Your health care provider's job seems simple enough on paper, right? They live to serve, to optimize their patients' health. But when you consider the scope of their impact, the stakes become much higher.
Our overall health is the one thing that affects us all daily, directly, and profoundly.
Every practitioner approaches the enormous task of making you healthy from different vantage points, informed by their own personal backgrounds and specialties. But what if I told you - specialties aside - that one of the most effective tools for understanding overall health is fertility?
Human beings are evolutionarily engineered to reproduce.
Harken back to your high school biology class and remember that fundamentally, we are driven by two things: food and sex. We nourish our bodies in order to be as fit as we can possibly be for mating and reproduction. Now, in civilized society, human life has developed into something much more sophisticated and nuanced. While so many people can’t imagine a life without children, others actively decide to forgo having them altogether, and what’s more, many begin to ignore their own fertility as they age.
But whatever stage of life you're in - and whether you are eager to start a family or do not wish to have children - the fact remains that we are all designed to reproduce.
This means that fertility is an extremely helpful marker of overall health.
Your doctors and healthcare providers should be taking great care to ensure that they are providing you with research-backed, data-driven reproductive, hormonal, and nutritional care to set you up for success, regardless of whether or not you have had a baby.
If you feel out-of-the-loop, talk to your doctor. As a registered dietitian, I can guide you through how to start a conversation by cluing you in on these three specific things I think about when approaching fertility for optimal health in my private practice:
1. Reproductive health
Both male and female reproductive systems offer insight into my clients’ lives, so much so that I can often easily identify their healthiest habits. I know how everything should be working from a reproductive standpoint, so when something runs amiss, it can sound the alarm on a larger issue.
For example, analyzing a woman’s menstrual cycle will provide ample qualitative information about her stress levels, sleep patterns, dietary habits, movement capabilities, and other external factors affecting her life. Based on that, I can go deeper and uncover data that can help move us forward. Are there vitamin or mineral deficiencies playing a role? Is there a hormonal factor that needs to be taken into consideration? Similarly, in men, healthy sperm and semen are critical to proper sexual function, so looking into the causes for shifting numbers can lead to helpful diagnoses for other issues. Low sperm counts can be an indicator of oxidative stress factors for which I can provide guidance (e.g. smoking, excessive drinking, environmental exposures, etc.) and could also serve as a red flag for a hidden long-term illness. It could even point to a more serious hormonal imbalance that needs to be addressed not just for the sake of reproduction, but for my client’s overall health and wellness.
2. Hormonal health
Hormonal issues can affect both men and women and take a toll on fertility in addition to playing a key role in overall physical health and mental status.
Many women discover undiagnosed thyroid disorders after unsuccessful attempts at conception or repeated pregnancy loss. An embryo’s inability to properly implant into the uterine wall is a common reproductive symptom of thyroid disorder. For men, dysregulated thyroid function can damage sperm quality and motility, which can also result in a low chance of implantation as it makes it extremely difficult for the sperm to fertilize the egg.
I always recommend evaluating TSH, T4, T3 and thyroid antibodies for both men and women when I feel it is necessary. Running a DUTCH hormone test can also provide further insight when thyroid labs don’t deliver an immediate conclusion or when you want a broader look at hormone metabolism. In so many cases, taking care of fertility has led to the discovery and correction of hormonal issues that, once identified, drastically improve the daily lives of those who experience them.
3. Nutrition and supplements
I am a food-first dietitian, and I’m not kidding when I say the number one goal of eating is to be fit and fertile! Our bodies naturally crave nutrient-dense foods that provide us with the vitamins and minerals we need to create new life. Fertility-friendly foods are all found in a healthy colorful, well-varied diet. I’m talking about antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, vessels of omega 3 fatty acids like nuts, seeds, and fish, and full fat dairy that is packed full of saturated fat and important fat-soluble vitamins like A, E, D, and K. Eating for fertility is identical to eating for optimal health because the goals are the exact same: consume everything you need to be as fit as possible.
In a perfect world, we all get everything we need through food alone. But in reality, our diets are dependent on many uncontrollable factors. Culture, lifestyle preferences, socio-economics, and physical geography all play a role in what ends up on our plates. That’s where supplementation comes in. As a practitioner, I make sure I am aware of what nutrients are sufficiently supplied for each individual I work with through food and then use available lab resources to confirm what deficiencies they are dealing with. Just like with hormones, when one is out of line, it blurs the rest of the picture with regards to nutrient consumption as a whole.
Eating and supplementing for fertility is a simple way to make sure you are getting everything they need to be on the right track health-wise, regardless of the final destination. I created FullWell Prenatal vitamins for my clients who were trying to conceive, pregnant, and breastfeeding, but you might be surprised to find that it is a fairly comprehensive multivitamin for anyone (yes, there are plenty of men who take it, too!).
If you (or your partner) are interested in learning more, feel free to browse Full Well's blog, The Knowledge Well. Like this post, I do (even deeper!) dives to discuss fertility diets, supplement quality, men’s fertility, and host extremely comprehensive articles on individual vitamins and minerals like A, B, D, E, iron and omega 3s.