In a Harvard University study published in 2018, scientists looked at the impact that sugary drinks had on fertility, analysing the diets of 3,828 North American women wanting to get pregnant and 1,045 of their male partners. The results were clear, both female and male intakers of sugar-sweetened beverages were associated with reduced chances of conceiving, with those drinking more than seven servings a week facing a much lower probability of getting pregnant, something that affected both sexes.
The link between sugar and fertility has long been discussed and its relevance could become even more prevalent as our sugar intake seems to show no signs of slowing down. In fact, research by Public Health England in 2019 found that despite the sugar content of many products being reduced after a government crackdown, overall sugar consumption had increased by 2.6% in just three years.
Most of us are aware of the benefits of a good diet and the impact sugar can have on our health. Not only can it increase the risk of type 2 diabetes but the associated weight gain of eating too much sugar can make heart disease, stroke and certain types of cancers more likely. It can also worsen the hormonal imbalances caused by PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome).
So, what do the experts think? GLAMOUR spoke with Fertility Family’s Sarah Trimble, a nutritional therapist, accredited member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC).
How does sugar impact our reproductive health?
Research in recent years has shown that consistently high sugar intake can negatively impact both male and female fertility. One study from Boston University found that just one sugary soft drink a day reduced conception rates in females by a quarter and in males by a third. This is because it can interfere with reproductive hormones and damage egg and sperm quality.
The more we eat sugar and refined carbohydrates, the more our blood sugar levels increase and the more our body produces insulin – intended to move this sugar out of the bloodstream and into the cells for energy production. It’s high blood sugar and insulin levels that have the potential to significantly impact our reproductive health.
What’s the link between sugar and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?
PCOS is believed to affect around 10% of women. The condition means that you’re more likely to need treatment to help you get pregnant, and it can cause a higher risk of pregnancy complications. A high sugar intake is the biggest dietary factor in PCOS, because most women with the condition have what’s called insulin resistance. This means that insulin cannot do its job properly, and the body has to produce excessive insulin to manage blood sugar levels, causing women with PCOS an exaggerated insulin response when they consume sugar.
How does sugar impact on egg and sperm quality?
Even in women without PCOS, high blood sugar levels negatively impact egg quality and lessen the chances of both assisted and non-assisted conception. A Japanese study found that the more sugar women consumed in the months leading up to an IVF cycle, the poorer their egg quality was.
Men who have high blood sugar were found to have higher levels of sperm DNA damage, a factor that can negatively impact chances of conception and increase the likelihood of miscarriage.
How we can reduce the impact of sugar on our fertility?
Look for whole grain carbohydrates
Replace refined carbohydrates with whole grain carbohydrates, such as oats, which release sugar into the bloodstream slowly, preventing spikes in blood sugar levels. Think of sugary foods like biscuits only as treats, having them a maximum of 2-3 times a week rather than daily.
Maintain regular exercise
Regular exercise is key to improving insulin activity and achieving healthy blood sugar levels. Resistance training is even better for insulin activity than cardio exercise so try a combination of the two.
Get into a sufficient and consistent sleeping pattern
Just one night of insufficient sleep (less than six hours) can result in elevated blood sugar and insulin levels the following day, so aiming to get at least seven hours nightly.
Look for ways to balance your body
Nutritional supplements can help support insulin resistance and promote ovulation. The nutrient myo-inositol – the main ingredient in Pharmasure’s Inofolic Alpha – has been shown to improve insulin resistance and help restore ovulation in women with PCOS.
Where can I find support?
Fertility Network UK is the number one charity for anyone experiencing fertility problems in the UK. They run a range of local online support groups.
The British Infertility Counselling Association (BICA) offers a range of specialist counselling services.
HFEA, the government regulator provides free, clear and impartial information on UK fertility clinics, IVF and other types of fertility treatment, and donation.
The NHS offers support, healthy eating tips and recipe ideas for cutting down on sugar on its Eat Well website.