Researcher Louis Guillette of the University of Florida is internationally recognized for his work in comparative reproductive biology and developmental endocrinology. In the mid 1990’s Guillette told a congressional committee that the sperm counts of healthy American males have fallen around one percent per year since 1942.
He notes the same holds true for men in 20 other industrialized countries. In the U.S., over nine million men and women of reproductive age are affected by infertility.
Why is this happening? What is causing sperm counts to drop? Fertility clinics are becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s society, as more and more couples struggle to conceive. However, this was not always the case.
Learning from the Past
Many traditional cultures of the past (and the few isolated, pre-modern cultures that exist today) advocated a pre- and post-pregnancy fertility diet for both men and women. Similarly, most of the people I know who believe in natural childbirth have exercised and practiced some version of a fertility diet.
Consider the early twentieth-century world-wide research of scientist and dentist Dr. Weston A. Price. He studied isolated cultures untouched by “Western” dietary practices in the 1930’s on several continents.
He found that traditional, “non-Western” diets led to excellent health, even in old age. The traditional diets he examined included substantial amounts of animal fats such as butter, lard, tallow (beef or mutton fat), fish oil, poultry fat and cultured dairy products such as yogurt and kefir.
Price found diets that did not go to extremes, such as either vegetarianism or carnivorism. We discuss vegetarianism and modern myths about fat extensively in my book The Simple Life Guide To Optimal Health: How To Get Healthy, Lose Weight, Reverse Disease and Feel Better Than Ever., for now it’s sufficient to note that eating fat and protein from healthy, naturally-raised animals typically leads to excellent health.
Price found that the diets of isolated cultural groups throughout the world were also rich in vitamins A and D. These natural, non-modernized eating habits helped traditional peoples maintain excellent health, freedom from tooth decay, consistent fertility and healthy offspring, generation after generation.
Price also studied couples wherein one or both parents, who had eaten traditional diets, started consuming processed foods before conceiving a baby or during pregnancy. Typically, their children would then be born with (or later develop) health problems, including serious dental issues and narrow pelvises that precluded easy childbearing in the case of females. The same occurred in their children who ate processed foods during their formative years.
Price noted that girls in traditional cultures weren’t permitted to be married until they had spent some months consuming special foods, which were to ensure the health of the married couple’s future children.
The traditional groups Price studied were aware that if the expectant parents were not healthy, their children’s health would also suffer in kind. So, both men and women ate a specific diet in preparation for pregnancy and childbirth. This consisted of organ meats such as liver, cod liver oil, shellfish, egg yolks and butterfat from grass fed animals.
These diets contained at least four times more minerals and at least ten times more vitamin A from animal sources than the standard American diet of Price’s era.
Price also reported on the traditional practice of allowing several years to pass between the births of each new baby. Throughout Africa and the South Seas, it was considered shameful to have a child more than once every three years.
Modern science validates this practice. We now know that the ideal interval for preventing physical birth defects is three years; this is also the optimal spacing for the emotional health of children. Allowing at least three years between pregnancies permits the mother to recover her nutritional stores between children and to provide sufficient attention to each child.
The Price of Poor Food Choices
Decades of medical research have shown that poor nutrition during pregnancy is associated with many health problems in infants. These include: babies who are stillborn, of low birth weight, or premature; concerns such as brain damage, and hyperactivity; and irritable, infection-prone or sickly babies.
My own mother admittedly smoked, drank alcohol, and consumed a very poor diet while she was pregnant with me. Of course my mother, like many other women of her generation, wasn’t aware of the negative consequences such habits could have.
Nevertheless, as a child I was constantly sick with a variety of ailments, including asthma, severe allergies, rashes, cold sores, irritability, an inability to focus, and just plain feeling sick most of the time. When I improved my own eating habits and became healthier, I was able to reduce or eliminate some of these conditions. However, others will stay with me for my entire life.
Stories like mine are a valuable reminder that your health is not only important to you, but also to your child.
How to Use Food to Your Advantage When Trying to Conceive
There have been several books written about conception-friendly diets. However, if both mother- and father-to-be follow the diet outlined in the Primal Power Method, they will make great strides towards successfully conceiving and birthing a healthy child. Aspiring parents should also be sure to drastically reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption, and stop smoking altogether.
Foods that are dangerous to reproductive health include soy, caffeine, trans fats, white flour, sugar, commercial oils, foods grown with pesticides, and species of fish that are likely to contain mercury.
Suffice to say, trans fats are processed fats found in almost every kind of processed baked good out there, as well as many other kinds of processed, pre-packaged, or junk foods. Avoid them!)
Soybeans and foods containing soy should be avoided at any time, but most especially when trying to conceive. Why? Soy contains an estrogen-like component. This “false estrogen” can increase the length of menstrual cycles, which decreases fertility. Researchers have found that consuming only 60 mg of soy per day can add about two and a half days to a woman’s menstrual cycle.
Soy also lowers the levels of two hormones necessary for ovulation: luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). Soy also affects the absorption of zinc, which is important for male fertility since it helps boost sperm production, testosterone metabolism, and the male sex drive.
Research shows that expectant fathers who drink the equivalent of two alcoholic beverages per day in the month before conception typically have babies who weigh on average 6.5 ounces below normal weight. Low birth weight is a serious medical condition that can affect your child’s physical and mental well-being for the rest of his or her life.
Expectant mothers should refrain from drinking, since whatever a mom-to-be puts into her body will be passed on to her developing child. Many alcoholic drinks contain unhealthy toxins and preservatives. Plus, the drinking mother’s child risks developing fetal alcohol syndrome: a pattern of birth defects characterized by growth retardation, cranial, facial, or neural abnormalities, and developmental disabilities.
Cigarettes contain many toxic chemicals. Numerous studies have been conducted on cigarette smoking and fertility, and the findings are somewhat controversial. It generally seems that smoking at least somewhat affects fertility and fetal health. But common sense tells us that quitting smoking can only be beneficial for expectant parents.
Finally, note that obese women have more reproductive problems than women who are of normal weight. Being overweight negatively affects ovulation, increases the chance of miscarriage, and increases the risk of congenital defects. Plus, research indicates that men and women who are obese are far more likely to have children who are obese, perpetuating this vicious cycle.
Cell Phones: A Suprising Danger for Fertility
Now for something different: the dangers of cell phones. Even though the information that follows is not related to nutrition or exercise, it does relate to men’s health and will be of particular interest to prospective fathers.
Using a hands-free device with a cell phone may affect your fertility if you keep the phone close to your testicles (e.g. in your pocket) while you talk, Cleveland Clinic researchers warn in the journal Fertility and Sterility.
The researchers compared sperm count, motility, viability and shape among four different cell phone user groups. The laboratory values of the above four sperm parameters decreased in all four cell phone user groups as the duration of daily exposure to cell phones increased.
The use of cell phones decreases semen quality in men by decreasing sperm count, motility, viability, and normal morphology (form). The decrease in sperm parameters was dependent on the duration of daily exposure to cell phones and was independent of initial semen quality.
According to Dr. Agarwal of the Cleveland Clinic, there are other environmental factors that can contribute to male infertility. “Men should not place their laptop on their laps due to the heat from the battery,” he says. “In addition, Jacuzzis, tub baths, toxins, and fumes can all play a role in male infertility and should be discussed.”
Not surprisingly, Joe Farren, the assistant vice president for public affairs at CTIA, a wireless communications trade group, does not agree with the new findings of the Cleveland Clinic and other studies on how wireless phone usage affects reproductive health.
Other studies have refuted the cell phone/fertility connection, although suspiciously they are conducted by affiliates of cell phone companies, or the cell phone companies themselves. This obvious bias makes it difficult to give these studies merit.
In my experience as a health professional and former FDA Special Agent, when a large company sponsors a study that refutes negative claims against one of their products, the results almost always come out in the company’s favor.
Exercise During Pregnancy
Nothing makes me happier than to see expectant mothers exercising.
Women who perform moderate exercise while pregnant are often able to return to a healthy, pre-pregnancy weight more quickly than those who do not. Stretch marks can sometimes be greatly reduced or avoided by using exercise to avoid excessive weight gain during pregnancy.
While moderate exercise is usually beneficial, excessive or unusually intense exercise is probably not. This is especially true for women who are trying to conceive, since the chances for conception decrease by up to 40% in women who over-train.
Thirty minutes of moderate exercise, three or five times per week is generally a good recommendation for most expectant mothers.
Above all, a mother-to-be or a woman who is trying to conceive should speak to her doctor before conception and during pregnancy to determine what type of exercise (if any) is appropriate in her unique situation.
Boosted Fertility with Exercise
The Nurse’s Health Study is among the world’s largest and longest-running investigations on women’s health. It was started in 1976 and continues today with over 238,000 dedicated nurse participants.
The study found that exercise can improve fertility in women. It also showed that exercise helps expectant mothers improve cardiovascular fitness and posture, helps avoid excess weight gain, reduces digestive discomfort and constipation, and protects against gestational diabetes.
Men can also improve fertility with exercise, since it improves overall health, reduces stress, reduces anxiety and increases sex drive.
Moderation is the key for men as well. Lifting excessive amounts of weights or over-training can greatly reduce a man’s testosterone levels.
There are also certain fitness activities men should limit or eliminate when trying to conceive, such as excessive running and bicycle riding. The pressure exerted on the groin by a bicycle seat can cut off or restrict blood flow to that area for long periods of time.
It can also raise the temperature of a man’s groin area higher than that at which sperm cells can survive. The result can be nerve damage, tissue compaction and low sperm cell counts.
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