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What you need to know about diet and fertility

 Infertility can impose significant physical, emotional and economical toll on struggling couples (Photo: Shutterstock)

Two out of 10 Kenyan couples struggle with infertility and require interventions to conceive, research has shown. A couple is usually advised to seek medical opinion when they have experienced failure to achieve pregnancy after 12 months of regular unprotected sexual intercourse.

Infertility can impose significant physical, emotional and economical toll on struggling couples. There has been an underscoring need to consider both partners when trying to medically assist a couple conceive since a national survey conducted by the Ministry of Health and the United Nations Population Fund suggested that 16 percent of Kenyan of reproductive age are infertile with the numbers almost equally shared between the two genders.

And with advances in medicine, there is increasing evidence that what you choose to fill your plate with could impact your ability to have children.

Diet and infertility in men

Low sperm count continues to be the main cause of infertility in Kenya. This is according to research presented during the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) 10th Annual Scientific and Health Conference early this year. Additionally, poor quality sperm characterised by flawed motility and morbidity could dampen a man’s efforts to make his partner pregnant. This could be due to intrinsic factors, including congenital abnormalities or even cancer.

 Poor quality sperm characterised by flawed motility and morbidity could dampen a man’s efforts to make his partner pregnant (Photo: Shutterstock)

However, it is noteworthy that low sperm count has been observed in men with no underlying medical conditions. A recent study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, US National Library of Medicine journal, found that strong adherence to the western diet characterised by high consumption of processed meat, sweets, snacks, animal fat, red meat and refined grains was positively associated with abnormal sperm motility.

From this study, it can be speculated that even though animal proteins like red meat, dairy and processed meat provide important micronutrients, they are sources of saturated fatty acids and natural trans-fatty acids that adversely affect sperm count and concentration.

Furthermore, long-term consumption of food products contaminated with aflatoxins interferes with sperm production. Recent studies by the International Livestock and Research Institute (Ilri) in Kenya show that many retail outlets sell maize, milk and sorghum contaminated with unhealthy levels of aflatoxin. This translated to an observation that infertile men with aflatoxin manifested a higher percentage of sperm abnormalities when compared to fertile men in this research.

Oxidative stress

Occurring in 30 to 80 percent of male infertility cases, oxidative stress in the mechanism that is characterised by an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body. Antioxidants are responsible for neutralising the free radicals produced during normal energy generation. The imbalance causes dysfunction of the mitochondria — energy powerhouse — in sperms. This impairs sperm motility and hinders the ability of the sperm to fertilise the ovum. Low intake of high antioxidant foods together with a high sugar diet comprise of factors that contribute to increased oxidative stress.

  A healthy diet is essential for optimal health and correlates with better sperm quality (Photo: Shutterstock)

What should men eat?

Semen contains a mixture of secretions consisting of notable levels of zinc, copper, fructose, prostaglandins, seminogelin, vitamin C and E selenium and lactic acid potassium among other minerals and nutrients. Many of these components are sourced from food and are vital for sperm production, maturation and functioning. Generally, a healthy diet is essential for optimal health and correlates with better sperm quality. Emphasis should be put on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, high fibre products, lean meat, low fat dairy products, seafood, legumes, nuts, seeds and fish. These foods are rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids that minimise oxidative stress. The Mediterranean diet that comprises high intake of fruits and vegetables, nuts, fish and wholemeal grains is usually associated with better sperm quality and is recommended for prevention of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and some types of cancers.

Diet and fertility in women

 Vitamins B9 and B12, omega-3 fatty acids are essential in women trying to become pregnant naturally (Photo: Shutterstock)

Traditional nutritional beliefs and taboos in Kenya exist in the different ethnic groups in the country. A study that was carried out in rural Uasin Gishu County found that traditional vegetables were believed to offer protection against disease in women and offered nutritional therapy for pregnant women with low blood levels. 

Researchers from the Harvard Medical School found out that folate (vitamin B9), vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids and a healthy diet have positive effects in women trying to become pregnant naturally, without assistive reproductive technology. Folate and vitamin B12 are already recommended for women trying to conceive, with the folate also known to lower the risk of development of neurological disorders in unborn babies.

There is solid evidence intake of folate relates to higher success even in assisted reproductive therapy. In Kenya, folate supplementation for individual consumption and legislation for mandatory fortification of maize and wheat flour has improved folate consumption in the country. An assessment of folate uptake at Pumwani Maternity hospital in 2015 only found one percent of pregnant women had folate deficiency and 84 percent of them consumed fortified brands of maize and wheat flour. Apart from fortified flour, Pathologists Lancet Kenya advises consumption of dark green leafy vegetables, beans, peas and nuts to boost folate levels. Fruits rich in folate include oranges, lemons, bananas, melons and strawberries.

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