Digestion & Fertility: What you're not digesting may be hurting you
You are in the right place if:
#1- You are not squeamish. We are talking about digestion here.
#2- You are considering having a baby in the next year. This information goes for both partners, not just mom.
#3- If you experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- heart burn or indigestion
- food allergies or sensitivities
Fertility is not a primary priority of the body. If we are malnourished or deficient in any way, our body may prioritize other life-supporting processes (such as having a functioning heart and liver) rather than exerting efforts to support creation of a new life. Optimal digestion is the key foundational component to make sure that we are supporting a well nourished and balanced body so that fertility may flourish and support a healthy baby when the time is right.
So let's break down the process of digestion into eat, digest, absorb & assimilate, and eliminate and discuss the resulting impact on fertility...
This wouldn't be a nutrition article without talking about food, right? So obviously, we need to be eating a well-balanced nutrient-dense diet for an array of nutrients: vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants. Fertility is a very intricate (and delicate) process and we need specific trace minerals and vitamins to keep the machine running smoothly.
The way we eat is just as important as what we eat. Look around the restaurant next time you're eating out. How many people do you actually see enjoying their food? I bet not many. Instead, I am making a bet that you'll see people doing one or more of the following as they eat: on their phone, yelling at kids, frazzled, in a rush, chewing their food only a couple of times before swallowing, taking food to-go to eat in the car. These situations do not allow us to appreciate our foods. We are not even tasting our food! We are eating just to quiet the belly.. and not for nourishment. Digestion starts before we even put food into our mouths! We must get into a parasympathetic state (the rest and digest state) for proper digestive secretions such as stomach acid, enzymes, and bile to be secreted. This step, although seemingly insignificant at first glance, lays the groundwork for the processes ahead.
The organs and glands of digestion must be working properly. Imbalances within organs or glands due to stress or nutrient deficiencies can compromise fertility. For instance, you need proper levels of stomach acid to efficiently breakdown protein. Low stomach acid is a common occurrence due to our stressful lifestyles, not getting into the parasympathetic state before eating, or from nutrient deficiencies (we need nutrients to create stomach acid!). It is a widespread belief that heartburn is a result of too much stomach acid, but the opposite is actually true. It’s actually quite rare to have too much stomach acid, in which you would have the rare disorder called Zollinger-Ellison syndrome.(1) Taking antacids or medications for heartburn can actually worsen the situation. Protein serves many purposes in the body, including acting as a precursor to hormones-- a fertility must.
And let's also touch on imbalances in the liver. If the liver is overwhelmed due to its 500+ responsibilities listed on its Job Description (whew!), and we throw in some blood sugar imbalances (which is a job the liver takes very seriously) or extra chemicals and toxins it must process (women put an average of 168 chemicals on their bodies daily(2)), then we've got a stressed out liver on our hands. A stressed out liver may get a little disgruntled and let other job duties slip. This may result in toxic buildup or improper conjugation (or inactivation) of estrogen. We'll discuss the importance of proper elimination of hormones in a little bit. Having a happy liver and its administrative assistant, the gallbladder, benefits us during pregnancy as well by reducing chances of morning sickness and other pregnancy concerns. Speaking of gallbladder, we must ensure we're digesting our fats properly, as they also serve as building blocks to hormones. Yes, you heard that right... we NEED fat in our diet!
So let's keep our liver happy, the payback is not pretty.
ABSORB & ASSIMILATE
Asking our body to break down those wholesome foods that we provide it shouldn't be so challenging, right? You'd think so. But given our stressful lives, our modern diet, and our compromised digestive ability due to the reasons we've addressed above, the issues seem to compound. Just think about it, we are going downstream here through the digestive tract. When we have issues up north, the further we get down in the GI tract, the more the problems stack up.
You may be familiar with a condition called "increased intestinal permeability", also referenced as "leaky gut". I won't go into the causes of leaky gut in this article but here is a good guide to fill you in if these terms are new to you. Here is my skim-across-the-top overview:
poor gut health --> food molecules are not broken down completely --> impaired absorption/assimilation --> immune systems not recognizing the large food molecules passing through the bloodstream, and therefore freaks out --> triggering food allergies and sensitivities
Leaky gut puts us in a chronic inflammatory state, which is not conductive to fertility since the body is so focused on dealing with the ongoing threat of invasion, that hormone balance and the quality of sperm and egg production are compromised. A pregnant or nursing mom with a healthy and balanced gut flora will gift her baby with a healthy, robust digestive system, reducing the chances of gas, colic, eczema, and allergies.(3)
Foods can act as irritants or trigger this inflammation if we are sensitive to them. Gluten is notorious for suppressing thyroid function. Undiagnosed thyroid issues frequently show up in cases of so-called “unexplained” infertility and also a common reason for recurrent miscarriages.
This is part where everyone starts to blush. We were designed to take in food in their whole compounds, unbind, assimilate, and to repackage it for elimination. This goes for water, digestive secretions, bacteria, hormones, other waste products.
Old hormones are meant to leave the body. To maintain balance we need to properly eliminate excess and "expired" hormones. As mentioned earlier, the liver conjugates (or inactivates) estrogen, and then bacteria living in the large intestine will escort conjugated estrogen through the stools. This is critical is maintaining hormone balance to support fertility. On the other hand, unhealthy intestinal bacteria has a bad habit of deconjugating estrogen, causing it to be reactivated and reabsorbed into the bloodstream.
Speaking more about our gut flora, the "good" bacteria living in our intestines also play a critical role in creation of nutrients such as vitamin K, break down of toxins, and improve immune function. Not only that, but they also help convert approximately 20% of the inactive T4 hormone your thyroid produces to the active T3. (4) So here again, we see the link back to thyroid health and support of fertility. Imbalances in the intestinal and vaginal flora can also increase susceptibility to conditions like bacterial vaginosis, which is often associated with infertility and early pregnancy loss.
We need to keep things moving smoothly-- not too slow... not too fast-- to ensure we're removing toxins and waste products to support overall health as well as fertility.
Bottom line: Digestion is a complex process that impacts fertility in numerous ways. As I think I've made clear throughout this article, systems of the body should not be viewed as separately, but rather, as intertwined dynamic relationships. Could digestive discomfort be the root of your fertility woes? It's definitely possible. Schedule a consult or take my Feed Your Fertile Body™ program to dive deeper.
Ready to use some practical tips to get your body baby-ready? Download my free checklist to start strengthening your fertility.
1. Low Stomach Acid: An Epidemic Hidden in Plain Sight. Retrieved May 01, 2016, from http://www.waccobb.net/forums/content.php?135-Low-Stomach-Acid-An-Epidemic-Hidden-in-Plain-Sight
2. Women Exposed to an Average of 168 Chemicals from Cosmetics. Retrieved May 01, 2016, from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2015/05/13/toxic-chemicals-cosmetics.aspx
3. Lipski, Elizabeth. Digestive Wellness. Keats Publishing, 2000.
4. Digestion and thyroid health. (2014). Retrieved May 01, 2016, from http://naturalfertilityandwellness.com/naturally-healing-the-thyroid-part-two-digestion/