Sugar intake in the UK is rising, despite government crackdown efforts. Research by Public Health England in 2019 found that despite the sugar content of many products being cut, overall sugar consumption had increased by 2.6% in just three years.
Only recently have we truly discovered the impact of regularly consuming sugar in the form of biscuits, cakes and refined carbohydrates. Sugar was recently removed from the UK’s daily dietary recommendations and the government set out guidelines in 2017 for a 20% reduction across nine major categories of food. According to the NHS, ‘free sugars’ – which include both those added to food or drinks, and those found naturally in honey, syrups, and fruit and vegetables – should not make up more than 5% of your calorie intake per day.
Sugar can impact overall health in many ways – not only can it increase the risk of type 2 diabetes but the associated weight gain 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).
To get the facts on the link between sugar intake and fertility problems, Fertility Family has spoken to Sarah Trimble, Nutritional Therapist at Sarah Trimble Nutrition. Sarah is an 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.
The relationship 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.
The impact of sugar 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 6 hours) can result in elevated blood sugar and insulin levels the following day, so aiming to get at least 7 hours nightly.
Look for ways to balance your body
Nutritional supplements can help support insulin resistance and promote ovulation. The nutrient myo-inositol has been shown to improve insulin resistance and help restore ovulation in women with PCOS.