The dairy seesaw
How dairy may lower or increase your risk for infertility and miscarriage
Dairy is a good source of calcium, protein, vitamin D and phosphorus, which is why pregnant women are often advised to include dairy in their diet. After all, these nutrients are essential for a baby’s developing bones, teeth, muscles, heart and nerves. However, some studies have shown that some dairy products can be good for you, while others can be bad. So before you reach for that glass of milk or bowl of ice cream, let’s weigh the pros and cons of dairy.
According to an eight-year Harvard study involving around 18,000 women, the moderate consumption of high-fat dairy products like ice cream, whole milk, yogurt and cheese is considered fertility and pregnancy friendly. This is because whole milk contains a complete protein that is important for egg quality. Their findings showed that dairy could reduce the risk of anovulatory infertility by more than 50%. and lower the risk of miscarriage by 33%.
Meanwhile, another study by the Laboratory of Experimental Endocrinology, University of Crete, School of Medicine, Heraklion, Greece, has found that dairy may reduce the body’s unwanted immune response, which secretes antibodies that affect the fetus and can cause recurrent miscarriages.
While the moderate intake of dairy is beneficial, the high consumption of milk has been linked to a decrease in fertility. This is because excess protein intake (more than 120 grams a day) can cause embryo implantation problems. In addition, women with dairy intolerance and allergies are more likely to miscarry.
However, many people are unaware that they are lactose intolerant. According to the Physicians Committee of Responsible Medicine, 75% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant. A study published by the European Journal of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Biology (2001) also found that eating butter and oil can double a woman’s risk for miscarriage.
What about low fat dairy?
It is known that full-fat dairy foods contain the female hormones estrogen and progesterone. But when fat is skimmed from the milk, the process removes these hormones and leaves behind male hormones or androgens, which impairs ovulation. The same Harvard study mentioned above found that low fat dairy can increase the risk of ovulatory infertility by 85%.
Milk and hormones
While we’re on the subject of hormones, it is important to note that because animal milk contains hormones, high intake of dairy may disrupt your own hormonal balance. Some of the fertility issues that can be associated with hormone imbalance are PCOS, Endometriosis and male infertility.
A study conducted by researchers from the Cancer Epidemiology Centre, The Cancer Council Victoria, Melbourne, Australia has found that women who eat high amounts of dairy can have 15% higher estrogen levels, which may influence circulating concentrations of estradiol. Estradiol is a form of estrogen that while is necessary for many processes in the body can also cause harm to pregnancy and unborn babies.
Milk and inflammation
In traditional Chinese medicine, dairy is believed to be ‘damp’ and cause inflammation, which hampers fertility and causes problems in getting pregnant. However, in Western medicine, several studies have been found that dairy can help reduce inflammation.
For example, researchers from the Department of Nutrition and Biochemistry, School of Public Health, Tehran University of Medical Sciences, Iran discovered that probiotic yogurt can lower one marker of inflammation by 29%.
A similar study by the Department of Nutrition Science-Dietetics, Harokopio University, Athens, Greece also identified an inverse association between dairy products consumption and levels of various inflammatory markers among healthy adults. They found that dairy lowers inflammatory markers by as much as 16%.
These findings are supported by another study by the Department of Nutrition, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, USA, which found that calcium and dairy consumption can reduce tissue oxidative and inflammatory stress.
From the findings above, we can conclude that the moderate consumption of whole dairy products is beneficial to fertility and pregnancy. However, if you’re feeling uncertain, don’t take the drastic step of cutting dairy out of your diet completely. Instead, speak to your fertility consultant about how much dairy you should be consuming.
Fight Oxidative Stress
The effects of alcohol, smoking and pollutants on women’s fertility
We all know that the excessive intake of alcohol, smoking and environmental pollutants are bad for our health, but can they negatively impact a woman’s chances of getting pregnant? The answer is a resounding (and unsurprising) yes! Here’s why – Firstly, as toxicants, they cause our bodies to produce Reactive Oxygen Species or ROS, which are highly-reactive ions and molecules that contain oxygen. ROS are a lot like free radicals, and they are both known to wreak havoc in our bodies by damaging proteins and impairing their function.
Usually, our bodies are able to neutralise the harmful effects of ROS and free radicals with antioxidants. However, when an imbalance in the production of ROS and free radicals occurs, our bodies are unable to cope. As a result, our bodies undergo what’s called – oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a physiological condition that’s linked to a variety of health issues, including neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease; cancer; heart problems; blood vessel, gut and vision disorders; lung conditions; chronic fatigue syndrome; kidney, autoimmune, arthritis and inflammatory disease; diabetes; pancreatitis and more.
There is also mounting evidence on the negative effects of oxidative stress on male subfertility, including decreased sperm motility and numbers. And now, findings indicate that oxidative stress can increase the risk for female infertility, as well as delaying pregnancies and lowering pregnancy rates. It can even lead to pregnancy complications like preeclampsia and even miscarriage.
While the field is currently understudied and there is so much more to discover, there is no denying that it is crucial for us to gain a better understanding of how to combat oxidative stress. “If we can identify factors that can be modified to decrease oxidative stress in women, it may be an inexpensive and non-invasive treatment for infertility,” states a study called The Impact of oxidative stress on female fertility by Elizabeth H. Ruder, Terryl J. Hartman, and Marlene B. Goldmanc.
But does this mean we have to play the waiting game for more research to be conducted on the subject? While it may be a few years time before scientists can identify the factors that can be modified to fight oxidative stress, there are steps you can take right now.
We know that oxidation occurs when we’re exposed to toxins, chemicals and stress. Therefore, it would be highly beneficial for you to minimise your exposure to triggers that are present in your lifestyle, foods and environment. Numerous studies have also shown the benefits of a healthy and varied diet, which is supplemented with multivitamins and antioxidants.
In addition, you can maintain your reproductive health by limiting caffeine and alcohol intake, quitting cigarettes, getting adequate exercise, learning ways to manage daily stress and maintaining a healthy body weight. By taking these steps and making crucial lifestyle changes, you can significantly enhance your fertility and boost your chances of conception. Not sure where to begin? Don’t hesitate to speak to a healthcare professional to get on the right track.
The importance of micro-nutrients to conception
The adage goes, “You are what you eat,” and the same is true for fertility. But when you’re trying to conceive, you want to rely on much more than just an old saying. Statistics show that around 11% to 20% of couples experience subfertility. Of this, 10% can be classified as unexplained infertility, while 60% are classified as anovulatory subfertility. In my experience, couples today also find their infertility issues compounded by their hectic lifestyles.
Factors such as stress; unhealthy body weight; excessive smoking, alcohol and caffeine intake; exposure to toxins, as well as recreational drug use, can all play a role in affecting fertility. But even those who maintain a healthy weight, manage their stress and abstain from unhealthy habits may neglect a very important factor – nutrition. Fortunately, there is now hard evidence in the form of scientific proof that shows you can indeed improve your fertility by eating right, particularly by including micro-nutrients in your daily diet.
While macro-nutrients, like protein, unsaturated fats and carbohydrates can be easily obtained from the foods that you eat, micro-nutrients like vitamins, minerals and trace elements are often left out due to an unbalanced and unhealthy diet. Realising that micro-nutrient deficiencies are not uncommon in women of reproductive age, Dr Rina Agrawal, a consultant and associate professor in reproductive medicine and obstetrics/gynaecology at the University Hospital at Warwick University, conducted a study on the role of micro-nutrients in improving pregnancy rates.
The study, which involved 58 suitable candidates consisting of subfertile women with an average age of 32.3 years (range 19–40), investigated whether subfertile women undergoing ovulation induction using standard treatment regimens have higher pregnancy rates when given multiple micro-nutrient (MMN) nutritional supplements, as compared with folic acid alone. The findings of the pilot study unveiled that the women on MMN supplementation had a higher pregnancy rate of 66.7%, as compared with 39.3% for those on just folic acid.
This therefore suggests that additional MMN supplementations, such as vitamins B6, B12, folates, vitamin E, multivitamins, iron, zinc, copper and selenium, does improve female fertility. In addition to finding that the women on MMN supplementation had a higher chance of pregnancy compared to their peers, the women on MMN supplementation also required significantly fewer attempts to become pregnant, as compared with women on folic acid. But there are also other benefits to taking MMN supplements, including reduced reproductive risks ranging from infertility to miscarriage, and fetal structural defects to improved embryogenesis or placentation.
You may need only small amounts of micro-nutrients, but they are no doubt essential. Each vitamin and mineral plays a specific role in ensuring that your bodily systems function in top form, and needless to say they are vital to your overall wellbeing. In order to get more micro-nutrients from your daily diet, you should eat a wide variety of foods from the different food groups. It is also best to avoid eating fast foods and processed foods that are of low nutritional quality. Instead, opt for fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, lean meats, fish and low-fat dairy products.
Stay tuned to find out more about foods that can boost fertility.