Another Mediterranean Diet Bonus: Healthier Sperm, Better Fertility
Add better chances of conceiving a baby to the list of health benefits linked to the much-touted Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean diet -- which is rich in fresh fruits and veggies, healthy fats like olive oil, whole grains, legumes, nuts and fish -- has been shown to boost brain health, and reduce the risk for heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. Now, researchers in Australia report that this style of eating also can improve fertility, the chances of success with assisted reproductive technology, and sperm quality in men.
The common denominator? Inflammation.
“Our review demonstrates that the Mediterranean Diet may also increase fertility and provide benefits for couples who are trying to have children,” said study author Simon Alesi, a researcher at Monash University in Melbourne.
“Inflammation is increasingly recognized as a factor that contributes to poor reproductive and fertility outcomes, often termed 'inflammatory infertility' in the evidence," Alesi said. "And the bionutrients in the Mediterranean diet such as monounsaturated fats, flavonoids, vitamins C and E, polyphenols, and the limited intake of processed meat, are likely to reduce inflammation in the body, thus improving fertility.”
By contrast, the traditional Western diet, which is low in fruits and vegetables and high in fat and sodium, has been linked to more inflammation and other health problems.
For this study, researchers took a deep dive into the literature on diet and fertility. They found that a Mediterranean style of eating improves menstrual cycle regularity and benefits embryo quality, live birth rates and men's sperm quality, as well as endometriosis-related measures.
Regular menstrual cycles make it easier to track fertility and plan for pregnancy. Endometriosis, a painful and common condition that occurs when tissue similar to the lining of the uterus (the endometrium) grows outside of the uterus, can make it harder for women to get pregnant. High-quality embryos or developing fertilized eggs can boost the odds for successful pregnancy.
Alesi said couples trying to conceive and undergoing infertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization should consider a plant-based diet with lots of vegetables, fruits, cereals and grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, low-fat dairy, fermented dairy and olive oil, with a moderate intake of both white and red meat. It's also important to limit the amount of processed and ultra-processed foods such as soft drinks, chips and cookies, and cakes in your diet, he said.
The new study was published earlier this year in the journal Nutrients.
Dr. Alex Robles often recommends a Mediterranean-style diet to couples who are trying to conceive. He is an obstetrician/gynecologist at Columbia University Fertility Center in New York City.
“I recommend that all patients trying to conceive consider incorporating some Mediterranean dietary elements into their lifestyle,” said Robles, who has no ties to the new study. “There is no significant downside risk to doing so, and the potential benefits could be substantial.”
Diet can play a big role in fertility, as it can help maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of chronic diseases, he said.
“Being overweight or underweight can reduce fertility, as can chronic disease states,” Robles said. “Additionally, nutritious foods can help reduce inflammation, which may improve both sperm and egg quality and improve menstrual cycle regulation.”
The bottom line?
“Anti-inflammatory dietary interventions are a low-risk and potentially effective option to help couples trying to conceive,” he said.
There is one important caveat, Robles added. While diet is helpful, it is not a replacement for medical treatment.
“If a couple is having difficulty conceiving, it is important to speak with a fertility doctor,” he said.
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine provides more information on infertility treatments.
SOURCES: Simon Alesi, researcher, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; Alex Robles, MD, obstetrician/gynecologist, Columbia University Fertility Center, New York City; Nutrients, Sept. 21, 2022