I was recently asked by a member of our Fertility Companion Facebook group, if I could elaborate on how inflammation and gut health can impact fertility and what can be done to improve things through diet. It’s a big topic and a long answer. The complexities of the immune system and how it interacts with our reproductive function probably requires a few hundred pages. However, I’m going to do my best to distill that information into a blog post of sensible length which will hopefully answer those questions. It may need to be in 2 parts…
Firstly, I think it’s worth explaining what inflammation is, how it works to protect us and when it can be a problem.
It’s important to understand that inflammation is a perfectly natural protective mechanism that the human body uses to respond to infections or injury. If, for example, we twist an ankle, cut a finger or eat something dodgy, our body will utilize inflammation to respond. Immune cells are instructed to rush into the injured area, blood vessels widen for improved blood flow, increased fluid and even more immune cells arrive at the scene. This healing process usually causes temporary discomfort, resulting in warmth, redness, swelling and pain. In this kind of scenario, a body part that is temporarily “out of service” actually helps to speed up the healing process. Neat, huh?
Once the injury or infection has been dealt with, there is no longer a need for these pro-inflammatory hormones and our amazingly smart body sends in anti-inflammatory compounds to continue the healing process. Acute inflammation, like this, that ebbs and flows as needed tells us that we have a well balanced immune system. Symptoms of inflammation that are “always-on” and don’t recede tell us that the “on switch” is stuck and we are poised on high alert – even when we aren’t in danger. This is when inflammation can cause a problem, to every organ and body function, including fertility.
Given the high rate of IBS, allergies, arthritis (any condition ending in ‘itis’ indicates inflammation is at play) we are seeing, it’s safe to say that a huge proportion of us are “always-on”. Why? What are we doing that could cause this imbalance?
As with many conditions, the answer is in the health of our gut. I am convinced that chronic inflammation starts in the gut and I am not alone in that conviction. Our bodies primary defence system resides in the gut, an environment that is effectively “outside” the rest of the body. It is here that we kill off invading bugs, bacteria and viruses before those critters ever make it into our bodies and cause havoc. Our modern diet does not make this an easy task however. Not only have we moved away from traditional unprocessed diets in only a few generations, we are piling in foods that tip the scales in favour of inappropriate inflammation. We are eating far too much sugar, carbs and high levels of wheat, dairy and other common allergens. These foods can cause damage to the delicate balance in the gut and encourage a permanent state of inflammation.
As soon as there is damage to the delicate gut wall, the protective barrier between what we ingest and the rest of our body is impacted. We can no longer filter useful nutrients from bacteria and partially digested food. Once these uninvited guests get through our leaky gut wall and into the blood, our immune system is on high alert. They are identified as foreign bodies, potentially dangerous and are attacked by our immune cells. As a result of any number of complex mechanisms, these foreign bodies can cause all kinds of confusion for the immune system. Even more damage is done to the gut, the confused immune system may damage the body’s own tissue and cause ongoing problems that can impact our fertility too. Something that is not always acknowledged or well understood when considering our fertility, is how fundamentally connected each body system is.
We cannot separate our reproductive health from that of our gut or our immune system. If one system is out of whack, it can have a domino effect on every other system in the body. The mechanism, or root of the problem may be different for everyone, but damage to the gut is almost always a safe place to start.
Where do our food choices come in?
In the West, we tend to have a very dominant pro-inflammatory diet. The foods that are pro-inflammatory, or inflammation causing, tend to be high in Omega-6 fats, rather than anti-inflammatory Omega-3 fats. Those foods include red meat, intensively produced chicken, grains like wheat and highly processed dairy (which pretty much all dairy is, unless it is raw). The ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fats should be 1:1 or 2:1 at the most. The modern Western diet is closer to 20:1. Even if you don’t eat massive quantities of processed food, it is quite easy to have a diet that tips the scales towards inflammation.
Another big culprit is sugar. In excess, sugar will cause inflammation in the gut and elsewhere in the body. It will feed bacteria and fungi that can cause inflammation and it will also have a huge impact on hormonal health. We have been taught by powerful food companies to believe that a little processed sugar is good for us, necessary even. The WHO has published guidelines on how much added sugar we can have in our daily diets, implying that sugar is a healthy part of a balanced diet. I have a few problems with this –
- We do not need processed sugar to be healthy. Yes, glucose is used by the body as a fuel source, but we are perfectly capable of digesting complex carbohydrates and vegetables to get the glucose we need. There is no minimum requirement for processed sugar. End of story.
- If you have a health issue, whether it is PCOS, Endometriosis, a Luteal Phase Defect, Diabetes or any other condition the standard “balanced diet” will not serve you. You need a diet that will heal and support recovery, not just maintain the status quo. Having any kind of fertility issue is an indication that you need something more supportive and nourishing than the standard balanced diet and processed sugar has nothing to offer you.
Kicking sugar is really, really tough, I know this as well as you do. If it was easy, we would all give it up in the morning, given what we know about it. What I want you to understand is that while it may be highly addictive and incredibly tough to give up, your body has no genuine need for processed sugar. Sometimes this knowledge is enough to begin to cut down and eventually eliminate it completely. If you have begun that process already, High Five to you.
Clearly I need to continue this topic in a second post – it’s a long one! I really hope this has helped to begin to clarify the connections between inflammation and gut health, which has a direct impact on fertility. In the next post I will explain further how fertility is affected and how to make nourishing food choices to support your fertility. I hope this is the beginning of a conversation. Please comment below with your questions and I will do my best to answer them.
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