We all know that what we put into our bodies affects our health in many ways. So if you are trying to conceive, it makes sense that you might be wondering how diet affects fertility. Evidence shows that diet can affect every aspect of trying to get pregnant, from ovulation to egg quality to embryo implantation. In fact, research shows that nutrition and ovulation are especially closely related.
Let’s talk about ovulation first. What is it?
Ovulation is when an egg is released from a mature follicle in the ovary. The egg lives for around 12 to 24 hours after ovulation. If it’s fertilized, it travels down the fallopian tubes towards the uterus. If it implants in the lining of the uterus, this is the beginning of a pregnancy. If implantation doesn’t occur, the lining of the uterus sheds, beginning a new menstrual cycle.
Ovulation is the reason we have menstrual cycles, and unless you’re doing IVF you can’t get pregnant without ovulating. But anovulation (not ovulating) is actually surprisingly common. One study found that as many as one in three normal length cycles are actually anovulatory!
Research shows that disorders of ovulation account for about 30% of infertility cases and often present with irregular periods (oligomenorrhoea) or an absence of periods (amenorrhoea).
Lifestyle and Ovulation: What’s The Connection?
Our menstrual cycles, including if and when we ovulate, are controlled by our reproductive hormones. The four main hormones involved are follicle-stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, estrogen, and progesterone. These hormones are delicately balanced, and if something throws off one of them, it can disrupt the rest. This can then prevent or delay ovulation.
These hormones are closely related to the other systems in our bodies, too. Since sleep, exercise, stress and diet all alter our hormones, they can have a big impact on our ability to ovulate. In fact, about half of all ovulatory infertility cases can be attributed to diet and lifestyle!
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So how can you eat to support ovulation?
Following a generally healthy diet is a great start. Then, you can focus on the three pillars of optimizing ovulation: blood sugar balance, reducing inflammation, and gut health.
1. Balance Your Blood Sugar
What we eat affects our blood sugar, and blood sugar balance is important to ensure that ovulation occurs. Insulin, one of the main hormones that control our blood sugar levels, works very closely with our reproductive hormones. So when our diet throws off our blood sugar balance and insulin levels, this, in turn, throws off our reproductive hormones. That’s why research shows that having high blood sugar levels (even if you don’t have diabetes or prediabetes) makes it more difficult to conceive.
To eat to support blood sugar balance, make sure you are pairing all of your carbohydrates with fat, protein, and plenty of fiber.
2. Reduce Inflammation
Acute inflammation is a normal and healthy process. It’s involved in healing, immunity, and even conception! But chronic (long-term) low-grade inflammation is related to disease and you guessed it, infertility. Studies show increased signs of inflammation in those with polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, and unexplained infertility. Inflammation not only throws off the balance of our hormones, but it also appears to affect egg quality and interfere with embryo implantation, too.
To lower inflammation, reduce your intake of ultra-processed food (like sweetened breakfast cereal and white bread), and increase your intake of nuts, berries, and extra virgin olive oil.
3. Take Care Of Your Gut Health
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More and more research is coming out showing how our gut health affects other aspects of our health, from our mood to immunity. It seems gut health is also really important for fertility and ovulation. Why? The bacteria in our gut influence our hormones. For example, our gut is where estrogen is recycled and detoxed. If our gut microbiome isn’t healthy and happy, this can throw estrogen levels off (and remember, if one hormone is thrown off this can affect the others as well, and in turn, ovulation.)
To optimize your gut health, be sure to include a wide variety of plant-based foods in your diet, aiming for at least 30 different plants each week. This might seem like a lot, but this includes veggies, fruit, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, as well as herbs and spices.
Which Foods Affect Ovulation Exactly?
In some way, everything we eat affects ovulation! Evidence shows that the amount of energy (calories) we consume as well the macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fats) we eat all directly impact our body’s ability to ovulate. Fiber also has an impact. Research even shows that certain vitamins and minerals, such as folate and iron, seem to play an important role.
While it won’t guarantee you will get pregnant, making dietary changes to support healthy ovulation can not only decrease the time it takes to conceive but has also been shown to reduce the chances of miscarriage and pregnancy complications, like gestational diabetes. You don't need to follow a strict diet or cut out major food groups, but rather, you can make small tweaks to balance blood sugar, reduce inflammation, and optimize gut health while still eating the food you love!
Amara Lindenmayer is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Credentialed Diabetes Educator, and expert in fertility nutrition. She founded Foodbaby after her own struggles to start a family and now helps women regain control of their fertility by making small changes to their diet and lifestyle. For lots of fertility nutrition and lifestyle tips, follow the Foodbaby Instagram.