I met infertility specialist, Dr. Michael Fox, on Jimmy Moore's low-carb cruise just this past March.
Dr. Fox is quiet and unassuming, but had incredible things to say about his experience with carbohydrate restriction in female infertility and pregnancy. While readers of The Heart Scan Blog already know that I advocate a diet free of wheat, cornstarch, and sugar for heart health and correction of multiple lipoprotein abnormalities, it was fascinating to hear how a similar approach seems to yield extraordinary benefits in this entirely unrelated area of female health. Obviously, female infertility and pregnancy are unrelated to heart health, but the extraordinary benefits witnessed by Dr. Fox in this area suggest that some fundamental lessons in human physiology can be learned. The results are so incredible that we are all sure to hear more about this approach as experience grows.
So I tracked Dr. Fox down in his busy Jacksonville, Florida practice to fill us in on some details.
WD: Dr. Fox, could you tell us something about yourself and what led you to use carbohydrate restriction in your female patients?
MF: I have been in practice as a reproductive endocrinologist for 15 years. During that time, I have seen our specialty move from a broad based practice of reproductive endocrinology to a narrow IVF [in vitro fertility] focus, with patients being pushed through IVF in a cookie-cutter fashion without any emphasis on non-medical therapy.
Our focus has been to remain as a broad practice where we individualize care and attempt in every case to achieve pregnancy short of IVF. Five years ago, this continued quest for better care led us into the insulin resistance, low-carbohydrate metabolic world that has transformed our practice, although our practice offers all aspects of reproductive endocrinology including sub-specialized minimally invasive surgery, and all available infertility options.
WD: I have been intrigued by your comments about improved fertility with the low-carb diet. Could you elaborate on this?
MF: Yes, five years ago, as more information regarding Polycystic Ovarian Disease or Syndrome (PCOD/S) and its relationship to insulin resistance (high insulin levels) was emerging, we had a simple realization. As we've known for some time, insulin stimulates excess male hormone levels in the ovary, which disrupts ovulation and fertility. Then our job was to lower or virtually eliminate high insulin levels. Again, in simple fashion, we looked at physiology and realized that insulin is released only in response to dietary carbohydrates. Thus, elimination of carbohydrates should resolve the problem. This, in fact, is the effect that we have seen.
In our previous approaches to PCOD, we utilized oral ovulation medicines generating pregnancy rates in the 40% range overall. Now, with the nutritional approach, for those patients that follow our recommendations, our pregnancy rates are over 90%! This has dramatically reduced the need for in vitro fertilization in these patients.
To extend this idea further, we first started with relative low-carbohydrate diets, such as the South Beach diet, but quickly realized this didn't produce a metabolic effect. Over time, it has borne out that only the very low-carbohydrate diet (VLCD) approach produces significant metabolic change. Our impression then was that the current U.S. nutritional exposure probably increases insulin levels and that this has a detrimental effect on fertility.
To counter this effect, we now recommend the VLCD to all fertility patients and their spouses. The pregnancy rates do seem much better overall, as well as seeing a reduction in miscarriage rates. For the first time at our national meeting last year, there were three articles that showed improved pregnancy rates in patients without PCOD or insulin resistance in IVF when Glucophage was used. This drug decreases insulin. This supports the idea that our entire population is subjected to fertility-reducing high-carbohydrate diet.
WD: Do you see any other changes in these patients on the diet?
MF: Yes. All metabolic parameters, as well as many common complaints, improve. Cholesterol and triglyceride levels improve, while "good" HDL cholesterol levels increase. Weight drops at a pace of 12 lbs per month very steadily and we have many many patients who have experienced 50lb wt loss. Blood pressure decreases steadily in these patients and we are often able to get them off of cholesterol and blood pressure medicines. Common symptoms such as anxiety, sleep disturbances, decreased energy, migraine headaches and depression all dramatically improve. Again we can often get patients off depression and migraine suppression medications. So this approach helps in a multitude of areas.
WD: I was also interested in hearing more about your experience with morning sickness and the effects of a low-carb diet. Could you tell us more about this? Also, any thoughts on why this happens?
MF: As we continued to expand our thoughts about VLCD and fertility/pregnancy, we began to extend the nutritional approach into pregnancy. We know that pregnancy hormones dramatically worsen insulin resistance that is responsible for the condition, gestational diabetes. If insulin resistance is worsened, then reactive hypoglycemia is worsened. One of the biggest symptoms of hypoglycemia is nausea. So, in response to this, we have counseled our patients on the diet in pregnancy and have found a dramatic reduction in nausea. We recommend snacking every two hours in pregnancy.
The other "traditional" issue in pregnancy are cravings. These also likely stem from hypoglycemia. I have had many husbands tell us later that their wives, in contrast to friends etc, were calm and not moody or anxious during their pregnancies. Hypoglycemia probably is a serious issue for the fetus as well and may be the "signal" that turns on the insulin-resistant gene. Many theorists feel this might be an activated gene during the pregnancy.
WD: Do you use any unique approaches to the low-carbohydrate approach, e.g., inclusion of dairy, meal frequency, "induction" strategies (i.e., induction to the diet, not of labor!), etc.
MF: Yes. As I'm sure everyone who works in the VLCD world does, we also have some tricks to make this work better. My biggest push, although hard to get patients to agree, is to see a counselor along with our follow-up in order to deal with "addictive behaviors" and "stress eating" that so many of our patients relate to us. Good stress management and cognitive behavioral therapy go a long way in helping this become a permanent change.
We also really push frequent calorie intake or "snacking." I think again that hypoglycemia produces an inborn drive to "cure" or "fix" starvation and leads to dramatic overeating. We have a short list of snacks that we recommend. The concept of hunger is offered as a failure of the program. We aim to eliminate hunger, as it represents hypoglycemia. The analogy I use is, if you drove your car until you ran out of gas before you ever sought to find gas, your life would be miserable. So it is the same with your metabolic engine: If you let it run out, the measures your system takes to fix it are very detrimental to life and certainly to nutritional health.
Our other big push is fat. People can wrap themselves around protein and vegetables, but they totally miss the high-fat (animal fat) part of the conversation. We have to really push that aspect. In regards to dairy, we allow for non-processed cheeses and minimal milk. An alternative is to mix about 4 oz whole milk with 4 oz of heavy whipping and 4 oz of water to create a "milk" with less sugar. Similarly, shakes and smoothies can be made with heavy whipping cream with pure whey protein powder added to create a liquid meal for those who "don't have time" to cook.
WD: Thanks, Dr. Fox. We look forward to hearing more about your approach in future.
Michael D. Fox, MD