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by Penny Crowther(more info)

listed in women's health, originally published in issue 113 - July 2005

A few years ago I wrote about a client with polycystic ovaries who had been trying to conceive for two years. She had been told by a Consultant at her local fertility clinic that her chances of a natural conception were less than ten percent. But after four months on a nutritional programme she went on to have twins. Since then, despite the continuing scepticism of the medical profession, I have seen many cases of fertility problems respond very well to nutritional treatment.

When Fiona came to see me, she had been trying to conceive for a total of five years and had undergone two unsuccessful IVF treatments. Fiona had a very irregular cycle and suffered from bouts of prolonged unexplained bleeding. Numerous scans and tests had not revealed the cause of the problem. Her partner's sperm had been tested and had both a high count and good motility.

From a nutritional point of view, Fiona's diet was lacking in many key nutrients. She had been a strict vegetarian all her life. I am greatly in favour of vegetarian diets if they are well-balanced and varied. Unfortunately, Fiona's diet was based predominantly on bread and pasta, most of which was made with white flour. Refined carbohydrates such as these are very low in minerals which are so important for the activation of enzymes responsible for the efficient metabolic functioning of all body cells, including those of the reproductive system. The heavy bleeding which Fiona experienced would have depleted her mineral supplies further. A test had confirmed she was low in iron. But there are no routine NHS tests for deficiencies of other minerals.

To give you an idea of the degree to which refined carbohydrates are stripped of minerals, 100 mg white flour contains just 0.7 mg zinc. Compare this to the same quantity of wheat germ, nearly all of which is discarded in the production of white flour. The wheatgerm contains an impressive 14 mg zinc, which is just one mg under the required daily amount. Zinc is vital for sexual function and reproductive capacity. Menstrual irregularities, PMS and lack of ovulation are conditions linked with zinc deficiency. In a vegetarian diet, egg yolks, wheatgerm and pumpkin seeds (ground for improved digestion) are good sources of zinc. But if trying to get pregnant, a supplement of around 20-30 mg per day is usually a good idea.

A positive element of Fiona's diet was her love of vegetable curries which would give a much needed boost to her mineral intake. Unlike vitamins, minerals are chemically indestructible so they are not destroyed by heat. However, if boiled, minerals will leach into the cooking water which should be used as a stock, not thrown away.

Vitamin B complex, so important for energy production and nervous system function, is also particularly vulnerable to depletion in the grain refining process. One of Fiona's complaints was a feeling of being 'wired' and unable to relax but with an underlying tiredness.

The principle protein source in Fiona's diet was cheese, and on the days she didn't eat this her protein intake was on the low side. Protein is vital for making hormones and needed by the liver in order to process toxins. She was not prepared to eat nuts or beans which add valuable protein sources to a vegetarian diet. She did not want to introduce fish either, but to my surprise she did decide she would try eating a little organic chicken.

Eggs for breakfast were to be included and tofu was to be added to the vegetable curries. Tofu is a curd which is pressed from the soya bean As well as being low in fat and a good source of vegetable protein, tofu is a valuable source of calcium and small amounts of B complex vitamins. In addition to the firm tofu, I also recommended the silken version which is more heavily pressed and therefore smoother. It is good for enriching smoothies or home-made mayonnaise. Cheese was still to be included but I suggested Fiona emphasize the goat- and sheep-based cheeses which contain easier to digest proteins than cow's cheeses. Cottage cheese also is relatively easily assimilated by the body in comparison to some of the harder cheeses.

Fiona took a mixed mineral supplement containing 30 mg of zinc and a supplement of essential fatty acids (EFAs) both from the omega 3 and 6 families. EFAs have an important effect on the reproductive system as they are the raw materials from which hormone-like chemicals known as prostaglandins are made. EFAs are important during pregnancy as well as during the pre-conception period, because they are needed for the development of the growing baby's brain and nervous system, especially in the first three months. Further benefits of EFAs are in the prevention of premature births with the associated health risks to the child.[1]

Fiona also took an herbal blend for hormone balance, containing wild yam, bayberry, Agnus castus, walnut, squaw vine, black cohosh and marshmallow. Finally, the Australian flower essence, She Oak was given for its effect on fertility.

The happy outcome of this case was that Fiona became pregnant naturally. However, it was not achieved without challenges, including an initial miscarriage and difficulty committing fully to the diet in the early stages. Fiona's determination paid off in the end though, and she is now the proud mother of a healthy baby.


1 Reece MS et al. Maternal and Perinatal Long-Chain Fatty Acids: possible roles in preterm birth. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. 176 (4): 907-14. 1997.


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About Penny Crowther

Penny Crowther BANT CNHC qualified as a nutritional therapist in 1997 and has been in clinical practice ever since. She has seen several thousand clients over the years, at her practice in London and online. Penny now specializes in nutrition for women in their 40s and beyond, particularly around peri and post menopause. Mid Life for women can be a time when fluctuating hormones play havoc with your wellbeing. In the midst of all the publicity around HRT, it's easy to forget just how powerful diet and lifestyle changes can be when it comes to navigating the menopausal years.

Penny will guide and support you through specific changes to your diet, targeted to you specifically, in midlife. She provides practical, easy to follow menu plans with easy and delicious recipes. The food you eat affects every cell and system in your body. It optimizes how you look and feel, both mentally and physically.

To book an appointment view consultation options here >>

As well as being a regular columnist for Positive Health, Penny has written for Holland and Barrett, and contributed to articles for the Daily TelegraphThe Times Literary supplement, Pregnancy & Birth and Marie Claire. She has been featured in the Daily Express, Daily Mirror and on local radio.

Penny is a registered nutritional therapist with standards of training endorsed by BANT (British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy) and CNHC. This includes completing 30 hours of continuing professional development, annually.

Penny’s approach to health is holistic, and takes into account emotional, mental and environmental factors as well as nutrition. She has trained in coaching and studied many complementary therapies before qualifying as a nutritionist, which provides a broad foundation of knowledge in her nutrition practice. Penny may be contacted on Tel: 07761 768 754;

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