Doctor’s Tip: Food and fertility
Neal Barnard, M.D., is president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and a well-known and highly respected medical researcher. Earlier this year he published his fifteenth book: “Your Body in Balance, The New Science of Food, Hormones, and Health.” The first chapter is about infertility, a problem for 15 percent of couples who want children.
There are many causes of infertility, but hormone imbalance is a primary one. Studies show that infertility is lowest in women on the slim side, with a BMI of 18-22. The reason overweight women are more apt to be infertile is that fat cells manufacture estrogen as well as androgens (male hormones), resulting in hormone imbalances that affect fertility. Another reason fat reduces fertility is that it reduces the level of sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) in the bloodstream, which allows sex hormones to be overly active— another cause of hormone imbalance/infertility. (Dr. Barnard uses the following analogy to explain SHBG: Think of SHBG as a fleet of microscopic aircraft carriers and estrogens as fighter planes. As long as the “planes” stay on the “carrier,” they remain inactive, but overweight women have fewer carriers).
Fiber — present in plants but not animal product — removes excess estrogen via the GI tract. In one study, fiber reduced estrogen levels by 10-20 percent, resulting in better hormone balance.
Dairy products affect fertility in two ways: First, dairy cows are artificially inseminated and are milked during their nine-month pregnancies. Levels of estrogens are higher during pregnancy, and these bovine estrogens get into their milk, and into humans who drink the milk. Secondly, the milk sugar lactose breaks down into glucose and galactose, and the latter can be harmful to human ovaries.
As a side note it should be mentioned that women who regularly exercise vigorously have better fertility, although extreme exercise contributes to hormone imbalance and infertility.
For centuries, women were blamed for infertility, but now we know that males are responsible for 1/3 of cases of infertility, females for 1/3, and in 1/3 of cases both partners are responsible. According to Dr. Barnard, men who eat lots of cheese and other fatty dairy products have lower sperm counts and more abnormal sperm. Processed meat intake causes the same problems. One reason for this is that eating at the top of the food chain (animal products) results in greater intake of environmental toxins versus eating plants at the bottom of the food chain, and that these toxins contribute to male fertility.
In summary, here are Dr. Barnard’s “foods for fertility”: 1) Trim excess body fat, “a source of unwanted hormones.” 2) Keep hormonal overactivity in check through SHBG. 3) Eat lots of fiber to eliminate excess hormones via the GI track. 4) Avoid dairy products.
Greg Feinsinger, M.D., is a retired family physician with a special interest in heart disease and diabetes prevention and reversal, ideally though lifestyle changes. He’s available for free, one-hour consultations — call 379-5718.
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