Is turmeric a fertility food?

The bright yellow spice that adds colour and fragrance to curries and kefirs, has been the subject of a lot of scientific attention recently. Broadly speaking, turmeric is believed by many to be pro-fertility health food, as it contains a chemical called curcumin. This chemical is believed to affect the body in a number of beneficial ways, some of which have been proved with studies, while other studies on curcumin are inconclusive. Is it safe to take while trying for a baby? And if so, does turmeric enhance or cause problems for fertility?

Does turmeric really work though? It’s complicated!

If turmeric is a powerful chemical with the potential to do us good, it might also affect the body in unwanted ways too. This is why pregnant and pre-conceptive women hoping to have a baby are advised to avoid consuming too much turmeric. You don’t have to completely give it up though, and if you’re getting ready for IVF in a few month’s time, then it might be fine for you to try turmeric for its proven anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, while you are getting your body ready for conception and pregnancy. 

Turmeric and fertility – what does science say?

Curcumin, the chemical that gives the turmeric root its vibrant yellow colour, is part of the ginger family. It is used extensively in ayurvedic medicine, but it hasn’t been used to make pharmaceutical drugs. This is because it isn’t very stable or bio-available. This might change in the future, but right now curcumin-based products are classed as complementary health foods and supplements, rather than drugs. Scientists are still looking into the beneficial properties of curcumin, such as this study on whether curcumin can help to protect the lungs of premature babies. 

One of the problems with assessing the benefits of turmeric is that curcumin isn’t absorbed very well by the body. Some substances can help with this, such as piperine, which is found in black pepper. While turmeric does seem to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, both of which can benefit fertility, its absorption and instability issues have so far prevented it from making the leap from health food to a certified drug. It’s just too unpredictable. 

Curcumin in therapeutic doses (much higher than you would get drinking turmeric latte or eating curry) may be helpful for a whole range of illnesses, from Alzheimer’s disease to breast cancer. However, the results of trials are often maddeningly inconclusive! Additionally, studies are often performed on animals, which means they are of limited relevance to humans. Turmeric might work well on humans, but have little effect on mice. 

If the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin are available in turmeric, then in theory this could help to repair the type of cell damage that prevents eggs and sperm from functioning well enough to develop into embryos. Men with compromised sperm motility may want to try turmeric supplements, and equally, women who are not planning on getting pregnant immediately and are using birth control can experiment with turmeric supplements for a limited time, before they start to try for a baby. 

There are more efficient ways of getting antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods into your diet though, and supplements such as turmeric should not replace a healthy and balanced diet. There is also the danger of lead consumption, as some suppliers use lead to enhance the colour of turmeric. While this is illegal in the UK and USA, it is always possible that a contaminated supply of the spice could find its way to your turmeric supplements or latte. 

What does traditional and alternative medicine say about turmeric?

Turmeric has been used for thousands of years in several branches of traditional medicine as an anti-inflammatory. Many women swear by turmeric supplements to relieve symptoms of endometriosis and PCOS. While the scientific studies aren’t that encouraging, it’s worth remembering that sometimes things “just work” for certain people. For relief from endometriosis and PCOS, or as part of a healthy lifestyle to prevent Alzheimer’s and other diseases in the future, there is nothing wrong with taking turmeric supplements, or enjoying turmeric lattes and dishes as often as you like.

One of the strikes against ingesting therapeutic doses of curcumin while pregnant or trying for a baby is that it has long been believed by practitioners of alternative and traditional medicine, that turmeric can bring on a period and even cause miscarriage or premature birth. Because it would be unethical to test this theory on pregnant women, it is impossible to say with certainty whether large doses of turmeric are safe or not for those who are – or who wish to be pregnant. It is advised that pregnant women do not consume large amounts of turmeric or curcumin products, and if you are trying for a baby, it’s best to avoid high doses of these substances too. 

Is turmeric a fertility friend or foe? Conclusion

Turmeric does potentially have some fine antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities, which could help to protect both sperm and egg health, as well as overall health. However, it’s not all that easy for the body to absorb the right chemicals from turmeric. Black pepper, which contains piperine, can help with absorption.

Turmeric is fine in ordinary quantities in your diet, whether you are pregnant or trying for a baby. A turmeric latte or curry isn’t going to cause you any issues – but it may not benefit you via the properties of curcumin either.

Some branches of traditional and alternative medicine claim that high doses of turmeric can bring on a period or make the uterine lining thinner (great for endometriosis, not so great for embryo implantation), or even cause miscarriage or premature birth. It’s impossible to prove or disprove this in humans without serious ethics violations, so we might never know whether that is true or not. It is advised that you avoid high doses if you are trying for a baby or pregnant.