Many of my clients I work with have goals to improve their fertility, get pregnant, enjoy a nourished pregnancy, and have a healthy family. But understanding how to support their own body to get there can be confusing and overwhelming.
In this article, I break down five foundations of health that help improve fertility no matter what your health challenges may be.
The word “healthy” is a loaded word. Sometimes we think we know what it means, but marketing tactics can certainly confuse us. We may associate health with weight and make goals to “get into shape”, but is that what health really is? Is health about having a certain weight or simply the absence of cardiovascular disease or is it something more? Does having visible abs guarantee that we’re healthy?
My philosophy is that health is a state of balance within our body when we are truly nourished and all our body functions can perform optimally. This picture of health, and thus fertility, can best be supported by optimizing five nutritional foundations. Like the foundation of a home, these nutritional foundations serve as the basis upon which other healthy lifestyle practices can be added onto that fit our unique needs (think stress management, proper sleep, exercise, etc.). Turning our focus first to exercise or limiting calories without addressing the nutritional foundations may eventually lead to low body fat, but not true optimal health and nourishment.
So, what are these foundations? They are Digestion, Blood Sugar Regulation, Fatty Acids, Mineral Balance, and Hydration.
FOUNDATION ONE: DIGESTION
So, let’s dive into digestion. We’ve all felt the effects of when digestion goes awry, such as bloating, constipation, diarrhea and if you’re really unlucky, sometimes all three at once!
Why is digestion so fundamental to health? You know the old saying “you are what you eat”? Well there is a lot of truth to that! Our body uses the building blocks that we ingest to build our cells, our hormones, our bones, our brain, and every part of us. We need nutrients and nearly all of our nutrients come from the food we eat. We need our digestion to break down that food and assimilate it properly (through absorption) into our body.
So how is digestion supposed to work?
Digestion is what we call a north-to-south process. And I’m talking more north of even the mouth. Digestion starts in the brain. Have you ever salivated just thinking about eating a delicious meal? That was your brain! Your brain prepares your body to digest by getting into the right state. To allow the brain to do its thing, we want to be relaxed when we eat. This is called the parasympathetic state. A parasympathetic state allows our body to channel its energy into the processes of the digestive tract.
Let’s move a little south to the mouth. When we smell or even think of the food we’ll eat, our brain sends signals to start salivation. When we bite down, we chew our food and help break it down for our stomach. We want to really help break things down by chewing thoroughly. Our saliva contains enzymes that help break down our food chemically. As we swallow, the saliva and chewed up food travel through the esophagus and into the stomach where gastric juices like stomach acid further break down our food. Other juices are released based on the macronutrient content of our meal, so digestion becomes personalized to our body’s needs. That food keeps on churning in the stomach until it is released into the small intestine.
In the meantime, other organs play a role. The pancreas is recruited to help decrease the acidity of the food mixture once in the small intestine so it’s safer for the remaining digestive tract. The liver also plays a role in creating bile that is stored in the gallbladder and then released when needed into the small intestine to break down fat into fatty acids.
Our small intestine is approximately 10 feet long and has a lot of surface area throughout all the folding. That’s where digested food from the stomach becomes absorbed through the small intestinal wall and sent to other body parts via the blood or lymphatic system for its next use. The small intestine is an extractor and helps get most of the good stuff from our food, into our body for use in the rest of our cells.
What remains at the end of the small intestine is passed into the large intestine. What remains is usually water, insoluble fiber, and waste we don’t need. Most water is extracted as the waste moves through the large intestine. When it reaches the end, we’re ready to get rid of it!
Digestion is so critical, because we can’t get nourishment from food if we can’t extract the very nutrients that make it up. Digestion is our superpower that lets us turn food into fuel and the building blocks of our body (and eventually our growing baby!).
FOUNDATION TWO: BLOOD SUGAR REGULATION
The next foundational element of our health is blood sugar regulation. We know that severe blood sugar challenges can lead to disease like Type II diabetes, but poor blood sugar regulation can impact us in more subtle, but equally sinister ways, such as our affecting our mood, anger, irritability, hunger, headaches, and more.
Blood sugar is a measure of the sugar or glucose that is in our blood at any given time (less if we’re fasting, and more when we’ve eaten). The amount of sugar in our blood is carefully controlled by our brain through some pretty amazing feedback systems that involve mainly our pancreas, adrenals, adipose tissue, liver and skeletal muscle. Too little or too much blood sugar can be life threatening.
After we eat, the carbohydrates and other macronutrients in our food are broken down and absorbed into our blood via the small intestine. This raises the amount of glucose in our blood because carbohydrates break down into the simple sugar glucose. We definitely need glucose, it’s actually the fuel source our brain prefers and it’s a great source of fuel for our muscles.
Our body has a few systems that it puts in place as our blood sugar levels rise after a meal. First, the pancreas releases the hormone insulin which tells our body cells to open up and let glucose in. Glucose is then stored in our liver and our skeletal muscles to be used for fuel at a later time.
The opposite process also occurs when blood sugar gets too low. The pancreas will release a different hormone into the blood which signals for the liver to release the stored glucose back into the blood.
When the energy stores in our liver and muscles are full, our liver can turn the excess glucose into triglycerides which become stored into our fat cells and adipose tissue. These can also be called upon to release their stored energy and raise blood sugar levels when the body perceives that blood sugar is too low.
Because of the stress of modern life, we’ve been putting our blood sugar through the wringer. To cope with the lows and highs our bodies often experience with our standard high carbohydrate meals, our body has an emergency system to aid in controlling blood sugar. Our adrenals can get recruited to release the stress hormone cortisol and epinephrine (what we call adrenaline) which tells the stored glucose to come back out into the blood, thus raising blood sugar. Epinephrine also stimulates fatty acids to be released from being stored in our adipose tissue.
In this way, our body system and organs work together to maintain the right amount of blood sugar, but they can be overtaxed. We can help our body out by eating an appropriate balance and quantity of quality protein, fat, and carbohydrates at each meal and snack to avoid large swings in blood sugar while we work on becoming more metabolically flexible.
Blood sugar swings are stressors to the body, and a stressed out body doesn’t give it’s best efforts to optimal fertility. By supporting the organs of blood sugar regulation and eating whole foods with a balance of macronutrients, we can better support our fertility and even the quality of our developing eggs.
FOUNDATION THREE: FATTY ACIDS
In addition to the fuel our body gets from carbohydrates and glucose, our body needs fat and specifically fatty acids which are a component of fat. They provide so much flavor to our food and they are critical for our good health. Let’s dive into four ways that fats support optimal health:
- Fats protect our organs. Fatty acids are stored in our adipose tissue which helps to cushion our organs. We need body fat to keep us safe and alive.
- Fats provide energy for our body. Did you know that fat or fatty acids are the primary energy source of your heart?
- Fats provide satiety when we’re eating our meal. Have you ever eaten some crackers or a piece of fruit or something mostly made of carbohydrates and then been annoyingly hungry really soon after? I know I have! When we eat fat, we actually will release mechanisms during digestion that will slow digestion down and provide that feeling of satiety after a balanced meal. This can prevent us from continuing to eat and eat and eat and cues us in on the optimal amount of fuel our body needs at the moment.
- A lesser known, but critical, function is that fats literally provide the structure for our cells. They form what is known as the phospholipid (fat) bilayer around each of our cells. When we eat high quality fats, our cells are made of high-quality fats. When we eat low quality fats, the opposite holds true.
There are essential fatty acids that our bodies cannot produce so it’s essential we get them from our diet. These essential fatty acids include Omega 3s and Omega 6s which can be found in nuts, seeds, and fatty fish.
FOUNDATION FOUR: MINERAL BALANCE
Another nutritional foundation is the right mineral balance in our body. Minerals include calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, copper, iron, iodine, molybdenum, selenium, zinc, and more. We don’t create minerals internally, so it is vital to get them through our diet and lifestyle.
Minerals play many roles in the body, but here are four key ones:
- Minerals are cofactors for enzyme reactions in the body. Our body performs enzyme reactions that keep us alive throughout the day and some minerals are the added “oomph” that an enzyme needs to create a reaction in the body.
- Minerals aid in the transfer of nutrients across cell membranes. Ever studied the sodium potassium pump in high school biology? This mechanism uses active transport to balance nutrient levels inside and outside of cells.
- Minerals provide structural support to the body. Think of your bones, which are made stronger by large amounts of calcium deposits. They create the shape and rigidity of your body and a place for skeletal muscles to attach themselves.
- Speaking of muscles, minerals help contract and relax muscles. We are contracting and relaxing muscles all day long; as we walk, as we shift in our chair, as we get in our car and drive, and even while we make dinner. Minerals allow our muscles to do that with ease.
When you look at the role that minerals play, it’s easy to see how important they are for our everyday optimal health. Without adequate minerals, we may experience bone density loss, poor tissue growth like in the case of an iodine deficiency, difficulty with proper muscle contraction, and essentially a body that is not operating at its peak condition. Some minerals we need in larger quantities, like calcium, magnesium, and sodium, and some we need in minuscule quantities, like cobalt, copper, and zinc, but all essential minerals are needed in proper quantities for our optimal health and vitality.
FOUNDATION FIVE: HYDRATION
The 5th nutritional foundation is hydration. Some people love drinking water, and others can’t stand it, but we all know that water is essential for our health and life. People can survive for weeks without food intake, but our body has no way to store water long-term. That’s why we need to be in tune to our own body’s cues about our hydration and give ourselves enough water each and every day.
Here’s four important roles of water in our bodies:
- Water transports nutrients throughout our body. Blood is mostly water and blood carries oxygen and the nutrients we get from our food to the rest of our body to be utilized as energy and nutrition.
- Water flushes toxins. It’s not pretty, but water comprises our Number 1 and Number 2 and helps get things we don’t need out of our body. This is critical so we aren’t sitting in an internal toxic stew.
- Water enables the digestive process. Water lubricates our mouth and other organs involved in digestion. Our stomach acid is made of water and so are other digestive juices that help us break down the food we eat.
- Water regulates our body temperature. Think of the last time you stood outside on a hot, sunny day. Your body knew to create sweat from water to aid in controlling your rising temperature.
Whether you love to drink it or can barely remember to take a sip once you’re overly parched, water is critical for all of us. Aim to drink half your body weight (lbs) in fluid ounces. For example, a 200 lb man would aim for at least 100 oz daily. Try that for a few days and adjust based on your activity level, whether you work outside, the season, etc. Keep on tuning in to your body’s needs to find the water intake that’s right for you.
NUTRITIONAL FOUNDATION WRAP-UP
We’ve talked about five nutritional foundations that are critical to optimal health; Digestion, Blood Sugar Regulation, Fatty Acids, Mineral Balance, and Hydration. Balancing these foundations is often the key for many people to reach their health goals including improving pre-diabetic status, reducing chronic digestive symptoms, improving joint and muscle health, reducing headaches, and even maintaining a healthy weight. When we give the body what it needs to properly function, we often find that its incredible intelligence finds a proper balance and most importantly, we are empowered to live our life’s purpose less encumbered by aches, pains, and discomfort.
Supporting these foundations is the first work I do with clients. This can have significant impacts on restoring fertility, or helping moms feel better during the postpartum transition phase. If you want more personalized support on your motherhood journey, go ahead and schedule a FREE 20 minute call with me via the button below!