Talk to any woman who’s trying to have a kid or is pregnant with one and she’ll probably tell you the same thing: the unsolicited advice never stops. While some of it’s welcome, a lot of it’s not — and, in the case of fertility, a lot of it’s wrong. Or at the very least, skewed or oversimplified after being passed around through word of mouth. Doula and maternal wellness expert Erica Chidi Cohen knows how frustrating the information overload can be. She spends a lot of time educating herself on the latest research so she can translate it for her clients and put myths to bed.
“Boosting your fertility is more than just popping a prenatal vitamin and keeping it moving,” says Cohen, citing new research out of the UK which indicates prenatal vitamins might be a waste of money. “Scaling back and concentrating on a few key supplements while improving your overall diet is the modern approach.” The benefits go beyond procreation. “The right supplements and foods can make your moods more manageable, regulate your cycle, smooth out your digestion and improve your skin,” says Cohen, “which basically means it’s good for you even if a baby isn’t in your immediate future.”
For those of you looking to get pregnant — or who already are — Cohen has a comprehensive breakdown of what vitamins you actually need and why.
This B vitamin is a must-have as it can help prevent miscarriage. A 2014 study in the Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology reported that women who consumed more than 730 micrograms of folic acid a day before getting pregnant were 20 percent less likely to experience a miscarriage than women who didn’t take a supplement. Folate can also help protect your baby from neural defects in the first few weeks of your first trimester. This is typically prior to when you miss your period and confirm your pregnancy, which is why it’s best to take start taking it before anything else. Keep in mind: It’s estimated that up to half of the population has a MTHFR gene mutation which reduces the body’s ability to convert folate or folic acid (the synthetic version of folate) into a bioavailable form known as methylfolate. You can bypass this conversion issue by taking methylfolate, which may be listed as 5-MTHF. If you are taking a prenatal, make sure it contains this bioavailable form of folate; it’s a superior option to folic acid.
Add it to your plate with: spinach, collards, broccoli, lentils, oranges, papaya
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin we typically get from sun exposure. It enhances and regulates the gut absorption of essential minerals. More sunlight, and taking as much as 4,000 IUs of vitamin D (D-3 is best) per day pre-pregnancy, can help regulate your cycle and, during pregnancy, can reduce the occurrence of preterm birth and preeclampsia. It’s also a powerful immune booster, recently proven to protect against colds and flu. As we spend less time outside (and are slathered in sunscreen when we do), many of us have sub-optimal vitamin D levels. Several studies associate this with depression, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Retooling your Vitamin D intake, especially during winter, can help regulate your cycle, decrease pregnancy complications and might even boost your mood.
Add it to your plate with: pastured, grass-fed eggs and butter; wild-caught fatty fish like herring
Omega 3s are essential fatty acids that contain EPA and DHA — crucial for fertility and general health. Omega 3s lower inflammation in your body (which means clearer skin), regulate your hormones, increase cervical mucus, promote ovulation, improve egg quality and increase blood flow to your reproductive organs. The most reliable source of Omega 3 is fish oil or algae oil. We cannot produce them on our own — we have to add them to our diet by foods and supplementation. Fermented cod-liver oil is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Add it to your plate with: ground flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and fish roe
A healthy gut has recently been shown to positively influence your immune system, your mood and more recently, fertility. Taking a probiotic daily can help improve gut flora. When buying probiotics, make sure that they are refrigerated, unpasteurized and say “contains live cells.” Your probiotics should contain at least a billion colony-forming units (CFUs). In order to for probiotics to be effective, they need prebiotics which feed friendly bacteria and help them proliferate. Prebiotics are carbohydrates that cannot be digested by the human body. Foods rich in prebiotics include asparagus, artichokes, bananas, oatmeal and legumes. Consider adding a digestive enzyme before dinner or large meals to help improve the overall absorption and assimilation of nutrients.
Add it to your plate with: kefir, yogurt with live cultures, kimchi, miso, unpasteurized pickles
If you’re in your mid 30s, try coenzyme Q10, aka CoQ10. Although this enzyme is naturally occurring in our bodies, its production starts to dip as we age. A study published in Fertility and Sterility showed that supplementation of 600 mg of CoQ10 daily by older women improved both egg quality and fertilization rates. When choosing a CoQ10 supplement, make sure it’s Ubiquinol, which is the bioavalible form.
Add it to your plate with: organ meats such as liver and kidney, grass-fed beef, sardines and mackerel; plant-friendly sources include spinach, broccoli and cauliflower
One last thing to consider? Ditch plastics when you can, replacing them with glass, stainless steel and food-grade silicone (especially for personal food storage). BPA, also known as Bisphenol A (which is used to make plastic hard), mimics the hormone estrogen and acts an endocrine disruptor. It can leach out of plastic products into your food and water and, in excessive amounts, has been shown to impact cell division in the ovaries and alter menstrual cycles. Choose BPA-free plastics whenever possible or opt out.
Erica Chidi Cohen (@ericachidicohen) is a doula and co-founder of LOOM. She’s based in Los Angeles and is also the author of Nurture: A Modern Guide to Pregnancy, Birth, Early Motherhood, and Trusting Yourself and Your Body.
Collage and illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.