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Does refined sugar affect your fertility levels?

refined sugar fertility levels

Dr Marilyn Glenville runs us through the negative impact refined sugar can have on a fertility cycle, and explains how to replace the white stuff with the right stuff.
Refined sugar in any form provides empty calories; it has no nutritional value whatsoever. 

To protect and improve male and female fertility, it is essential to eat foods which contain good levels of nutrients such as zinc and selenium, so sugar is a big nutritional no-no. Even worse than that, because foods that have added sugar are devoid of nutrients, your body has to use other nutrients stored in your system in order to digest the sugar.

So, not only are you getting absolutely no vital vitamins and minerals from the sugar, but your body is also losing valuable nutrients just by eating it. Hence added sugar is a negative double whammy on the nutritional front and can actually create nutritional deficiencies, which will have an impact on fertility. It is important to clarify that this refers to the refined sugar added to food and drink and not to the naturally occurring or unrefined sugar in foods such as fruit, vegetables and grains.

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But there are even more negative effects associated with refined sugar, other than just depletion of nutrients. The amount of blood sugar that is circulating in your bloodstream can have a huge impact on your fertility Blood sugar levels rise every time you eat and your body then produces insulin in order to move the sugar into your cells, ready to be used for energy. If you eat the kind of foods that are beneficial for fertility – whole grains, vegetables and fruit, nuts, seeds, oily fish and legumes – these foods are digested and absorbed slowly and your blood sugar levels and insulin levels will rise and fall gradually within the normal range.

If, however, you eat too many sugary and processed foods, such as white bread and cakes, your blood sugar and insulin levels shoot up faster and faster – well above the normal range. If this continues too much insulin is produced and can result in excess weight gain, which will affect fertility and the success rates of IVF. It can also be the trigger for the body becoming insulin-resistant, leading to conditions such as PCOS, which will create hormone imbalances and even hinder ovulation.

Even if you don’t have insulin resistance, eating a diet based on whole foods or foods that are low on the glycaemic index (GI) – meaning that they are absorbed and digested slowly – is a good idea for both your health and your natural ways to increase fertility. This is because rapid swings in blood sugar can spark off sugar cravings and bingeing habits that make you eat the wrong foods and put on weight; whole foods will fill you up more and hopefully avoid that happening.

In addition, if blood sugar levels are frequently low, your body will start to pump out more of the stress hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. The trouble is that this makes your body think you are under more stress than you actually are and stress itself can have an impact on fertility, in some cases stopping ovulation. But in addition, the release of the stress hormones can block your body’s ability to utilise the reproductive hormone progesterone, which is essential for maintaining pregnancy.

Ultimately, controlling blood sugar levels is crucial for hormone balance and fertility and the best way to maintain the correct levels is to adjust your fertility diet accordingly. Blood sugar levels rise and fall depending on two main factors: what you eat and drink and when you eat or drink. Refined food (junk food, confectionary) is digested very fast because foods like sugar have been stripped of their natural goodness by the manufacturing process.

When digestion is too fast you get a sharp rise in blood sugar giving you a temporary lift. But the initial high will soon plummet, leaving you tired and drained when your blood sugar levels drop again. When this happens you may experience cravings for a bar of chocolate or a coffee and a vicious cycle is set up that can cause an up and down rollercoaster of blood-sugar swings and subsequent hormonal chaos.

Whole unrefined carbohydrates like brown rice are absorbed slowly into your bloodstream; eating foods like this means you avoid blood sugar swings and the negative effects they have on your mood, health and fertility. If you leave more than three hours between meals and snacks your blood glucose will drop to a low level making you more likely to crave sweet food that can give you a quick boost. This can be avoided if you eat little and often and leave no more than three hours without eating.

Many of us find ourselves skipping breakfast or grabbing a coffee, followed by a light lunch and then an evening meal, maybe as late as 9 or 10pm. Starving and stacking your calories like this isn’t a good idea if you are trying for a baby. Not to mention the fact that if you leave long periods between meals your body thinks starvation is on the menu and responds by doing its best to hold onto every calorie by reducing your metabolism and preparing to store fat.

So, to balance your blood sugar levels you need to eat more often and eat unrefined carbohydrates rather than refined foods, especially sugar.

Dr Marilyn Glenville
Dr Marilyn Glenville
Dr Marilyn Glenville PhD is the UK’s leading nutritionist specialising in women’s health. She is the former President of the Food and Health Forum at the Royal Society of Medicine, a registered nutritionist, psychologist, author and popular broadcaster who obtained her doctorate from Cambridge University.

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