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Why Fertility Nutrition Starts in the Gut

By Beth Heller, M.S.

Cauliflower is a fantastic fertility food.  Walnuts, lean protein and berries are terrific too.  But if you do not consume, digest and assimilate these foods effectively they cannot help your fertility.   This process of consumption, digestion and assimilation  (and we’ll also add elimination) is what nutritionists call gut function.  Good gut health is important for many health conditions, including fertility. Let’s take a closer look at these variables:

Consumption: Both Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda place a great deal of emphasis on how we consume our food.  On the surface this means mindful eating, not eating in the car or standing in front of the microwave.  In addition, choosing food that is locally grown and in season is recommended by these traditional systems.  The taste buds, too, are an important part of the gut.  To be fully satisfying, traditional medicine systems teach a meal should contain six vital tastes:  sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent.  In fact, “western” scientists are now learning that certain tastes convey specific health benefits.  For instance flavonoids, the powerful antioxidants found in red wine, green tea and citrus that are believed to convey important health benefits, are bitter in flavor.   Interestingly,  our taste for bitter foods increases with age – as our body’s innate antioxidant systems are losing their efficacy.  Nutrition researchers even hypothesize that a preference for bitter taste in aging animals may be evidence of an evolutionary advantage.  Sadly, our Western diet emphasizes primarily the salty and sweet tastes – leaving the pungent chilis and bitter melons and fruit to other cultures.   Bottom line:  we should consume food mindfully – from eating in a calm environment to paying attention to the range of flavors in the food we eat.

Digestion: In yoga’s sister medical science Ayurveda, we are taught to stoke “agni”  (digestive fire) prior to meals.  This can be done with yoga, exercise and in cases where the digestive fire is weak,  an herbal aperitif. The digestive fire is so important that Ayurvedic lore says “if agni is strong we can convert poison into nectar; if agni is weak, we convert nectar into poison.”  Eating too much can also dampen agni, just like throwing a big log on a fire.  Eating too many cold foods can also dampen agni.  Use the Appetite Scale at the end of this blog to help you use agni to your advantage.  For optimal digestive power, eat when you are at a level of 2-3 and stop eating when you are at 7.

Assimilation :  The old adage is true.   The best way to get optimal amounts of vital nutrients is to eat a balanced diet filled with minimally processed fresh foods.  This is because the macronutrients (fat, protein and carbohydrates) as well as the micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and other beneficial chemicals) in food work best in combination with each other. Food sensitivities, health conditions and even chronic stress can impact how we assimilate nutrients.   For instance, when we are very nervous we may find that food just “sits” in our stomach like a rock.  This is because the flight or flight stress response has down-regulated the digest/nest body functions and is shunting blood to the skeletal muscles rather than the stomach.

Elimination :  When food rushes through the digestive tract (diarrhea) or stagnates there (constipation) we experience discomfort.  Poor digestion may also put us at risk for disease.  Diarrhea may speed food through the gut too quickly for vital nutrients to be absorbed.  It can also wreak havoc on the beneficial bacteria in our gut.  Constipation, on the other hand, allows for potentially toxic substances (including hormones and carcinogens) to be “re-digested” from fecal matter and returned to the body.  Imbalances in the intestinal and vaginal flora can also make women vulnerable to conditions like bacterial vaginosis that are associated with infertility and early pregnancy loss.  We can support gut bacteria by eating sources of soluble fiber (oats, lentils and beans) that support “good” bacteria and limiting the consumption of refined sugar and saturated fat, that nourish “bad” bacteria.

So, this week as you fill your refrigerator and your plate with fertility-friendly foods, notice   how you are consuming your food and  pay attention to your gut function.  Eat when you are hungry, stop when you are full.  Enjoy a full range of flavors at every meal – searching beyond your habits for pungent, sour and bitter flavors.  Finally, pay attention to how your body is eliminating waste and strive for the Goldilocks’ approach of “not too fast, not too slow.”   These actions can be truly transformative.

Working with an integrative nutrition specialist trained in fertility can be very helpful for resolving issues related to menstrual and reproductive function.  Call 312-321-0004 to learn more about Pulling Down the Moon’s nutrition specialists.

Agni Gauge:

0 Starving

1 Hunger Pains

2 Very Hungry

3 Hungry

4 Could Eat

5 Neutral

6 Could Stop

7 Full

8 Uncomfortable

9 Over-Filled

10 Stuffed