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Caffeine is the world’s most popular drug.
If you’re one of those women who can’t function until you’ve guzzled your morning cup of coffee, caffeine might be doing more to your body than just giving you a quick energy boost.
If you’re currently pregnant or preparing for pregnancy, you’ve probably heard that coffee is on the naughty list. But is this reputation deserved?
Caffeine is the world’s most popular drug. So many people out there cannot function until they’ve had their morning cup of coffee. It’s a pick me up, an energy boost, it helps people to stay alert and concentrate, but caffeine affects so much more than your mind.
So, shout out to Amy for this week’s episode suggestion. She wanted to know whether our human obsession with coffee is the best way to boost our energy or if we should be trying to boost our energy in other ways.
Full disclosure though, I am not a coffee drinker. My morning drink is a green tea. I love the smell of coffee, but it gives me a headache and I just don’t like it. So it’s very easy for me to sit here on my high horse and tell you to cut down on your daily coffees, because I don’t have that urge first thing in the morning. And with that said, what I’m going to say today might surprise you. Let’s dive in.
Caffeine doesn’t just affect your mind, it actually has a significant effect on the body. It ramps up the nervous system, increases heart rate and relaxes smooth muscle, so the muscles lining our blood vessels and organs, and while these changes are subtle and you might not notice them, drink enough coffee, or in my case – start drinking coffee – and you will notice these changes. You might notice that you get the shakes, your heart races and you’re just jittery once the effects kick in. The real problem with these effects is that you experience withdrawal when you don’t have caffeine. Skip your morning coffee and you’ll likely be in a foul mood, you’ll have a headache, you’ll be tired and have trouble concentrating.
It takes about 30-60 minutes until the full effects of caffeine really kick in and it quickly spreads through your body. It enters every tissue in your body, including your ovaries, uterus and fallopian tubes. If you’re pregnant, it crosses the placenta and has the same effect on baby, increasing baby’s heart rate and giving it the jitters too! Caffeine has even been found in newly fertilised eggs and embryos.
The growth of the placenta and foetus are most vulnerable to maternal nutrition around the time of implantation, which is why a pre-conception diet is essential to prepare the body for pregnancy. The first two weeks of conception is a phase of really rapid development, and this tends to be before a woman knows she is pregnant.
So this is why once you’ve decided to try getting pregnant, it’s really important to have a look at your current health and lifestyle and make any necessary changes before actually becoming pregnant. The recommendation is that both you and your partner make any lifestyle or diet changes at least 3 months before trying for a baby, to make sure male sperm is of a high quality and the female body is a healthy environment for a growing baby.
Caffeine is not just in coffee. It’s in chocolate, tea and cola drinks and it’s a diuretic that can flush key nutrients out of your system before they can be properly absorbed. So any caffeine containing drinks can’t be counted in your daily fluid intake, because caffeine dehydrates you.
Caffeine affects your absorption of iron and we know that low iron is a really common problem during pregnancy. Baby doesn’t make its own iron for the first 6 months of life until it starts to eat solid foods, so baby will draw from mum’s iron stores throughout pregnancy to build up its own iron stores for those first 6 months out of the womb. This, in combination with changes in blood volume and the cardiovascular system during pregnancy, leaves pregnant women with low iron and often requiring supplements,, which can have their own effects and often cause constipation.
Caffeine also flushes calcium out of your system before it can be properly absorbed. Calcium keeps your reproductive system working effectively and can help to improve your chances of conceiving faster. About 99% of your calcium intake is used for maintaining healthy bones and teeth. Baby also needs calcium for bone and teeth development, and calcium stores are passed along to your baby, so if your stores are low you may actually be increasing your risk of osteoporosis later in life.
If you want to monitor your caffeine intake, it’s important to know exactly where caffeine is hiding – and it is found naturally in many foods – coffee, tea, chocolate, soft drinks and energy drinks – as well as some cold and flu remedies.
Let’s have a look now at the caffeine content in some common food and drink:
So what you’re aiming for is less than about 200mg a day. And if you want to have a closer look at the caffeine content of these foods, head over to the podcast shownotes at fertilityco.com.au/25 and I’ve listed them all there for you. You do not need to completely eliminate caffeine, but you should limit how much you consume to no more than 200mg per day. So have a look at your favourite foods and drinks and work out how much you can reasonably consume without exceeding 200mg a day.
Try decaffeinated tea and coffee, herbal teas, fruit juice and water. If you are a heavy coffee drinker, going from 5 cups a day to none will be a shock to your system and leave you feeling exhausted and cranky. Cutting down gradually is the way to go.
So, there was this huge study at Harvard called the Nurses’ Health Study and it looked in detail at the effects of diet and lifestyle on the fertility of 20,000 female nurses. The researchers shared their results in a book called The Fertility Diet and some of the results are very interesting.
Apparently, caffeine’s negative reputation during pregnancy comes from a study in the 80s where pregnant rats were force-fed caffeine that was the equivalent of 200 cups of coffee a day. The study found that 1 in 5 baby rats were born with significant birth defects. When they repeated the study and put caffeine in the rats’ drinking water, leaving them to drink at will, there was no increase in birth defects, but the FDA did not go back and change their warning against caffeine during pregnancy.
And so, it’s become one of those things that has trickled down through research over the years and the reputation has stuck. Some research shows that like most things in life, drinking coffee in moderation, 200 mg of caffeine a day, the equivalent of 2-3 cups of coffee has no effect on fertility, pregnancy or foetal development. Other research shows it may delay conception, and has a small risk on development. Drinking a lot of caffeine every day can increase your risk of miscarriage, pre-term birth and low birth weight.
The Nurses Health Study found that caffeine did not affect ovulation itself but that women in the group who drank 4 or more cups of coffee a day were 20% more likely to have trouble getting pregnant. And they believe this is because too much caffeine, and the effect it has on our smooth muscle, makes the fallopian tubes less able to contract and relax. This means that after ovulation, it’s harder for the egg to move along the fallopian tube towards the uterus. If the egg is fertilised but is taking too long to reach the uterus for implantation, the endometrium might have already given up and stopped thickening to prepare for implantation, and instead is starting to break down in preparation for menstruation.
While there is no clear direct link between caffeine and male infertility, caffeine can have an effect on sperm quality. Drinking just 2 cups of coffee a day could be reducing both the quality and quantity of sperm. Research has found that men who drink more than 4 cups per day had higher than average abnormally-shaped sperm.
There is also some research to show that drinking coffee about half an hour before sex can help the boys to swim faster, just like some people like to drink coffee before a workout.
So, ultimately it’s going to have to be one of those situations where you really need to make the decision for yourself about your caffeine consumption. Every woman is going to be different. It’s all going to depend on how your body processes caffeine, and this can actually change throughout your menstrual cycle. In the luteal phase, which begins after ovulation, metabolism of caffeine slows down, meaning there are higher levels of caffeine in your body for longer at the time of ovulation, fertilisation, implantation and the beginnings of foetal development.
If you cannot imagine starting your day without a cup of coffee, then limit it to one cup a day. We now know that caffeine can potentially reduce your chances of conception as well as increasing your risk of miscarriage. So you don’t necessarily have to eliminate all caffeine in the pre-conception phase, but if you’re struggling to conceive or you have experienced miscarriage in the past and you consume a lot of coffee or caffeine in general, maybe have a look at how you could reduce it. When you are pregnant, caffeine does have similar effects on your baby as it does on you and your nervous and cardiovascular systems. High levels of caffeine consumed during pregnancy can result in low birth-weight babies, which can also contribute to health problems later in life. And remember that the critical time for development is in the early weeks of pregnant before you actually know you’re pregnant.
And so I hope that this episode helped to shed some light on caffeine and the effect it has on your body and your fertility – for both males and females – and helped you to figure out where you are sitting on healthy caffeine intake. There’s definitely a stigma around drinking coffee while pregnant – not quite as significant as smoking or drinking alcohol, but caffeine is definitely lumped into that category as something to avoid. Like I said, you may not necessarily need to eliminate coffee from your life forever, but it could potentially impact both male and female fertility and because it crosses the placenta, it has an effect on bub. So, if you are struggling to conceive, if you have experienced loss, if you are currently pregnant and you’re wanting to make some lifestyle tweaks to maximise your and your baby’s health, as well as increasing your chances of conceiving, then cutting caffeine might be something to think about.
That wraps us up for another week of the podcast. If you learnt something new or found value in today’s episode, or if you have a question or a topic suggestion, I’d love to hear from you! Send me an Instagram DM, I’m @manawomenswellness , and let me know what you want me to talk about.
Don’t forget you can also download your free Fertility Roadmap on the shownotes page too.
I will be back next week to talk about charting your menstrual cycle and understanding your fertile signs, and ultimately how this knowledge truly changed my life. And that is no exaggeration.
Ok, bye for now and don’t forget that knowledge is power!
When you truly understand your body, you are empowered to make informed decisions and take control of your health!
Until next time.
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