Sugar and Fertility

Sue Bedford (MSc Nutritional Therapy)

Recent research has found that a high sugar diet can have a negative influence on both male and female fertility. According to a Boston University study, drinking just one sugary soft drink per day reduced female pregnancy rates by a quarter and male conception rates by a third.

What is Sugar?

Sugars are carbohydrates. Like all carbohydrates, they provide a source of energy in our diet. Sugar is a term that includes all sweet carbohydrates, although the term most often is used to describe sucrose or table sugar, a ‘double sugar’. The body breaks down carbohydrates into simple sugars such as glucose, that can be readily used in the body.

Sugar is found naturally in some foods, such as fruit and dairy products, and is also added to many others. Sugar can be white, raw, or brown sugar, honey, or corn syrup, among other things. Adults and young people over the age of 11 should consume less than 30g, or seven cubes of sugar, a day.

What are the main symptoms of poor blood sugar control (poor glucose tolerance)?

• Headaches

• Shaky after a few hours of no food

• Poor concentration

• Mood swings

• Depression

• High Blood pressure

• Weight gain especially around the middle

Did you know that eating too much-refined sugar (the type that is found in cakes, biscuits, sweets, most packaged foods, pastries etc) can affect fertility?

This is because excess consumption of refined sugar can lead to inflammation, hormone disruption, continued stimulation of the adrenal glands, yeast infections, lowered immunity, (may contribute to) leptin resistance, along with increasing bad cholesterol and triglycerides in the body. There are many factors that can cause poor blood sugar control such as consuming a diet high in refined carbohydrates and insufficient nutrients, lack of exercise, excessive alcohol intake, chronic stress and anxiety, diabetes (type 1 or 2), being overweight and hormonal imbalances due to PCOS (Poly Cystic Ovary Syndrome) or due to other medical conditions. Excess sugar affects fertility in both men and women. In men, research has discovered that consuming sugar-sweetened drinks is correlated with lower sperm motility in otherwise healthy young men, and that men consuming caffeinated energy and soft drinks may experience reduced fertility.

So, if you are having difficulty getting pregnant or have a fertility issue it may be a good idea to have a look into the alternatives that are available to white refined sugar and include them in your diet and ditch the refined sugar (this includes high fructose corn syrup which is found in most prepackaged foods, white table sugar, corn syrup, sugar – sweetened drinks,  alcohol… to name a few).

So how does sugar affect fertility?

One of the main ways in which sugar affects fertility is by disrupting hormones. Our hormones need to work together like a finely tuned orchestra especially when trying for a baby. Consumption of refined carbohydrates will cause blood sugar levels to rise and fall and insulin levels to peak and trough. A fall in sugar levels causes the adrenal glands to release the hormones cortisol and adrenaline in an attempt to restore sugar levels. If refined sugar is consumed in excess this leads to the adrenal glands to be repeatedly stimulated to release cortisol and adrenaline which over time weakens the adrenal glands, causing them to slow down and fatigue. This may then start to cause key hormones in the body to become out of balance and this will have a knock on effect on other hormones in the body and so the finely tuned endocrine system starts to be out of synch and thus affects the levels of testosterone, DHEA, oestrogen, progesterone in men and women, affecting fertility.

Eating too many refined sugary foods over time can affect the release of insulin from the pancreas. This is because insulin is produced by the pancreas and its job is to change the sugar in our blood into energy for our body. But if too much insulin is being constantly released by the pancreas this can eventually may lead to insulin resistance. Insulin excess can affect ovulation and maturation of the eggs in the ovaries and is common in those with PCOS. Certain 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 – make sure you contact a qualified nutritional therapist or dietician for a personalised nutrition plan for you.

Eating too much refined sugar can also affect the nutrient status of the body as certain vitamins and minerals are used up when cortisol and insulin are released. Some of these include vitamin E, magnesium and the B vitamins – all of which are important to fertility.

Overconsumption of refined sugar can cause a lowered immunity which can lead to the body being more susceptible to infection and can also cause an imbalance in the levels of hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone by disrupting the functions of the endocrine system.

Top Nutrition tips to help control blood sugar levels:

Try to consume more:

• Try to eat some food containing protein when you eat carbohydrate foods to slow down the release of sugar and to help prevent sugar ‘spikes’. For example, at breakfast have an egg on a small slice of seeded brown bread with half a smashed avocado.

Healthy fats, such as those found in avocado, extra virgin olive oil, walnuts, flax and chia seeds, and oily fish such as sustainably sourced sardines, salmon and mackerel.

• Nuts and seeds

• Foods with a low Glycaemic Load (GL)

• Complex carbohydrates – porridge, wholemeal bread

• Chromium rich foods – romaine lettuce, onions, raw tomatoes, oysters, whole grains, potatoes, broccoli, turkey, green beans. Chromium helps to balance blood sugar levels.

• Most vegetables especially root vegetables/leafy green vegetables

• Legumes e.g beans, peas, lentils, kidney beans

• Apples and pears and fruits with a low GL

• Wholegrains

• Try to eat 3 distinct meals per day, and if you need to have a snack try a handful of nuts/seeds rather than chocolate or crisps!

•Don’t skip breakfast!

•If you feel that you are wanting something sweet go for an item of low GL fruit such as an apple, pear or handful of raspberries or make a fresh smoothie (150ml of smoothie a day as they contain sugar but in it’s natural state – this amount still counts as one of your 7 a day) rather than biscuits, crisps or cake.

• Water to keep well hydrated- sometimes when we think we are hungry we are actually thirsty instead.

Try to avoid:

• Saturated fats (butter, cream, fatty meat, pork)

• Hydrogenated fats (found in cakes, biscuits and pastries)

• Potato crisps

• Simple carbohydrates such as white rice, white pasta, white bread, chocolate (unless high cocoa low sugar), sweets, refined breakfast cereals

Artificial colours and flavours

Try to:

Exercise (regularly do at least 30 mins x 4 per week). Find something that you enjoy and build it up slowly and try to stick with it!

Get into a good sleep routine – One night of insufficient sleep (less than 6 hours) might result in higher blood sugar and insulin levels the next day, so aim for at least 7 hours of sleep every night.

Look at healthier alternatives to sugar such as Stevia or Xylitol. Stevia is a good choice for those with PCOS or diabetes. Stevia is a plant which is naturally sweet – the leaves are used to make a powder or liquid which can be used instead of sugar and does not cause blood sugar level to spike. Xylitol is a natural alternative to sugar. It is derived from the fibres of plants and can be extracted from a variety of vegetation including berries, mushrooms, birch bark and corn husks.

Interesting reading:

Hatch, E. E., Wesselink, A. K., Hahn, K. A., Michiel, J. J., Mikkelsen, E. M., Sorensen, H. T., Rothman, K. J., & Wise, L. A. (2018). Intake of Sugar-sweetened Beverages and Fecundability in a North American Preconception Cohort. Epidemiology (Cambridge, Mass.), 29(3), 369–378.

Gaskins, AJ & Chavarro, JE 2018, ‘Diet and fertility: a review’, American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, vol. 218, no. 4, pp. 379-389.

Chiu, YH et al. 2014, ‘Sugar-sweetened beverage intake in relation to semen quality and reproductive hormone levels in young men’, Human Reproduction, vol. 29, no. 7, pp. 1575–1584.

To find out more and to book a personalised Fertility Nutritional Therapy Consultation please Email Sue at

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