Why the Mediterranean diet might overcome infertility

How did you get here? Perhaps your mum and dad ate plenty of fish and avocado.

How did you get here? Perhaps your mum and dad ate plenty of fish and avocado. Photo: Getty

Hoping to make a baby in the New Year? Or have you been trying for a while with no success?

Perhaps you’re already shelling out the big bucks for the discomforts and probabilities of ‘assisted reproductive technology’ – be it IVF, ovarian stimulation or intra-uterine insemination.

But it all seems to be taking forever.

What else can you do?

If Australian scientists are correct in new findings, an avocado or a nice piece of salmon might set you right.

Researchers from Monash University, University of the Sunshine Coast, and University of South Australia have joined the dots between one of the main causes of infertility – inflammation – and a key treatment, an anti-inflammatory diet.

Specifically, they looked at the Mediterranean diet, probably the most heart-friendly diet you can follow.

Keep up the healthy nutrition once you conceive. Photo: Getty

Science says it can also improve fertility, assisted reproductive technology (ART) success, and sperm quality in men.

Dr Evangeline Mantzioris is co-author of the new study, and Nutrition and Food Sciences program director at the University of South Australia.

In a statement from the university, she said: “Encouragingly, we found consistent evidence that by adhering to an anti-inflammatory diet – one that includes lots of polyunsaturated or ‘healthy’ fats, flavonoids (such as leafy green vegetables), and a limited amount of red and processed meat – we can improve fertility.”

More detail, please

The authors report that infertility affects 48 million couples and 186 million individuals worldwide.

Among all cases of infertility:

  • 50 per cent are attributed to female factor infertility
  • 20 to 30 per cent are attributed to male factor infertility
  • 20 to 30 per cent is due to a combination of male and female factors.

Accumulating research shows that inflammation in women can affect ovulation, hormone production and menstrual cycles.

The high inflammatory response found in endometriosis serves to further complicate a condition that highly compromises a woman’s fertility.

Epidemiological studies have revealed increasing numbers of infertile men suffer from acute or chronic inflammation of the genito-urinary tract. These inflammatory reactions are inevitably connected with oxidative stress, which is harmful to sperm.

Oxidative stress damages sperm DNA and causes sperm-cell death.

Although there are anti-inflammatory drugs available, their use should be confined to the short term.

A 2021 report from Harvard Health argues that an anti-inflammatory diet is a more effective and healthier treatment than pharmaceuticals.

Hence, the Mediterranean diet

Dr Mantzioris said that modifying pre-conception nutrition is a non-invasive and potentially effective means for improving fertility outcomes.

“Deciding to have a baby is one of life’s biggest decisions, but if things don’t go as planned, it can be very stressful for both partners,” she said.

“Research shows inflammation can affect fertility for both men and women, affecting sperm quality, menstrual cycles, and implantation. So, in this study we wanted to see how a diet that reduces inflammation – such as the Mediterranean diet – might improve fertility outcomes.”

This study is the latest investigation to consistently demonstrate fertility improvement in people adopting a healthier diet.

It can’t be that much of a surprise

Look at how infertility works in men, as the authors describe it: “A Western-style diet is thought to increase oxidative stress through promoting weight gain and insulin resistance, which are linked with infertility and poor sperm quality.

“Further, the increase in whole-body fat due to weight gain results in an increase in the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and reactive oxygen species, which drive inflammation and oxidative stress.”

A Western diet comprises excessive saturated fats, refined carbohydrates and animal proteins, making it energy dense and lacking dietary fibre, vitamins, and minerals.

Typically, a Western diet is associated with higher levels of inflammation.

On the other hand, the Mediterranean diet is primarily plant-based and includes whole grains, extra virgin olive oil, fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, nuts, herbs, and spices. Also yoghurt, cheese and lean protein sources such as fish, chicken or eggs, while red and processed meats are only eaten in small amounts.

Does this sound familiar?

The take-away: It’s logical that a diet that’s good for your heart and brain health might improve your reproductive health, too.

Regardless, the Western diet causes a variety of cancers, and gives us high blood pressure. It needs the heave-ho.

Shifting to a Mediterranean diet will at the least improve your overall health, and lift your chances of conceiving.

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