It should be no secret that good fertility and good nutrition are inextricably linked. If you are planning a pregnancy, you want your body to be in the best possible condition.
Good nutrition will a) increase the likelihood of conceiving and b) give your baby all the goodness it needs to develop throughout a healthy pregnancy.
But getting your nutrition right for pregnancy is not just a matter of eating the right things. In fact, when we swallow food and it ends up in our stomach, that is only half the job done. Just as important is how well we digest our food to extract the nutrients we need, and then how well we assimilate those nutrients into our bodies to use them.
Getting your nutrition right to increase your chances of conceiving, and subsequently having a healthy pregnancy, depends just as much on paying attention to your gut health as it does on watching your diet.
In truth, our lifestyles and the way we eat can have just as negative an impact on our nutrition as what we eat. There is no better time to put all of these things right than when you are planning a pregnancy.
Signs your gut health needs attention
Digestion is a complex process involving no fewer than nine different organs plus a host of glands that produce enzyme-rich digestive fluids and hormones that regulate the whole process. There’s a lot to go wrong and keeping everything in perfect sync is not straightforward.
While everyone experiences ups and downs in their digestive health, the following symptoms are signs you should take further action:
- Irregular bowel movements over a prolonged period (once per day is the norm for most people)
- Hard or runny stools
- Bloating and discomfort
As a rule of thumb, feeling sick or any kind of pain or discomfort in your digestive tract, especially after you eat, needs to be investigated further.
How digestive health affects fertility
Poor digestive health can contribute to a wide number of conditions known to reduce fertility and the chances of a healthy pregnancy. These include:
- Oestrogen dominance: Your digestive system plays a key role in breaking down excess oestrogen. Poor gut health affects the efficiency of this process, leading to high oestrogen levels. Oestrogen dominance has far-reaching implications for female reproductive health and general well-being.
- Under-active thyroid: Poor assimilation of certain nutrients, especially iodine, can impact the function of your thyroid gland, which lowers your metabolism and has negative consequences for your entire body. One of the known effects of an under-active thyroid is difficulties conceiving.
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): While not fully understood, the causes of IBS have been linked to imbalances in the gut microbiome as well as to lifestyle factors such as stress. IBS has been linked to fertility issues in both women and men.
- Autoimmune disorders: Another theory about IBS is that it is a type of autoimmune disorder, where your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body, not just potentially threatening foreign bodies. Other examples of autoimmune disorders include lupus, MS and type 1 diabetes. Your gut plays a central role in your body’s immune system defences, with 70% of all your body’s immune cells found in your digestive system. Autoimmune diseases can wreak havoc throughout your body, causing inflammation in your reproductive organs or even attacking ova and sperm cells directly.
How to improve digestive health for better fertility
Here are some tips on how to improve your digestive health:
Take care of your gut microbiome
The bacteria, fungi and viruses that live in your gut play an essential role in digestive health – it’s astonishing to think, but the average adult carries around three pounds of bacteria around in their gut at any one time! It really is the classic example of a symbiotic relationship – you look after your gut flora, and they will look after you.
So yes to probiotics, yes to fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha and sauerkraut that are known to benefit the ‘good’ microbes in your gut. But in reality, it’s even simpler than that. The good flora in your gut thrive on all the kinds of foods we associate with a healthy diet – plenty of fruit, veg, wholefoods etc. Overload on junk – lots of sugar, transfats, processed foods – and that’s when the ‘bad’ microbes that cause problems start to take over.
Eat plenty of fibre and resistant starches
It might sound slightly counterintuitive, but good gut health depends on eating plenty of material you can’t digest to help make sure you assimilate the nutrients you really need. How does this work?
Fibre and digestion-resistant starches help to ‘move everything along’, if you get the picture – remember, your digestive tract is about 30 feet long, so movement matters. But soluble fibres and resistant starches also feed the masses of bacteria that live in your colon or large intestine.
Good sources of both soluble fibres and resistant starches include wholegrains, seeds, beans and green (unripe) bananas. You can also get a good source of resistant starch by eating cooked rice and pasta after it has cooled.
Get plenty of exercise and make time to relax
Stress is not good for your digestive health. That ‘on edge’ feeling we get when we feel ‘stressed out’ is because of heightened levels of the flight-or-fight hormone cortisol, which is designed to keep us alert and ready to face danger. But it makes us burn through our energy reserves faster, raises blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and makes our stomachs produce more acid.
All of this upsets the delicate balance of our gut, and over time can cause serious complications.
Being kind to yourself in terms of finding ways to unwind and relax is therefore an important way to improve your digestive health. However, a flipside of this is that regular exercise is also a good way to combat stress, because the endorphins triggered by exercise counter the effects of cortisol.
Exercise is also recognised as having more direct benefits on digestive health, such as increasing blood flow to your digestive organs and helping to promote a healthy gut flora. However, one golden rule is not to do rigorous exercise just after you are eating – leave it until after you have finished digesting your last meal, otherwise you may upset the process.