You’re already loading up on organic fruits and veggies, staying away from processed foods and making sure you get enough whole grains, lean protein and dairy into your diet, as well as taking a prenatal vitamin for insurance. But can eating certain foods during different phases of your cycle enhance your fertility? Some experts say yes!
“Different phases of the cycle require a woman’s body to produce different hormones and go through separate processes,” says Jill Blakeway, M.S., L.A.c., clinic director at The YinOva Center in New York and co-author of Making Babies: A Proven 3-Month Program for Maximum Fertility. “So if a woman wants to maximize her chances of conceiving, it is possible to eat foods that are advantageous to each phase.”
But since many pre-conception eating recommendations are nothing more than wild Internet rumors, we asked the experts to weigh in on what to eat during each of the four reproductive phases. Want the scoop? Read on.
When your period starts to flow, you may feel crampy, bloated, fatigued and moody. You may also be depleting your iron stores. In fact, the average woman loses 30-40 milliliters of blood over the course of three to seven days. “Iron is attached to the red blood cells, so the way you lose it is by bleeding,” says Elizabeth Ward, M.S., R.D., a Boston-area nutrition consultant and author of Expect the Best: Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During and After Pregnancy (Wiley 2009).
Menstruation is a good time to remember to focus on foods rich in iron, which the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 names as a nutrient of real concern among women in their childbearing years. Just don’t view your period as an excuse to load up on double cheeseburgers. “It’s understandable for women who have a failed cycle to indulge—just don’t linger in that place,” says Hillary M. Wright, MEd, RD, LDN, director of nutrition counseling for the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health at Boston IVF and author of The PCOS Diet Plan: A Natural Approach to Health for Women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. “Have an episode, then try to regroup and get back to setting the stage for a successful pregnancy.”
- Fuel up on: Meat, beans, fish, leafy green vegetables and seeds. Most of these foods are rich in iron, protein or both, which is especially important if you have endometriosis or bleed heavily. And some (like fish, seeds and leafy greens) have anti-inflammatory properties, which can help mitigate cramps by encouraging healthy blood flow. Another tip: eat plenty of bell peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, kiwi, citrus and other food sources that are high in vitamin C. “Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron from beans, whole grains and fortified cereals,” says Ward.
- Steer clear of: Cold foods (if your periods are clotted and painful) and alcohol, caffeine and spicy foods, which can make bleeding even heavier.
- On your plate: Steak fajitas with black beans, bell peppers, onions and tomato salsa.
During the follicular phase, your body is working hard to develop a dominant follicle and estrogen levels are on the rise. Unfortunately, women who are struggling with fibroids and endometriosis often have too much estrogen (a condition called estrogen dominance). “Cruciferous veggies like broccoli, kale, cabbage and cauliflower contain a phytonutrient called di-indolylmethane (DIM), which can help women metabolize estrogen better,” says Blakeway. In fact, DIM binds to environmental estrogens like pesticides and hormones in meat and dairy products, helping rid the body of excess estrogen. Just don’t forget to have some olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds with those leafy greens. These foods are loaded with vitamin E, which is found in the fluid of the follicle that’s housing your egg.
- Fuel up on: Foods that support follicle development like nuts, seeds, green vegetables, legumes, eggs and fish.
- Steer clear of: Alcohol—it affects hormonal balance. It’s also dehydrating and the loss of water in the body may make cervical mucus too thick, says Blakeway.
- On your plate: Chicken and broccoli stir fry with cashews and brown rice.
As you near ovulation, the body needs plenty of B vitamins and other nutrients to support the release of the egg and promote implantation. “Zinc can help with cell division and progesterone production and vitamin C is found in high quantities in the follicle after the egg is released and may play a role in progesterone production as well,” says Blakeway.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are also crucial during this phase. The best source: omega-3s from fish and fish oil supplements. These EFAs are best known for promoting blood flow to the uterus and supporting the opening of the follicle to release the egg, but guess what? They also open up the tiny blood vessels in your nether regions, which can ensure you’re primed and ready for action. “Fish oil thins out your blood and increases circulation to your body parts,” says Wright. Plus, fish oil boosts the testosterone in your body—yes, women have this hormone too—so you may become aroused more quickly. And who among us couldn’t use a little of that when entering the O-zone?
- Fuel up on: leafy greens, whole grains, eggs, legumes, meat, fish (or fish oil supplements) and water—lots and lots of water. Water plays a key role in transporting hormone and developing follicles. It also helps thin out cervical mucus, which may make it a little easier for your partner’s swimmers to get to their goal.
- Steer clear of: Acidic foods like coffee, alcohol, meat and processed foods, which may make your cervical mucus hostile to sperm. Baby carrots are often touted for maximizing your body’s baby making juices because they’re alkaline (the opposite of acidic). But according to Blakeway, any alkaline foods will do, particularly green vegetables, sprouts and wheatgrass.
- On your plate: Cajun salmon and brown rice with a side of spinach sautéed in garlic and olive oil—and a bowl of strawberries and a dark chocolate truffle for dessert. “Chocolate is an aphrodisiac because it can mimic feelings of falling in love,” says Ward.
Now is the time to load up on nutrients that encourage cell growth. Beta-carotene, which is commonly found in leafy greens as well as yellow and orange foods (e.g., carrots, cantaloupe and sweet potatoes), helps keep your hormones in check and prevents early miscarriage. In fact, the corpus luteum, which helps produce the progesterone necessary to sustain a pregnancy, is loaded with the powerful nutrient.
One food that gets a lot of attention during this phase is pineapple. In addition to beta-carotene, pineapple contains a substance called bromelain, which has been shown to mildly support implantation through its anti-inflammatory properties. “There’s not a lot of research out there for the benefits of eating pineapple during the time of conception, but if you want to hedge your bets, you may benefit,” says Wright. “After all, pineapple is a healthy food with no downside.” Experts discourage taking bromelain as a supplement though because the dose may be too high, and anything that dramatically moves blood during this time could be counter-productive.
- Fuel up on: Warming foods like soups and stews. The luteal phase is all about creating higher temperatures to help hold a pregnancy.
- Steer clear of: Cold or raw foods, especially ice cream and frozen yogurt. The luteal phase is a time when you want to promote growth and expansion; cold constricts.
- On your plate: A hot and spicy bowl of chili made with lean ground beef and a slice of crusty bread. For dessert: pineapple sorbet.