Sue Bedford (MSc Nutritional Therapy)
Ever told when you were young to eat your greens and wondered why? It’s because green plants contain numerous phyto-nutrients in the form of polyphenols, flavonoids, nitrates, folate, chlorophyll, phytosterols, catechins, isoflavones – and so are extremely nutritious.
How do Green Fruit and Veg help our general health?
Green coloured fruits and vegetables are some of the healthiest foods you can eat. They help support the immune system, help detoxify the body, restore energy and vitality and have been linked in studies to reducing the risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and mental decline. Greens have long been known to help with the formation of blood and the proper functioning of the circulatory system in the body.
And what about fertility?
Because they are low in fat, high in Fibre, and an excellent source of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, potassium and magnesium, nitrates and folate (an extremely important nutrient that you want to get as much of as you can when trying to conceive and when pregnant), greens are a key colour to include plenty of in your diet when TTC.
They are packed full of antioxidants which have an important role in the body as the zap free radicals (these are molecules which contain oxygen but have an uneven number of electrons, which makes them unstable. So, they travel around the body hunting for another electron to pair up with, making them highly reactive and leading to oxidation) that can lead to oxidative stress of cells including egg and sperm cells, leading to premature ageing of the cells. If your body has an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants, then it is experiencing oxidative stress. If there are too many free radicals in the body this can lead also to chronic illnesses.
There is also increasing evidence from research to suggest that green vegetables, algae, tea, along with certain grasses and seeds (to name a few) are now linked to improving reproductive health. A study published in Nature Communications in 2013 found that fathers with a diet deficient in folate were more likely to have offspring with abnormalities of the head, face and sternum (breastbone) and a build- up of fluid on the brain. This study was conducted on mice but the importance of folate in preventing neural tube defects is well known prior to conception and in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and is why women are advised to take a daily folate/folic acid supplement of 400 micrograms if planning to get pregnant. This is because the brain and spinal cord form in the first few weeks of pregnancy. The authors of the study say that the changes they found were specifically in the sperm epigenome – the chemical compounds that tell the genes which proteins to make and which to switch off. They concluded that this indicates that the diet of men may be as important as that of women in the months before conception. In addition, a study published in 2001 in the Journal of Fertility and Sterility found that low levels of folic acid in men were linked with low sperm counts and less active sperm.
The vitamin c obtained from green vegetables and fruit is important when it comes to male fertility as it has been shown in studies with sperm motility and quality (as it is an antioxidant it helps prevent damage to DNA). In females it is thought to help the endocrine system balance oestrogen and progesterone more effectively and so aid ovulation. Folate is important in preventing neural tube defects in the foetus (as mentioned above – please see our article on folate vs folic acid for more info on this), and iron helps to promote oxygen levels in cells, organs and the developing foetus.
5 Great Green’s for Health and fertility
Spring greens are the first cabbages of the year and are available from April to June. Spring greens do not have the hard core which is found in the middle of fully-grown cabbages. Spring greens are particularly rich in vitamin C, folate and dietary fibre all of which are vital to supporting fertility! Spring greens also contain natural compounds such as sulforaphane and indoles. Evidence suggests that these plant chemicals have anti-inflammatory properties, which is also important for fertility as inflammation is believed to be one of the root causes of many imbalances in the body. The stress of inflammation is indicated as a contributing factor in several infertility diagnosis including endometriosis, PCOS (Poly Cystic Ovary Syndrome), recurrent miscarriage, poor sperm and egg quality.
Kale is a member of the cruciferous family and is packed full of antioxidants and nutrients. In addition to conventional antioxidants like vitamin C, beta-carotene, and manganese, Kale also provides us with at least 45 different recently discovered flavonoids, including kaempferol and quercetin. Many of the flavonoids in Kale are also now known to function not only as antioxidants, but also as anti-inflammatory compounds. Kale is a phyto-nutrient which is known to promote health by enhancing the immune system, repairing damage to and protecting cells, removing harmful products from the body, and reducing inflammation. This makes Kale a fantastic choice in relation to fertility especially for those with conditions such as PCOS or endometriosis.
Kale is also an excellent source of Vitamin A and is also one of the best plant- based sources of calcium, which is important for fertility because calcium plays a role in egg maturation and follicular development.
Spinach is packed full of nutrients important pre-conceptually and during pregnancy, including vitamin K, vitamin A, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin C. In addition, Spinach is packed with iron, folate, and zinc, three minerals that are essential to any woman trying to get pregnant. A lack of iron may result in poor egg health or lack of ovulation.
Why not steam and eat with a main meal? or add a handful or two to your smoothie, salad or pasta dishes?
According to a study published in Fertility and Sterility, vitamin C enriched foods are highly essential for those who are planning to conceive. Due to its high content of vitamin C, broccoli can help support fertility. In men, vitamin C improves sperm quality and protects sperm from DNA damage. Also, broccoli is rich in B vitamins as well as calcium, iron, and zinc.
Eat it raw in salads, steamed, roasted or boiled- add to a soup or make a sauce to pour over pasta.
Watercress is wonderful! It is a member of the cruciferous vegetable family and is rich in many nutrients including vitamins C, E and K, calcium, beta-carotene, iron and iodine. Iodine is often lacking in the western diets of today and we need it to make two important thyroid hormones – thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). Thyroid hormones are important during foetal development, infancy and childhood, in the normal development of the brain and nervous system. Importantly too, for conception, watercress is a rich source of the vital B vitamin Folate, which is crucial for DNA duplication in egg and sperm cells and in the prevention of neural tube defects. Watercress is also a great source of vitamins C and E, powerful antioxidants, which have been linked to improving sperm quality and quantity. Watercress is also a great source of magnesium the ‘happy’ mineral linked to lifting mood. Watercress is naturally low in fat. The little polyunsaturated fat it does contain has a high proportion of the essential fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), part of the omega 3 fatty acid family, which is important for hormone balance and reducing inflammation. The non- haem iron found in watercress helps in the prevention of anaemia and has also been linked to reducing the symptoms of Pre -Menstrual Syndrome (PMS). So why not try to include more wonderful watercress in your daily diet?
Want to read more?
I.M.W. Ebisch, C.M.G. Thomas, W.H.M. Peters, D.D.M. Braat, R.P.M. Steegers-Theunissen, The importance of folate, zinc and antioxidants in the pathogenesis and prevention of subfertility, Human Reproduction Update, Volume 13, Issue 2, March/April 2007, Pages 163–174, https://doi.org/10.1093/humupd/dml054