By Dr. Laurie Steelsmith
Author of Growing Younger Every Day: The Three Essentials Steps for Creating Youthful Hormone Balance At Any Age
Fertility complications can be one of the most devastating issues a woman—and a couple—can face, leading to profound frustration, dips in self-confidence, and relationship troubles.
But the good news is that infertility treatments continue to grow and improve, giving individuals and couples more hope than ever to attain what they want: The chance to be a parent.
One of the most promising forms of infertility treatment is found not in invasive procedures but in amending one’s diet—a doable endeavor that, most of the time, can also lead to enhanced overall wellness.
Place the ketogenic diet at the top of that list. In 2017, results from a study of 120 women undergoing IVF demonstrated that 58% of those who went on a low-carb diet—in short, the whole crux of the keto diet—had four times the success rate than those in the “high carb” group. The keto diet—which tames insulin levels—can be especially valuable for women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), a condition that’s responsible for roughly 30% of infertility in women.
Sound encouraging? Read on for 4 ways the ketogenic diet can support fertility—and tips on how you might implement it.
It Can Bolster Metabolic Health
Pretzels, chips, granola bars, spaghetti, pancakes—all might have appeal for their tastiness and accessibility but all may contribute to reduced metabolic function, and, as such, decreased fertility.
Simple carbs such as these contain equally simple molecules that easily break down in the body and may lead to a surge in blood sugar. (Think of the quick high and sudden crash provided by a slice of cake as opposed to the steady feeling of fuel found in a hard-boiled egg.)
But, over time, the body becomes less able to process sugar, thus resulting in diminished metabolic health and increased inflammation, which may damage the cellular strength of a woman’s eggs. What’s more, a diet characterized by these starchy foods (as well as fruit and sugar) can negatively influence male fertility by impacting everything from sperm motility to sperm morphology.
Tip: Most ketogenic diets demand less than 30 grams of net carbs per day, rendering foods like pancakes off-limits. To satisfy your yen for these comfort foods, consider, then, their plant-based alternatives: kale chips, roasted in extra-virgin olive oil, instead of pretzels and conventional chips, homemade keto-friendly “granola” bars made with flaked coconut, pecan halves, sliced almonds, and grass-fed butter, zucchini spaghetti, and pancakes made with cream cheese, coconut flour, cinnamon, and Truvia.
It Can Strengthen Your Immune System
Diets tend to be synonymous with weight loss while their less obvious benefits go overlooked. But with a ketogenic diet, it’s difficult to ignore the immediate health results, particularly a modified version that relies on plant-based fats, proteins, and carbs such as heart-healthy avocados and almonds.
Chief among those advantages is increased immunity—a vital part of conceiving and carrying a baby to term.
Here’s how it works: 70-90% of our immune system is in your gut. That may sound unappealing but it’s also empowering: Change your diet and you can change its—and your—health. Sugar, found in carbohydrates, feeds abnormal yeast and undesirable bacteria in the intestines, thus interrupting its delicate balance and potentially leading to PCOS, obesity, and infertility. By eliminating carbs, gut flora can return to its proper state and improve your immune system, making you healthier and more prone towards regular menstruation.
Tip: Exploit the digestive benefits of the keto diet by supplementing it with a good probiotic and eating low-carb foods that promote “friendly” bacteria: sauerkraut, kimchi, and plain, full-fat or coconut yogurt (just be sure to keep your portions to a half a cup or less to remain within the range of allotted carbs).
It Can Promote a Sense of Calm
If you’ve been struggling to conceive for some time, you may be exceptionally tired of people telling you to just “chill out” and relax about the issue. If it were that easy, every woman and couple with infertility complications would be mellow! But infertility can take a huge emotional toll on a woman and a couple, from feelings of inadequacy to financial concerns and the whole stress surrounding sex. As licensed clinical psychologist Susan Benjamin Feingold, Psyd., says, “Sex loses its association with pleasure, and often there’s a loss of a sense of intimacy, loss of fun and playfulness.”
This is where the ketogenic diet can be particularly helpful—not only for your own mental, emotional health but also for your partner’s. How? As Psychology Today affirms, the ketogenic diet encourages the neurotransmitter glutamate to become GABA, another neurotransmitter that’s linked to tranquility (for instance, sleeping medications work towards increasing the activity of GABA to promote a sedative effect). What’s more, research reports that a ketogenic diet can suppress anxiety and depression and bolster physical activity—which is precisely what you’ll need in the bedroom (and as a parent).
Tip: Fuel up on keto foods that also naturally promote calm (and overall wellness), such as eggs, which contain the nervous-system supporting nutrient choline; brain-boosting walnuts, flax seeds, and macadamia nuts; stress-busting asparagus, which contains high levels of folate; zinc-rich cashews, and Brazil nuts, which, due to its choice amounts of the trace mineral selenium, may combat anxiety.
It Supports Weight Loss—and a Recharged Libido
The ketogenic diet is the antithesis of Western eating. Meaning, rather than relying on carbs—which typically comprise the largest wedge of the pie in the Standard American Diet—it stresses the consumption of fats, ultimately making up 75-80% of one’s daily caloric intake.
While some may fear what all those fat calories might do to the size of their thighs, the beauty of the keto diet is that it provides a clean source of energy, burning, if you will, not just surface calories supplied by glucose but on a deeper level: your fat stores.
Not only can this lead to weight loss—and those who are overweight may experience hormone imbalances that impact menstruation and contribute to infertility—but it may also encourage conception by reviving your sexual energy. This is particularly key for couples who have been struggling with infertility and the nervousness, expectations, depression, and, consequently, low libido that can come with it (see #3).
Tip: Nourish hormone health for both you and your partner by making keto-friendly dishes together. A few to try: Caprese salad with full-fat mozzarella, fresh basil, and olive oil; coconut oil-grilled mahi mahi with grass-fed garlic butter and macadamia nuts, and blackened salmon with avocado. Who knows? The meals themselves may just serve as an aphrodisiac—and help you conceive.
About the Author:
Laurie Steelsmith, ND, Lac, is a naturopathic physician, acupuncturist, and passionate spokesperson for educating and empowering women to transform their lives with better health through natural medicines and practices that work with, rather than against, the body’s own healing processes.
She is the Naturopathic Medical Advisor to Daily Wellness Company, and the coauthor of three books: the bestselling Natural Choices for Women’s Health, the critically-acclaimed Great Sex, Naturally, and her latest, Growing Younger Every Day.
A leading advocate for natural medicine, Dr. Steelsmith is the medical director of Steelsmith Natural Health Center in Honolulu, where she has a busy private practice, and is an associate clinical professor at Bastyr University, America’s leading center for the study of natural medicine.