It’s almost time to ring in another New Year and for many that means making resolutions to start living a healthier lifestyle. There are many lifestyle factors that can affect fertility. If you’re thinking about trying to conceive, making small changes in your diet, exercise, and sleep routine can promote a healthy monthly cycle. Here, Registered Nutritional Therapist Jen Walpole (DipCNM mBANT CNHC) offers her advice on how changing your diet can improve your fertility.
What Can You Do to Promote a Healthy Cycle?
Taking note of your monthly cycle is a good way to determine your overall health and wellbeing. When there are any unexpected changes, it’s important to assess dietary and lifestyle factors that may have impacted your cycle. In this blog, we’re looking a little more deeply at what some of these factors might be and how we can promote a healthy menstrual cycle.
Try Following A Balanced Diet
The foundation of promoting a healthy cycle includes ensuring that your diet is balanced and that all three macronutrients - carbohydrates, proteins, and fats - are present.
Carbohydrate intake can include a variety of vegetables, fruits, and grains, all of which provide individual benefits due to their vitamin and mineral content. Grains are rich in magnesium and zinc, both of which are needed to promote a healthy cycle, whereas dark green leafy vegetables are fantastic sources of B vitamins, which are equally as important for hormone balance.
In order to get adequate protein, try to include lean sources, including plant-based options such as beans and pulses. In fact, one study showed that increasing plant-based protein was more beneficial in relation to supporting ovulation than increasing animal protein (1). However, consuming some meat and poultry is the best way to support iron levels and ensure all the essential amino acids are obtained for hormone production.
Finally, the types of fats that can be included in the diet are the essential fatty acids, omega 3 and 6, as well as monounsaturated fats. These can be obtained from oily fish, nuts, seeds, nut/seed oils and butters, avocados, olives, and olive oil.
Balancing intake of the three macronutrients is also key. For example, a balanced plate should consist of more than half carbohydrates (veggies, fruit with about ½ cup grains), ¼ protein (palm-sized portion), and a thumb-sized portion of healthy fats. Equally important is eating enough for your calorie output - women require approximately 2,000 Kcal per day, depending on their exercise regimen.
How a Change of Diet Impacts Your Cycle
Cutting out any of the key macronutrients and restricting calorie intake can have detrimental effects on the monthly cycle, which is an energy-intensive process. For example, studies have shown that in a situation where there is low energy intake, the body minimizes non-essential processes including hormone balance. The brain recognizes any drastic changes to energy intake, which impacts reproductive function and the menstrual cycle (2). Specifically, a low carbohydrate diet may cause irregular menstrual cycles or amenorrhea (the absence of menstruation) in some women (3).
In contrast to this, women with PCOS have been shown to benefit by reducing refined carbohydrate intake and increasing healthy fats to help with insulin levels and hormonal imbalances (4). The best way to follow this guidance would be to focus on a low glycemic (GL) diet and avoid high GL refined and processed carbohydrates. Low GL foods are those that score lower on the Glycemic (sugar) Index and therefore take longer to affect blood sugar and insulin levels.
The Mediterranean diet can also be helpful in supporting and promoting fertility.
How Lifestyle Can Impact Your Cycle
In addition to diet, lifestyle factors can also have an impact on the monthly cycle. If your body experiences elevated stress, this can lead to higher levels of stress and adrenal hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. The activation of what is known as the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary axis) reduces the production of sex hormones and therefore impacts the menstrual cycle. In times of heightened stress, the body prioritizes survival rather than reproduction (5).
In a similar way, intensive exercise can also have a negative effect, especially if nutrient intake is not sufficient. This may lead to something known as functional hypothalamic amenorrhea, which is where the HPG axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis) is suppressed (6). This can result in low levels of oestrogen and therefore changes to the menstrual cycle or amenorrhea.
Finally, sleep quality and disruption to the sleep/wake cycle can affect menstrual cycle regularity. Studies have shown that shift workers are more likely to report longer and irregular menstrual cycles (7).
If you have noticed changes in your monthly cycle, it could be a good time to assess your stress levels, sleep and exercise regimen. Practices such as meditation, breathing techniques, and restorative exercise including yoga and Pilates would be beneficial to help promote a healthy cycle.
What Else Can be Done to Promote a Healthy Cycle?
There are some specific nutrients that may help promote a healthy cycle. Vitamins C and E have been shown to help support hormone production and progesterone levels in women (8). Good sources of vitamin C include berries, citrus fruit, kiwi, red peppers, and tomatoes. Sources of vitamin E include almonds and seeds. The essential fatty acid omega 3 can also help promote a healthy cycle. The best sources include oily fish such as salmon and mackerels. One study showed that in women with PCOS, supplementation helped reduce testosterone levels and regulate the menstrual cycle (9).
Specific seeds are also known for their positive benefits to the menstrual cycle and hormone balance. For example, flaxseed (also known as linseed) has oestrogen mimicking properties that supports the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle (10).
Other factors that may help promote a healthy cycle include alternative therapies, including acupuncture. For example, studies have shown that acupuncture may improve menstrual health (11). Lifestyle or alternative therapy practices that help with stress reduction and sleep will help to support hormone production and therefore promote a healthy cycle.
So, we can see that to promote a healthy cycle, a natural whole foods diet that includes a rainbow of fruit and vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, oily fish, and some meat/poultry is key. Working on stress reduction and sleep alongside diet will also help support hormone production and a healthy menstrual cycle.
- Chavarro, J. Rich-Edwards, J. Rosner, B. and Willett, W. (2008). ‘Protein intake and ovulatory infertility’. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 198 (2), pp.210.e1-210.e7.
- Ryterska, K. Kordek, A. and Załęska, P. (2021). ‘Has Menstruation Disappeared? Functional Hypothalamic Amenorrhea—What Is This Story about?’. Nutrients, 13(8), p.2827.
- Udaya, B. (2016). ‘ A Review on Low-Carbohydrate Diet and Women’s Health’, Journal of Food Science Research, 1 (3).
- Saadati, N. Haidari, F. Barati, M. Nikbakht, R. Mirmomeni, G. and Rahim, F. (2021). ‘The effect of low glycemic index diet on the reproductive and clinical profile in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome: A systematic review and meta-analysis’. Heliyon, 7(11), p.e08338.
- Maeda, K. and Tsukamura, H., (2006). ‘The Impact of Stress on Reproduction: Are Glucocorticoids Inhibitory or Protective to Gonadotropin Secretion?’. Endocrinology, 147(3), pp.1085-1086.
- Torbati, T. Dutra, E. and Shufelt, C. (2017). ‘Hypothalamic Amenorrhea and the Long-Term Health Consequences’. Seminars in Reproductive Medicine, 35(03), pp.256-262.
- Baker, F.C & Driver, H.S (2007). ‘Circadian rhythms, sleep, and the menstrual cycle, Sleep Medicine, 8 (6), pp. 613-622.
- Mumford, S. Browne, R. Schliep, K. Schmelzer, J. Plowden, T. Michels, K. Sjaarda, L. Zarek, S. Perkins, N. Messer, L. Radin, R. Wactawski-Wende, J. and Schisterman, E. (2015). ‘Serum Antioxidants Are Associated with Serum Reproductive Hormones and Ovulation among Healthy Women’. The Journal of Nutrition, 146(1), pp.98-106.
- Nadjarzadeh, A. Dehghani Firouzabadi, R. Vaziri, N. Daneshbodi, H. Lotfi, M. H. & Mozaffari-Khosravi, H. (2013). ‘The effect of omega-3 supplementation on androgen profile and menstrual status in women with polycystic ovary syndrome: A randomized clinical trial’. Iranian journal of reproductive medicine, 11(8), 665–672.
- Phipps, W. Martini, M. Lampe, J. Slavin, J. and Kurzer, M. (1993). ‘Effect of flax seed ingestion on the menstrual cycle’. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 77(5), pp.1215-1219.
- Cochrane, S. Smith, C. Possamai-Inesedy, A. and Bensoussan, A. (2014). ‘Acupuncture and women’s health: an overview of the role of acupuncture and its clinical management in women’s reproductive health’. International Journal of Women's Health, p.313.