessels, where it can do harm by narrowing arteries).
‘You get vitamin K from foods such as butter, egg yolks and cheese,’ they advise in their book. ‘So vegetarians and those on low-fat diets may be at risk of deficiency of it.’
IODINE, a mineral found in foods such as canned tuna, dairy products, eggs and chicken, is needed to make thyroid hormones that control metabolism and other key functions. During pregnancy, these hormones also contribute to the baby’s bone and brain development. But testing for iodine levels is not routinely available on the nHS.
‘The standard advice is to take 150mcg daily for at least three months prior to conception,’ say Grace Dugdale and Professor Balen. ‘During pregnancy, this rises to 200mcg daily.’
FOUND in foods such as meat, shellfish, cheese and bread, zinc is essential for helping the body to make healthy new cells, process carbohydrates, fat and protein from foods and promote wound healing.
The World Health organisation estimates that nearly one in five people across the world is deficient in the mineral.
And a 2018 study from Pennsylvania State university in the u.S., presented at the experimental Biology conference in San Diego, california, revealed zinc deficiency could be a major factor behind female infertility.
experts studied egg cells from mice and found those deprived of zinc during the crucial development stage produced smaller eggs and impaired their ability to divide — a necessary step before fertilisation by sperm can occur.
researchers said those who might benefit from zinc supplements included women who are vegetarian and vegan, or who do not get enough zinc in their diet.
. . . AND WHAT ABOUT MEN?
SOME studies support the potential benefits of certain supplements to improve semen quality. However, research results are mixed and there is currently ‘insufficient evidence’ to make specific recommendations for what men should possibly take.
Grace Dugdale says: ‘It’s much better to start with diet and lifestyle — rather than take excessive amounts of supplements that may not be needed.’