Vegetarian diets and infertility

by Konstantin Monastyrsky

These [are] the beasts which ye shall eat: the ox, the sheep, and the goat, The hart, and the roebuck, and the fallow deer, and the wild goat, and the pygarg, and the wild ox, and the chamois. And every beast that parteth the hoof, and cleaveth the cleft into two claws, [and] cheweth the cud among the beasts, that ye shall eat. (Deuteronomy - Chapter 14, verses 4-6)

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In this episode I will discuss the role of vegetarian diets in maternal undernutrition, and, by extension, infertility, birth defects, and autism.

Let me begin by saying that I am just as aghast as anyone over the slaughter of innocent and defenseless animals in industrial feedlots, and I have absolutely nothing against the Western-style vegetarian lifestyle per se, and this discussion isn‘t about food politics or converting anyone, but about helping you to get pregnant and give birth to a healthy child.

I will start with a riddle... Do you have any idea why monks and nuns in some Eastern religions, particularly in the branch of Chinese Buddhism, are all strict vegans, meaning they eat nothing but plants?

Well, the rational behind this part of orthodox Buddhism is actually quite practical — a strict vegan diet kills libido and fertility just as reliably as castration, and keeps monks and nuns alike celibate and docile. In the confines of a Buddhist monastery, where so many young people reside together in close quarters, less sexuality and infertility isn‘t a problem but a welcome relief.

Fortunately, the majority of Westerners who refer to themselves as vegetarians are not true vegans, but so-called pescetarian vegetarians, who continue eating fish, or lacto-ovo vegetarians, who continue eating eggs and dairy. Practically all of them also eat bread, pasta, rice, and morning cereals fortified with iron, folic acid, and niacin.

In these circumstances, you don‘t really need to consume any red meat, pork, or chicken to remain healthy and fecund, especially while you are still young and at the peak of fertility.

So, If this describes you — young, healthy, and a normal weight pescetarian or lacto-ovo vegetarian, and infertility isn‘t yet a concern, just keep eating what you have been eating all along — there isn‘thing wrong with your diet or lifestyle.

On the other hand, if you are already having health issues, and can‘t conceive naturally, your diet may be wrong for the purposes of procreation. Carrying pregnancy to term, delivering a healthy baby, and breastfeeding may represent an even greater challenge, particularly if you are a vegan.

The specific reasons behind a higher prevalence of infertility among vegetarians than omnivores have been acknowledged and written up in numerous research papers on this subject.

Among the best documented causes of infertility related to vegetarian lifestyle are (1)protein-energy undernutrition, (2) chronic or pernicious anemia, (3) metabolic syndrome, and (4) digestive disorders. Lets take a look at these four conditions, one-by-one:

— Protein-energy undernutrition is related to the chronic deficiency of essential amino acids, also known as primary proteins. If you are a pescetarian or lacto-ovo vegetarian, you are not likely to be affected by this condition.

Technically, adult vegans can obtain all of the eight essential amino acids — the ones that your body doesn‘t make — from carefully combining tree nuts, legumes, and soy. But, unfortunately, soybeans contain some of the highest levels of phytoestrogens. These are naturally occurring substance that act in the body just like estrogen, and they may disrupt ovulation in women and sperm-making in men. All three -- soy, legumes and nuts may also become highly allergenic when used as primary foods for extended periods of time.

Depression, fatigue, menstrual irregularity, impotence, and edema — meaning water retention throughout the body — are the most common symptoms of protein-energy undernutrition.

That said, if you are having any of these symptoms, avoid suddenly adding meat, fish, or seafood to your diet because this may cause severe gastritis and enterocolitis related to the incomplete digestion of animal proteins, and the ensuing poisoning by byproducts of the protein rotting. It takes time to resume gastric digestion of animal protein, so you must start slowly and gradually, as if you are recovering from an extended fast.

Chronic or pernicious anemia is another major peril affecting vegetarians. Most people believe that anemia is caused by too little dietary iron. Actually, iron deficiency is only one of the several factors behind anemia.

The other equally important micronutrients required to prevent anemia are folate, vitamins B-12 and C, essential fatty acids, and, again, primary proteins.

Plants have plenty of folate and vitamin C, and some of the essential fatty acids, so these three are not usually the problem. However, the rest — iron, vitamin B-12, and primary proteins — come almost exclusively from red and organ meats.

Adding insult to injury, most of the iron in a vegetarian diet isn‘t natural hem iron, but is derived mainly from morning cereals, bread, pasta, and rice fortified with synthetic iron. In many cases this added iron may damage the intestinal organs, and cause even greater undernutrition.

A high degree of allergenicity to wheat gluten, tree nuts, and legumes in vegetarian diets exacerbates anemia, because food allergies block the assimilation of the already meager nutrients required for turning out red blood cells. In these cases, even supplements are not effective, and in the case of an iron overdose, are outright harmful.

A pale appearance, menstrual irregularity, hair loss, conclave nails, low body temperature, frequent respiratory infections, mouth sores, memory lapses, and muscular fatigue while walking uphill or climbing stairs, are the most common signs of chronic anemia in adults.

Short of having a blood transfusion, overcoming chronic anemia isn‘t quick, or as simple as gulping down a few supplements. I will address the recovery procedure from anemia, and its prevention in another episode.

— The next major contributor is metabolic syndrome related to the chronic overconsumption of dietary carbohydrates. This isn‘t surprising — plants are almost exclusively made up of simple and complex carbohydrates. On top of this inescapable fact of nature, farm-raised fruits and vegetables are intentionally cultivated to have a high sugar and starch content.

Also, unlike several generations ago, when fruits and vegetables were available mostly in brief season, today they are exported from all over the world, and are abundant year-round. Many of these fruits are tropical, and they tend to be highly allergenic, particularly for infants and toddlers.

Weight gain is one of the most apparent symptoms of metabolic syndrome. An equally reliable markers are high blood pressure, unstable blood sugar, mood and energy swings, frequent urination, a dry mouth, insomnia, and obviously, elevated levels of A1C, C-Peptide, and triglycerides in your blood test.

There is really only one reliable way to reverse and prevent metabolic syndrome from affecting your health and fertility: keep the consumption of dietary carbohydrates under 200 grams, or 800 calories per day, and avoid anything that tastes sweet, including artificial sweeteners.

This is because the taste of sweetness blasts the level of insulin up, and plunges the level of blood sugar down. This dual action stimulates hunger, appetite, and sugar cravings, and they are impossible to resist for the same reasons you can‘t ignore loud noise or sharp pain — basic instincts are always stronger than even the strongest will.

— This brings us to the final major culprit in my list — chronic digestive disorders specific to a vegetarian diet.

If you look at pictures of malnourished children in Africa, they always have bloated, distended bellies.

— But why should a hungry child have such a bloated belly, you may ask...

— Well, their blight is actually related to consuming almost an exclusively plant-based diet. This, after all, is subtropical Africa with year-round abundant vegetation.

But unfortunately for these kids and their parents, all edible plants contain dietary fiber, and this fiber begins to ferment as soon as it enters the child‘s gut. Fiber fermentation produces profuse acid and gases — just like during wine-making, —and they cause the abdominal bloating that you have seen in those pictures.

Pretty much the same happens in adults, although a bit less prominently, because adults have a larger abdominal cavity, and are less vulnerable to the acid secreted during fermentation. But not so to gases... Besides bloating, gases also cause considerable flatulence, a problem that plagues practically all committed vegetarians.

Flatulence may be less prominent in the West because broadly used antibiotics reliably wipe out intestinal bacteria, so fermentation isn‘t as pronounced.

But killing bacteria with antibiotics brings a profound deficiency of vitamin K, that is behind heavy periods, chronic anemia, maternal infertility, miscarriages, and stillbirth from fetal strokes, all related to impaired blood coagulation.

Acid from fermentation and common food allergies are also behind irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, and inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD. When this happens, bloating becomes even more pronounced because inflammation traps gases inside the intestines. Inflammation also blocks the assimilation of foods and supplements into the blood, and turns undernutrition into clear-cut malnutrition.

Alternating patterns of diarrhea and constipation, and abdominal cramping are typical for IBS. IBD is behind ulcerative colitis and Crohn‘s disease, and is more likely to cause diarrhea, often with blood.

To round off the picture, add pelvic constriction to this sorry mix. It happens when the distended intestines protrude further down into the pelvic region, and obstruct the uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes in women, and the sperm ducts in men.

Pelvic constriction is also behind painful or uncomfortable intercourse, the notorious premenstrual syndrome, endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, miscarriages, and many other conditions implicated in male and female infertility and genitourinary disorders.

Well, I rest my case. You can read a lot more about functional digestive disorders related to diet, and how to overcome them, on my web site and in my books.

On a personal note, between 1990 and 1996, I was a committed lacto-vegetarian myself, wanting to be, as one pro-vegetarian book suggested, as strong as an elephant, as smart as Bill Gates, and as wealthy as Warren Buffett.

Instead, I ended up obscenely fat, morbidly diabetic, and financially broke because I was too sick to leave my house for work.

Adding insult to injury, my fit and healthy wife Tatyana coulldn‘t get pregnant no matter how hard we tried. We did marry late, and our chances of natural conception were already low. However, in retrospect, I realize that it was my lopsided diet and poor health, not our age, that brought our chances down to zero.

If you still prefer to remain a committed vegetarian, I respect your choice. Depending on your age, childhood nutrition, ethnicity, occupation, affinity for exercise, and the luck factor, it takes between 10 and 15 years before undernutrition becomes apparent.

Unfortunately, it takes much less time than that to develop the barely perceptible symptoms of subclinical undernutrition, and get affected by infertility, miscarriages, difficult pregnancy, and lactation problems.

Fortunately, most Western-style vegetarians, particularly young ones, do get pregnant, and do have healthy kids for the reasons I have already explained at the beginning. But again, this particular overview isn‘t addressed to those lucky parents, but to those who can‘t conceive naturally.

So, if you are a committed vegetarian in your mid-thirties still longing for a child, please don‘t blame the messenger for delivering the bad news.

All that said, God and nature have made some of us hunters and prodigious omnivores, so we can eat all kinds of foods in order to survive the merciless process of evolution, and pass our genes onto the next generation.

Thus, if you became a herbivore, and can‘t get pregnant as a result, this may mean an evolutionary dead end for your bloodline. And that is why your longing for having a child is so strong — it is, after all, an instinct...

Thank you for considering these facts with an open mind. To learn more about other nutrition-related causes of infertility, birth defects, and autism, please visit my web site.

In turn, I look forward to helping you and your spouse to overcome infertility, and give birth to a smart, happy, and healthy child!


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