Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Forty Something and Still Fertile

"An ever-growing number of couples now put off starting a family and devote their earlier years to building a home, establishing careers, travelling and having fun. If you're planning for pregnancy in your forties, it's never too soon to start a maximum fertility plan. For men and women there are nutritional and lifestyle changes which dramatically increase the chances of fertile eggs, healthy sperm and conception” - says our Naturopath, Michael van Straten

When it comes to having babies young couples face difficult choices. Financial considerations are always a factor but if you wait till you can really afford children, you'll probably never do it. Realistically it's the question of work that poses the problem. Even in the 21st century and the day of the New Man, not many will give up their careers to become a house husband and bring up the kids. On the other hand when a woman enjoys her work, is beginning to make her mark and move up the commercial or professional ladder, is 25 the time for a career break. Does she want three months maternity leave and then go back to work. Or is it even possible to take a year off and not lose touch with changes in technology. Getting a foot on the housing ladder is not easy either and a lot of couples would rather wait till they've established a home which they think is suitable for raising a family.

Even though men are capable of fathering children into their 80s and 90s, their chances of success can be significantly reduced as time goes by. It's not that long since women who hadn't had their first child by their late 20s started to panic but with today's knowledge and expertise, first time mothers at forty-something are commonplace albeit at a slightly higher risk of complications. Couples can protect their fertility and reduce the risks in late pregnancies by following this simple F-plan.


Although there is little evidence of gross malnutrition in women in general, subclinical malnutrition - a problem of very small deficiencies, which can have a major effect on fertility - is a matter for serious concern. The nutritional state of women is the key to high fertility and to the presence or absence of birth defects, as well as the production of a healthy baby when you finally decide to get pregnant. The F-plan diet must include a wide variety of foods, especially those which are rich in the vitamins, minerals and trace elements, essential for perfect eggs.

As a Naturopath I've been analysing patient's diets for more than 30 years and have grown increasingly alarmed as the levels of vital nutrients declined little by little and many of the women don't come close to meeting the minimum nutritional requirements for these essential substances. The latest research published by the Food Standards Agency early this month reveals that 9 out of 10 women between the ages of 19 and 34 do not get enough folic acid, virtually all women between 19 and 24 didn't achieve the recommended levels of iron and 42% of them got so little of the mineral from their food that they are at risk of anaemia. Most women don't consume enough magnesium and women's intake of most of the other vitamins and minerals has dropped significantly below recommended levels since 1986.

This official report also warns that worrying numbers of young women are also missing out on vitamins A and C, folic acid, calcium, zinc and copper as well. All these nutrients are needed if you want to protect and maintain maximum fertility. Part of this deficiency problem is caused by bad eating habits and an over-reliance on processed, ready to eat meals, snacks and takeaways, but the current obsession with weight loss and dieting is also partly to blame.

50% of women with fertility problems have been trying to lose weight on some form of diet during the previous 12 months. Whether it's a ‘thousand calorie' diet, the cabbage soup diet, the unhealthy and really dangerous Atkins diet, or any other extreme weight loss regime the result is poor nutrition. And inadequate nutrition equals failure to conceive. Lack of essential nutrients can have catastrophic effects on the body's ability to reproduce and as overall nutrition becomes inadequate the reproductive system just switches off. This constant dieting pattern is a real disaster as you may do it for ten years before you decide it's time to have your first child and the resulting pregnancy of malnourished mothers often produces low birthweight babies.

A study by Dr. Wendy Doyle and Professor Michael Crawford compared the calorie intake and babies' birthweight in two groups of women: affluent middle-class women from London's wealthy suburb of Hampstead, and much poorer working-class mothers from Hackney in London's East End. The average calorie intake of the Hackney mothers was 1689 per day, and the average birthweight of their babies was 3026 g. The Hampstead mothers consumed 2044 calories a day and the average birth weight of their babies was 3313 g. Many of the Hackney babies were well below the 2500 g danger-level, at which point the risk of abnormalities increases dramatically. Although there are significant economic differences between the two groups, the working-class mothers spent their food-money very badly: take-away meals, convenience foods, and little in the way of fresh fruit and vegetables and good carbohydrates.

It's not just your fertility that's the result of what you eat, as your baby's health is at risk too.

Waiting till you finally get pregnant before taking folic acid supplements is too late. Folic acid protects against neural tube defects like spina bifida and is vital during the earliest weeks of pregnancy and you may not know you've conceived until the first 8-10 weeks have passed. As a precaution you should take at least 200 micrograms a day as it's also essential for the prevention of heart disease.

Carrots, apricots, broccoli, watercress, spinach and sweet potatoes are all rich sources of betacarotene so eat two portions daily. Eggs, fish, poultry, beans, wholegrain cereals are all needed for protein. Olive oil, avocadoes, sweet potatoes, wheatgerm and sunflower seeds contain vitamin E, essential for fertility and anti-ageing protection. Bananas, white fish and poultry provide the vital vitamin B6, and milk, cheese, beef, yoghurt, eggs and chicken give you riboflavin for fertility. Iron and vitamin B12 are also essential and red meat, sesame seeds, dried fruits like prunes, raisins and apricots, and even tuna are good sources of well absorbed iron, and B12 is available from poultry, game, eggs, beef and Marmite. A little known nutrient called rutin is found in buckwheat, brought back to England by the Crusaders. It protects and strengthens the circulatory system and helps control blood pressure.

Essential fatty acids from oily fish are also vital for fertility and for baby's brain development when you do get pregnant. I worry about strict vegetarians and even more so about vegans who rely on essential fatty acids in flax seed oil. Unfortunately they are not identical to fish oils so may not be an adequate substitute.

Finally it's really important to include foods rich in natural plant hormones called phytoestrogens, the richest source of which are soya beans and soy based products, linseeds, beans, lentils, chickpeas, wholegrains, nuts and seeds. They're also present in lesser quantities in virtually all vegetables and fruits. Maintain hormone function, boost fertility and together with all the other antioxidants in fresh produce protect against cancers, heart disease and strokes.

**** BOX COPY *****


Folic acid 200 micrograms daily
Vitamin E 200 mg daily
Vitamin C - preferably made with Ester-C, a non-acidic version - 500 mg daily
An all-round one-a-day multivitamin and mineral pill

**** END OF BOX COPY ******


It takes two to tango and although most men are capable of fathering children well into old age, it's important to take care of your fertility to make sure you produce the maximum number of healthy and active sperm. Tragically sperm counts have halved in the last 20 years and which appears to be the result of worse nutrition and an increase in the environmental pollution with female hormones and synthetic hormone interruptors caused by chemical pollution.

The life story of the sperm is fascinating. It takes about 12 weeks for it to develop from its first cell to maturity, and during this time it's very sensitive to damage. You must make sure that your body has a surplus of all the nutrients the sperm needs, as well as taking care to minimise the risk of anything which could cause damage.

40% of male infertility may be the result of alcohol consumption and cutting down on the booze increases the fertility. There's not need to be a teetotaller especially as we know a couple of glasses of wine a day are good for the heart but a bottle of wine, half a bottle of spirits or five pints of your favourite brew won't do much good for your liver or your sperm.

Smoking is the most common cause of damaged sperm as it reduces male hormone levels, which interferes with sperm development. It also drastically lowers the blood levels of vitamin C which prevents sperm clumping together and losing motility.

Do watch your weight as obesity upsets the testosterone/oestrogen balance leading to infertility. For this and all the other reasons stick to a sensible healthy diet and take some form of regular exercise. Don't wear Y-fronts or tight jeans but boxer shorts and loose trousers. This lowers the temperature of the testicles maintaining healthy sperm production. Get off your bike as regular cycling on the long pointed hard types of saddle definitely causes damage and leads to infertility problems. Short, broad, well padded and pointing slightly downward saddles with ‘sit up and beg' handlebars are far better and more comfortable.

Your diet must include 4 oranges, a large glass of OJ or 2 kiwi fruit daily for vitamin C and protective bioflavonoids. At least two portions a day of betacarotene-rich foods for their antioxidant value - carrots, broccoli, apricots, spinach and other orange or dark green leafy vegetables and dark coloured fruits like berries and cherries. If you like shellfish then eat them at least once or twice a week as they're an excellent source of zinc which is essential for sperm development. Each ejaculation contains 5 mg of this mineral which is half of your daily requirement. Pumpkin seeds and nuts also provide good amounts.

A couple of avocados a week, and plenty of olive oil, sunflower and sesame seeds, will give you lots of the essential vitamin E and if you can, try to stick to organic meat, poultry and dairy products as far as possible as they avoid the risk of artificial hormones which may be added to animal feed.

Selenium is one of the most important of all trace minerals for men as it is strongly protective and prevents prostate cancer as well as heart disease. Prostate problems are a common cause of infertility especially as men get older, so if you have any problems with your waterworks do see your doctor straight away. Eating four or five brazil nuts daily will give you all the selenium you need. This is really important as the average consumption in the UK is only 35 micrograms per day - half the amount your body needs.

This is not the time of your life to become an obsessive exerciser. Of course it's important to be physically active but running 20 or 30 miles a week, or sweating in the gym or pumping iron for two hours a day will actually reduce your fertility by damaging the sperm.


Vitamin E - 400 mg daily
Vitamin C - preferably made with Ester-C, a non-acidic version - 1000 mg daily
Zinc - 5 mg daily
Selenium - 50 micrograms daily
A one-a-day multivitamin and mineral pill

For men and women this simple Fertility plan will protect you and give you the maximum chance of easy conception and a problem free pregnancy when you decide the time is right to start your family. The bonus is that you will also get all the nutrients and foods your body needs to fight against ageing, damage and disease. These benefits will make sure that you have the energy to keep up with a ten year old when you're 50 and enjoy your grandchildren when you're 70.


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