23 nutrients for conception — men and women edition
Growth and development of a fetus, and later of a newborn, cannot occur without nutrients. These nutrients are uniquely provided by the mother’s diet. But even before pregnancy, nutrients play a vital role in sperm and egg health. Let’s look at 23 nutrients and their impact on preconception for men, women and ultimately the fetus and offspring.
Table of contents
- The 23 nutrients needed for conception
The animal form of vitamin A (retinol) is a key nutrient for fertility. It improves egg quality, ovarian response, implantation, embryonic development and placenta formation. [*]
Vitamin A in combination with selenium increases sperm motility in men with low selenium levels. [*]
Vitamin A is essential not only for the development of the eyes in a new human life, but also for the differentiation and patterning of all cells and tissues, and the development of fetal organs. [*] Even a mild vitamin A deficiency can cause someone to have poor kidney function later in life. [*]
This is why it is such a shame that vitamin A gets a bad name in the pregnancy story. The studies that led to this story were done with synthetic vitamin A and this should not be confused with retinol in its natural form. Natural sources of vitamin A (retinol) are liver and cod liver oil. [*] If you want to go deeper into this subject, the Weston A Price Foundation has a lot of in-depth information on vitamin A and pregnancy.
Or check out nature’s most abundant source of vitamin A right here..
Vitamin D supplementation can have a positive effect on pregnancy rates and fertility treatment outcomes, and science backs this up. One study found that women with sufficient vitamin D had a significantly higher chance of pregnancy per IVF cycle (52.5%), while those with insufficient vitamin D had a chance of only 34.7%. The women with sufficient vitamin D also had a higher implantation rate. [*]
The relationship between vitamin D and its effect on sperm quality is still unclear. The theory is that vitamin D plays an important role in the communication between the woman’s egg and the man’s sperm. [*]
During pregnancy, vitamin D is used by both the mother and the fetus. If the mother is deficient in vitamin D, it takes a toll on both. Maternal vitamin D deficiency can contribute to low birth weight, the development of rickets in children, and long-term health problems such as type 1 diabetes and schizophrenia. [*] But lower vitamin D levels during pregnancy are also associated with impaired language development at ages 5 and 10, an increased risk of developing multiple sclerosis, and an increased risk of developing an eating disorder in offspring. [*] For the mother herself, it can lead to bone deterioration, osteoporosis, hypocalcemia, and hypertension. [*]
You can get vitamin D through the sun and through cod liver oil.
Preconception men and women
Vitamin K optimizes your sex hormones. It increases testosterone and fertility in men. In women with polycystic ovarian syndrome due to high testosterone levels, it helps bring high levels of male hormones back to normal — increasing their chances of pregnancy. [*]
In pregnancy, mothers pass vitamin K to their unborn babies through the placenta, and later to their babies through breast milk. [*] K vitamins are essential for the development of proper facial proportions and fundamental for the development of the nervous system. [*]
Mothers who consume vitamin K-rich diets during pregnancy and while breast-feeding will likely prevent the infant from developing a vitamin-K deficiency in the first week of life. [*]
Vitamin K2 is transported through the placenta faster than vitamin K1. Vitamin K1 is found in leafy vegetables, while vitamin K2 is found in fermented foods and animal fats from grass-fed animals — especially natto, foie gras, cheese, and in a smaller amount in butter and egg yolks. [*]
Preconception men and women
Vitamin E could help improve sperm motility. Studies in men undergoing infertility treatment show that taking antioxidant supplements may increase the chances of pregnancy. [*] It has also been shown to promote reproductive health in women. [*]
Aside from the in-depth Weston A Price guide “Vitamins for Fetal Development,” there is not as much information on vitamin E for pregnancy. The Weston A Price guide recommends vitamin E from grass-fed animal fats, since there is four times more vitamin E in grass-fed animal fats than in grain-fed animal fat sources. Other dietary sources of vitamin E include palm oil, nuts, seeds, fresh fruits and vegetables. [*]
Vitamin C, like vitamin E, is also an antioxidant. In a study with infertile men, vitamin C supplementation increased sperm count by up to 140 percent. [*]
Pre-conception and pregnancy
When the baby is developing early during pregnancy, folate helps form the neural tube. Folate is very important because it can help prevent some major birth defects of the baby’s brain (anencephaly) and spine (spina bifida).
Folate is the natural, whole food form of folic acid produced in the lab. It is found in liver and other organ meats, asparagus and spinach. Whole-food folate is always best, but if you can’t get the recommended 600 mcg per day before conception and during pregnancy, you can supplement with liver capsules (which give you 78.3 mcg per six capsules), or with folinic acid (also known as calcium folinate) and L-methylfolate (L-5-MTHF). [*]
Low zinc levels are associated with lower sperm counts in men. [*] One small double-blind, placebo-controlled study suggested that zinc should be used in combination with folic acid to increase sperm concentrations. [*]
A 2018 study found that zinc deficiency may have a negative effect on egg development. [*] However, this study was conducted on mice, but James Hester, Ph.D, the lead author of the study, indicated that recent research in his laboratory shows that zinc is an essential nutrient in egg development. [*]
Taking zinc during pregnancy helps reduce preterm births to some extent. Low zinc concentrations may even prolong childbirth. [*]
The greatest source of zinc is oysters. [*]
Excess iron is probably more of a problem in men. An excess of iron has a negative impact on spermatogenesis (development of sperm cells). Conversely, iron deficiency is also associated with impaired spermatogenesis. For example, in men with iron deficiency anemia, iron supplementation led to a doubling of sperm count and an improvement in all sperm parameters.
The bottom line? A balance between too much and too little iron seems to be important for spermatogenesis. [*]
During pregnancy, more iron is needed primarily to feed the growing fetus and placenta and to increase the mother’s red cell mass, but more iron also provides a buffer against the blood loss that occurs during childbirth. [*]
You can read all about how to increase your iron levels here, but in short: get enough heme iron from foods, such as mussels, red meat and liver. If you want to supplement iron, choose a liver capsule from whole foods rather than a supplement without heme iron from a lab. And finally, always take iron-rich foods and supplements away from calcium (dairy, calcium supplements, bone meal powders).
In men deficient in DHA, the health and motility of the sperm are impaired, reducing the man’s fertility. [*]
In women, science confirms that omega-3 can improve ovulation, ovarian reserve and overall fertility. [*]
During pregnancy, the need for omega-3 increases to support fetal growth, particularly of the brain and eyes. [*] In one study, mothers who took cod liver oil (consisting of 1.2 g/d DHA and 0.8 g/d EPA) during pregnancy and while breastfeeding led to an increase in the children’s IQ at age four. [*], [*]
DHA deficiency during pregnancy can lead to preterm birth and postpartum depression in mothers. [*]
One-third of mothers develop spontaneous biotin deficiency during pregnancy. [*] A 2020 study suggests that maternal biotin deficiency during pregnancy could put mothers at risk for preterm birth or fetal growth restriction. [*] Hence the importance of optimizing biotin levels during pregnancy.
Liver and egg yolks are rich in biotin, but the egg whites contain a protein called avidin that prevents the absorption of biotin. Cooking neutralizes avidin, but not entirely. Therefore, opt for egg yolk during pregnancy. If you eat the egg white, always cook it and never eat it without the yolk. [*]
Preconception and pregnancy
We have explained in this blog the concept of balancing methionine with glycine. Red meat primarily contains the amino acid methionine. Methionine is also found in eggs, dairy, poultry, and fish. Glycine, on the other hand, is especially abundant in skin, bones, organ meats, ligaments, and bone broth.
Diets with improper methionine balance (i.e., too little or too much) can negatively affect both short-term reproductive health and long-term offspring physiology, such as disrupting DNA methylation and endocrine functions. [*]
So, what would be the perfect ratio?
If you consume 100 grams of methionine-rich protein (lean meat, eggs, dairy or fish), add a serving of bone broth powder that contains 10 grams of protein. [*]
Glycine-rich Beef Bone Broth from 100% grass-fed, organic Swedish cattle
A strong association has been found between sperm count and motility and CoQ10. [*] Several studies have shown that in men with lower fertility, CoQ10 supplements can increase motility, concentrations, and total sperm count. [*], [*]
CoQ10 supplementation has been shown to improve egg quality and increase fertilization rates. A study from 2018 showed that pre-supplementation with CoQ10 increases fertility in women undergoing IVF treatment. [*], [*]
A 1996 study demonstrated a direct correlation between low CoQ10 levels and miscarriage. [*]
Supplementation with CoQ10 also appears to reduce the risk of developing pre-eclampsia, a condition characterized by high blood pressure and often a significant amount of protein in the urine during the second half of pregnancy. [*]
Other studies have shown that pregnant women suffering from cholestasis (a liver condition that occurs in late pregnancy) have a significant drop in CoQ10 levels. A fetus of a mother who has suffered from cholestasis is at greater risk from oxidative damage. [*], [*]
The highest food source of CoQ10 in nature is beef heart.
In men, the need for choline is more genetically determined. SNPs in folate- and choline-metabolizing genes increase dietary choline requirements. Certain common genetic variations in these genes (the rs12676 SNP) are associated with reduced sperm motility. [*], [*]
Preconception and pregnancy
A low intake of choline during pregnancy, like folate, is associated with a fourfold increased risk of neural tube defects. [*] Hence, the RDA for choline is 550 mg during pregnancy, which is equivalent to 3.5 eggs and 107 beef liver, both primary dietary sources of choline. [*] Six freeze-dried liver capsules will provide you with 90 mg of choline.
Rodent studies have even shown that a threefold increase in choline intake before pregnancy and during pregnancy improves lifelong brain-enhancing benefits, such as memory and learning functions. [*], [*]
Low levels of carnosine and taurine were found in pregnant diabetic mothers and were associated with impaired fetal brain development. When these children grew up, they showed deficiencies in neurotransmitters involved in insulin secretion. Which can eventually lead to impaired glucose tolerance and gestational diabetes, passing the condition on to the next generation. [*]
Taurine has been shown to have a positive impact on sperm health. It improves overall sperm quality, including sperm count and motility. [*]
Preconception and pregnancy
The requirement for taurine increases during pregnancy. It plays an important role in many aspects of fetal development, such as pancreatic and brain development. Preconceptional malnutrition of taurine has long-lasting effects on pancreatic and brain function in the offspring. [*]
As explained above, low taurine and low-carnosine levels were found in pregnant diabetic mothers, making them more likely to pass on their condition to their offspring. [*]
The highest amounts of taurine are found in scallops, mussels and clams. High amounts are also found in turkey and chicken. [*]
Carnitine is a substance found in the male genital tract and in semen. There is evidence that low levels of carnitine contribute to some sperm disorders. [*]
For example, studies have shown that administration of L-carnitine may help treat fertility problems in men, especially those resulting from problems with sperm motility. [*]
Other studies show that supplementation with L-carnitine can improve sperm motility and morphology. [*]
Both L-carnitine (LC) and its acetylated form, acetyl-L-carnitine, have been shown to improve fertility in women through their effects on reducing cellular stress, maintaining hormonal balance and improving energy production. [*]
Carnitine levels drop during pregnancy and because carnitine can cross the placenta, additional amounts are needed. Carnitine deficiency has been associated with adverse outcomes such as preterm birth and low birth weight. [*], [*], [*], [*]
Animal products such as meat, fish, poultry and milk are the best sources of carnitine.
Current research suggests that eating a creatine-rich maternal diet, or supplementation with creatine, could protect a baby from poor growth and even brain damage during a difficult birth process. [*]
Food sources of creatine are red meat and fish. A pound of raw beef or salmon will provide you with your daily requirement. [*]
Studies demonstrate the positive effects of vitamin B12 on semen quality: by increasing sperm count, and by enhancing sperm motility and reducing sperm DNA damage. [*]
Preconception and pregnancy
Pregnant mothers with limited resources, such as through a vegan or vegetarian diet without supplementation, are at risk of poor vitamin B12 status.
Poor vitamin B12 status in childhood is associated with poor growth and neurodevelopment. Brain development begins from conception, and pregnancy is a period of rapid growth and development of the brain. This is why it is so important to eat a B12-rich diet before conception.
In addition, the main role of vitamin B12 during pregnancy is to promote normal cell division and differentiation, and central nervous system development. [*]
Vitamin B12 is naturally found in foods of animal origin, including meat, organ meats, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products.
The effect of selenium on sperm quality has shown mixed results. Two randomized controlled trials showed no positive effect. But it did increase motility when taken together with vitamin A in men with low selenium levels. [*]
Preconception and pregnancy
Research shows that selenium promotes the growth of healthy follicles in the ovaries. As an antioxidant, selenium prevents DNA damage, which can cause birth defects and miscarriages. [*]
A deficiency in selenium can also lead to pregnancy complications, damage to the nervous and immune systems of the fetus. Low selenium concentration in blood serum in the early stages of pregnancy has been found to be a predictor of low birth weight of a newborn. [*]
Today, it is difficult to get magnesium from food because the soil is depleted. Between 1940 and 1999, the magnesium content of foods dropped to 26%. Therefore, for most people, a supplement may be the only option. [*] Unless you are a frequent rice eater. With only 100 g of rice, it provides you with the full RDA for men over 30. [*]
Low-protein, high-fiber diets decrease magnesium absorption, so it is best to eat some animal protein in addition to your rice, preferably soaked before cooking, to improve magnesium absorption even more. [*]
For men in particular, magnesium is important because lower levels are associated with infertility. [*]
In pregnant women, magnesium may reduce fetal growth restriction and preeclampsia and increase birth weight. [*] A more recent study of 3068 pregnant women found that magnesium supplementation significantly reduced the rate of preterm birth. [*]
Studies on the effects of low or too high copper levels on sperm quality have so far only been done on animals. [*]
Preconception and pregnancy
But for women, copper has been shown to be essential for several functions, including iron absorption, connective tissue formation, energy metabolism, oxidative stress and brain development. Copper is needed to prevent anemia because copper enzymes are needed for iron absorption.
In general, it appears that low copper levels in early pregnancy are a risk factor for spontaneous abortion and central nervous system malformations, so supplementation before conception seems essential, and low copper levels in later pregnancy are a risk factor for the pregnancy complication premature rupture of the membranes. [*]
Men with the lowest and highest serum manganese concentrations were found to have reduced sperm concentrations. [*]
Low or unusually high concentrations of manganese are also a problem for fetal growth, neurological development, and psychomotor development (the relationship between cognitive functions and physical movement, i.e., lifting of arms and legs). [*]
The main food source of manganese is mussels. [*]
A study [*] found that eight weeks of supplementation with 200 mg of chromium in non-pregnant women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (due to insulin resistance) led to several benefits and possibly an increase in the number of pregnancies during those eight weeks. Similarly, another study [*] found that eight weeks of supplementation with 200 mg of chromium per day in infertile women with polycystic ovarian syndrome led to significant improvements in biomarkers of inflammation and glucose.
The richest food sources of chromium are mussels and oysters. [*]
For both men and women, a diet rich in animal foods is likely to prevent serious deficiencies that can lead to infertility or birth defects. Focus on eating eggs, organ meats, red meats, oysters, mussels and other seafood on a regular basis. Especially liver. Liver provides 27 nutrients in high doses and in their bioavailable form, which makes this superfood from nature unique and so much better than a multivitamin. If you do not have access to organ meats and shellfish, or if you do not like to eat them, there are ways to supplement them in freeze-dried form.