Sunday, September 26, 2010

Food for Thought

Over the past year I have changed my diet pretty dramatically. First it was because I went gluten-free after years of unexplained abdominal pain and general intestinal distress. My father had been diagnosed with celiac disease and he thought I should be tested since I was having a lot of trouble with similar issues. Amazingly, my GI did not want to test me and told me it was likely just IBS and to eat more fiber, which made me sicker. I self-diagnosed and took myself off gluten to see what would happen. It was utterly transformative and for the first time in forever I have a normal digestive system (of course unless I get into gluten by accident). This was in July of 2009, before we met with our RE (reproductive endocrinologist) regarding trying to conceive. It turns out that celiac disease and gluten intolerance can contribute to infertility as well. Seriously, can't I catch a break here?

GF cupcakes I made for my wedding
As a person who can't eat gluten, I suddenly had no choice but to eat very healthy. I have been eating pretty healthfully for the past 5 years or so--more salads and veggies, less red meat, virtually no fast food, cooking more and eating out less (save for Maria's Mexican Restaurant, which we go to just about weekly and is our incredibly delicious but high-fat cheesefest meal of the week). I can't eat the cookies, cupcakes, danishes, breakfast pizzas, etc. that show up at school. I can't go out for pizza unless they carry gluten-free pizza, which is just not the same. Many processed foods have "hidden gluten" -- malt flavorings and colorings, additives to make them bind well that are made from gluten. So, I ended up eating more organic foods by default because they aren't as processed. I can eat cheese, ice cream (yum, Coldstone Creamery has a lot of GF options), some candies, and any number of homemade treats that I make gluten free thanks to yummy cookbooks, blogs my aunt (also celiac) sends me, and new products offered every day. In general, I have to work pretty hard to eat unhealthfully.

Then, when I first started on the infertility journey, I read all kinds of books that told me which foods were "fertile foods" that would boost my chances of ovulating regularly and prepare my body for a healthy pregnancy. They also told me all the things in my house that could add chemicals unwittingly to my food--plastic containers, microwaving takeout containers not meant for the microwave, etc. At this point I still believed that there was a chance I could control my fertility and we wouldn't have to move to IVF, which seemed like a scary, expensive, "last chance" option (since after IVF, there's stuff they can do to tweak the process of IVF but there's no more higher level of treatment than that--just donor egg, donor sperm, or surrogate). I bought pamphlets on fertile foods at the natural grocery store. I faithfully ate sardines several times per week, upped my dark leafy greens and fruit intake, replaced all of my plastic tupperware with glass containers (the lids are still plastic but you microwave food with a paper towel on top so the plastic can't leach) and honestly tried to use the natural kitchen cleaners (they just didn't clean as well, so I just don't breathe while I spray the harsher stuff). I try to avoid microwaving vegetables to cook them because apparently it saps them of their vitamins. I bought stainless steel pots and pans and environmentally-friendly nonstick pans that swore they wouldn't flake the nonstick stuff into your food. I bought everything organic -- fruits and vegetables, milk and eggs, meats (although chicken I have a hard time with because it's just SO expensive-- spending $10 on one package of chicken is a bit
much). I drink whole milk because even though my milk is organic, cows who produce milk are either pregnant or nursing and so there are high levels of natural hormones in the milk. Supposedly when they skim the milk to make it reduced fat (or no fat) it concentrates those hormones in the milk, adding them to your system in a way that can affect your own hormone levels.

All of this is good for me--but now that I am at the IVF stage it is frustrating. None of it made one bit of difference to my ability to conceive a child. Part of this is because with male factor infertility, I could do everything possible for my body to get it to ovulate but if the sperm can't make it to and then in the egg, it didn't matter. Bryce made these changes too--he even had to drink a nasty herbal cocktail, Proxeed, that has been proven to improve numbers for men. It did, to the point where motility (the sperm's ability to swim well) had increased quite a bit, but the numbers were still not high enough to make success with IUI (intrauterine insemination) likely. We were in a "gray area of poor prognosis" for IUI due to low sperm counts alone. With IVF, everything is incredibly controlled--my system is totally shut down and restarted with medications that doctors can adjust to control both egg production and timing; they can actually inject the sperm into the egg so instead of needing 10 million or more for IUI, you really only need 100,000 so that they can hand-pick the absolute best-looking ones for fertilization. Nothing we do to our bodies to improve reproductive function truly matters at this point. Bryce actually got the go-ahead to quit downing the gross herbal cocktail, because we're all set for sperm for IVF. My egg production and ovulation is completely artificial--my own body has nothing to do with the process. We are in the midst of mad scientist conception and it is as far from organic as you can get.

Cod in a lemon butter sauce with
fingerling potatoes and
organic green beans
I still do many of the things I did in the beginning when I thought that it was possible for us to beat the odds and conceive naturally (or semi-naturally). I love my glass food storage containers, even though they are wicked heavy in my lunchbag. I continue to eat everything organic because I think eliminating those chemicals can't hurt and I still need a healthy body for pregnancy, even if it makes no difference to my chances of conceiving. I'm still chugging the whole milk (although occasionally I go 2%) in my cereal and tea and occasional latte. I only eat organic red meat if I'm cooking it myself, and we eat it maybe once a week or once every two weeks. I eat uncured bacon so that I'm not eating preservatives. I have not been on a sardine kick lately, but I have been eating more low-mercury fish and organic low-mercury albacore tuna since I hate chunk light, but regular albacore is high in toxins that stay in your body for long periods of time. I don't eat things labeled low-fat that replace real food ingredients with chemicals and things I can't pronounce.

I'm still mad--all of this work and effort and it didn't make a difference in the conception department. Meanwhile there are women who don't have to stress about their diets and conceive by accident or easily on purpose without even thinking about organic or inorganic or if they get enough vitamin A or E. I know that life isn't fair, but it seems particularly unfair when going through infertility. However, I have to think that at least due to all these changes I have a healthier body, even though I have to put that healthier body through the ringer before I even go through pregnancy. In the interest of positive thinking, I just have to shift my focus--instead of eating to try to coax my body to get pregnant, now I'm eating to prepare my body for a healthy pregnancy.


  1. Hi Jess...your story is my story also. I made ALL the changes you described, except for the whole milk (yucko man) and the gluten free. I now have great new pans and wonderful glass storage containers as well. For me, making the changes did give me the satisfaction of ruling out poor nutrition as a factor. I did learn you have to "balance" the dietary changes with your normal eating habits. I found that too many restrictions actually brought about more stress for me...something that comes naturally during this process without adding any other variables in! Good healthy, but still enjoy those favorite things sometimes!

  2. Great point Kelly--balance is super important too. That's why I still go to Five Guys from time to time and enjoy quite a bit of ice cream. If I ever had to eliminate dairy I would be incredibly cranky--and I'm sure crankiness doesn't help matters! Thanks for your thoughts...