When you think of factors affecting your fertility, your gut health probably doesn’t immediately come to mind. But in reality, your gut is so closely linked to your brain and endocrine (hormonal) system, and plays a significant role in supporting or compromising your fertility.
The gut-brain-ovarian axis is a term used to describe the intricate relationship between these three parts of your body. You’ve probably heard of the close link between your gut and brain. Your brain is able to directly influence your intestinal health and function, and your gut is, in turn, able to impact your mood, cognitive function and mental health. This is because the brain and gut are so intricately linked, meaning any damage to your gut health can have consequences for your mental health and function, and vice versa. And there is a third party involved too: your endocrine system, responsible for producing your hormones including reproductive hormones. Your gut microbiome (or the diversity of good and bad bacteria living in your gut at all times) heavily affects your hormonal balance, ovarian function and fertility. Here’s how.
- Your gut plays a vital role in balancing your reproductive hormones. Your gut is responsible for metabolising hormones, including oestrogen, meaning it can get rid of any excess or damaging circulating oestrogen, and keep all your sex hormones in balance to support your fertility and general health. Any disruptions to your gut health can have flow-on effects on your hormones. This can cause irregular menstrual cycles, and ovulation complications, and even worsen your risk of reproductive-related conditions such as PCOS.
Your gut microbiome is involved in every stage of the female reproductive cycle, from sex hormone production to ovulation and menstruation, to egg maturation in your ovaries, to fertilisation and implantation, to pregnancy and beyond. Any changes to your microbiome has consequences for your reproductive system and fertility, while optimising your gut health can result in improved fertility outcomes.
- Your brain communicates with your ovaries through a particular axis called the HPO axis, mentioned previously, which essentially controls your menstrual cycle and reproductive function. And, in turn, your gut is always in direct communication with your brain. This chain of events means that any disruption to this pathway can influence your mood, menstrual cycle, fertility, and so on. If your menstrual cycle or ovulation is interrupted, this can seriously compromise your fertility.
- Your gut microbiome plays a key role in regulating the levels of inflammation in your body, which goes on to directly impact your fertility. While some inflammation in the short-term is beneficial for fighting infections or illnesses, any chronic long-term or excessive inflammation can directly impair your gut health, and therefore your fertility. We know inflammation has huge consequences on your reproductive health and ability to fall pregnant, as it can interfere with hormonal balance, regular reproductive function, and your body’s ability to create and sustain a healthy environment in which a baby could grow and develop. So if you’re experiencing severe inflammation in your gut, this will likely compromise your fertility too.
- Following on from this, too much inflammation can damage the quality and health of a woman’s eggs, potentially having a significant effect on your chances of conceiving a healthy baby. Research indicates many women who suffer recurrent pregnancy loss experience a higher prevalence of undiagnosed gut disorders or similar conditions, potentially due to inflammation in the gut. It appears inflammatory reactions or conditions in the gut may contribute to an increased risk of miscarriage or fertility complications.
As you can see, your gut’s close links to your hormones and reproductive system means any inflammation or disruption happening in your gut will have consequences for your fertility too. If your gut isn’t healthy or balanced, this can impair your oestrogen metabolism and reproductive hormones, your ability to conceive a healthy baby, egg health and quality, menstrual cycle, levels of inflammation in your body, and even the communication between your brain and reproductive system.
Now you’re aware of some of the many ways in which your gut health and fertility are intricately linked, let’s consider how best to tailor your diet to optimise your gut health, and therefore your reproductive health too.
Research has demonstrated that limiting or avoiding certain pro-inflammatory foods can help to improve your egg health and fertility outcomes, and prioritising anti-inflammatory foods can further help. But exactly what foods should you be limiting and prioritising?
Inflammatory foods to limit:
The Western diet, characterised by a high intake of saturated and trans fats, refined sugars/carbohydrates and animal proteins has been linked to increased levels of inflammation in the body, time and time again. This way of eating can lead to blood sugar and insulin imbalances, an increase in pro-inflammatory markers in the body, and reduced metabolic and general health and well-being. The Western diet typically contains less dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals, and plant-based foods than you ideally want to be consuming, which can compromise the health of your gut microbiome, and again contribute to further inflammation. All of these factors can go on to negatively affect your fertility, as a result of this inflammation and poor gut health.
In particular, the following foods are associated with the Western diet. They have been found to increase inflammation and may impair your fertility:
Saturated and trans fats
A high intake of saturated or trans fats has been shown to impair fertility. These fats, found in foods such as processed deli meats, the fat on red meat, fast foods, or many pre-made sauces and condiments, cause oxidative stress and inflammation in the body, therefore increasing your risk of health conditions such as obesity, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. In turn, these conditions have been linked to poorer egg quality, hormone health and balance, and an increased risk of fertility complications. Trans fats, in particular, can interfere with your gut and reproductive health, leading to reduced fertility and trouble conceiving.
If you’re looking to optimise your fertility, significantly reducing or minimising your intake of saturated and particularly trans fats is a good idea.
Refined or processed sugars
Refined sugars or processed carbohydrate foods again have a pro-inflammatory effect on your gut and fertility. Not only do these foods trigger spikes in your blood sugar levels immediately after consuming them, if you’re eating these foods regularly, this can result in chronically high blood glucose levels. Over time, this can interfere with healthy hormone production and balance, increase inflammation, and impair your egg health and fertility. Foods high in refined sugars or carbohydrates include pastries, chocolate, confectionery, syrups, table sugar, white bread or pasta and refined grains. Consider swapping out these foods for whole grain alternatives, such as whole grain bread, quinoa, buckwheat pasta and homemade wholefood snacks. We know Australian adults consume, on average, far more refined sugar each day than our guidelines recommend, so this is an easy swap if you’re looking to support your gut health and fertility.
Antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, carotenoids, and polyphenols, actively work to combat any inflammation or oxidative damage in your body, essentially protecting against damage to your eggs or reproductive system to support your fertility. These nutrients, found in abundance in fruits and vegetables, have been linked to reduced inflammation and inflammatory markers in the body. Excellent food sources of antioxidants include berries and other fruits, brightly coloured vegetables, leafy greens, coffee and cocoa. Consider adding these to your diet regularly to combat inflammation and support your fertility.
Wholegrains are an essential food group to prioritise for anyone looking to conceive or enhance their fertility. Not only are whole grains an excellent source of fibre, helping to improve gut health and microbiome diversity, they also facilitate healthy hormone production and imbalance. Diets rich in whole grains (among other anti-inflammatory foods), such as quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice and rye, have been shown to improve successful fertility rates.
Studies showed women who consumed more whole grains in their diet experienced improved fertility, implantation, pregnancy and healthy birth rates when undergoing IVF treatment. While this is largely due to the role of whole grains in providing an essential source of energy and fibre, and optimising gut health, whole grains also contain a bunch of other important nutrients and minerals too. Whole grains are a rich source of fertility-boosting nutrients including folate, which prevents neural tube defects in a developing baby, iron, antioxidants and B vitamins. They’re a highly fertility-friendly group of foods!
3. Pre and probiotics
Lastly, foods rich in pre- and probiotics again directly support gut health, acting as food or fuel for the “good” bacteria residing in your gut, and helping to ensure your gut microbiota is flourishing and nourished. This has a flow on effect in supporting your fertility, owing to the close link between your gut and reproductive system. Emerging research shows pre and probiotic foods can potentially reduce the risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes too, as well as supporting general health and fertility and reducing inflammation.
Foods rich in prebiotics include garlic, onion, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, apples and leeks. And probiotic-rich foods include yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi.
While any foods or dietary patterns which cause inflammation or imbalances in your gut health can have negative effects on your fertility, consuming plenty of anti-inflammatory foods including antioxidants, whole grains and pre-and probiotic foods can help to reduce inflammation and enhance your chances of conceiving. While we know inflammation contributes to poorer pregnancy outcomes and reproductive function, minimising your intake of pro-inflammatory foods can effectively improve your gut health and help to manage this inflammation.
If you want to understand more about how your gut health could be compromising your fertility, or work on a personalised approach to your diet to optimise your fertility and chances of conceiving, book a consultation with me today!