Your guide to understanding the ingredients, from amino acids to zinc
If you’re trying to get pregnant, you’re probably inundated with science-y terms regarding which supplements to take and why. It’s a lot of info to take in during what can already be an anxiety-inducing time, so we put together an easy glossary of common terms to help you decode ingredient lists and doctor’s appointments.
Amino Acids: The building blocks of protein, they’re responsible for virtually all bodily functions, from metabolism to hormone synthesis to increasing muscle mass. There are 20 amino acids, and our body only makes 10. The remaining ones are deemed essential amino acids—meaning we need to get them from food.
Antioxidants: Substances, such as vitamins and minerals, that work to counteract cell-damaging oxidative stress from our lifestyles and environments. You get them from fruits and vegetables—Vitamin C is a big one—and also supplements, such as Resveratrol, N-Acetyl Cysteine, and Coenzyme Q10.
Bioavailability: A nutrient’s ability to be absorbed and assimilated by the body. An example is heme iron (found in meat) vs. non-heme iron (found in plants)—heme is more bioavailable.
Choline: An important nutrient for the body’s methylation process, Choline protects DNA, metabolizes hormones, produces neurotransmitters, and more. It’s found in dietary sources like eggs, fish, meat, and cruciferous veggies.
Coenzyme Q10: Also known as CoQ10, this antioxidant is present in every cell of our body but declines as we age. It helps fuel the mitochondria—our cells’ batteries—which can ultimately improve sperm health and protect eggs from oxidative stress.
Cofactors: Nutrients required to make something else in the body. For instance, Zinc is a cofactor for over 300 enzymes in the body
DHA: DHA (short for docosahexaenoic acid) is an omega-3 fatty acid. Every cell in your body needs it, but we only produce a tiny amount of it naturally. Many diets fall short (it's found in fatty fish, eggs and algae), so a smart bet is to get it in a supplement. DHA is key for sperm and egg health, and in pregnancy, it’s critical to fetal brain, eye and neurological development. Beyond all the fertility benefits, it has a major anti-inflammatory effect, improves blood pressure, and is a key building block for brain function, specifically memory and language. It also affects neurotransmitters, which means it can help with mood and depression.
Enzymes: Proteins that help speed up chemical processes within the body, from digestion to hormone production to breathing.
Essential Nutrients: Vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and essential amino acids your body needs but can’t produce, such as Vitamin C, Calcium and Potassium.
Fat-Soluble Vitamins: Vitamins that need fats to dissolve and absorb, including Vitamins A, D, E and K.
Folate/Folic Acid: Folate, also known as Vitamin B9, helps the body produce cells, including red blood cells. It also prevents neural tube defects in fetal development. The synthetic version, called Folic Acid, needs to be converted into the active form, 5-Methyltetrahydrofolate (5-MTHF), by our bodies.
Free Radicals: The body’s normal processes create free radicals, which are cell-damaging molecules that are generally neutralized by antioxidants. Environmental toxins, smoking, excessive stress, among other factors, can cause excess free radicals to hang around, unable to be mopped up.
IU (International Unit): An internationally accepted measure used for vitamins, hormones or toxins that measures potency rather than weight or volume.
L-Carnitine: An amino acid and antioxidant, it is one of the sources of energy for eggs and sperm and is fuel for mitochondria. It’s particularly useful in improving sperm motility.
Lipotropic Factors: Agents that help the body break down and process fats. For example, Choline helps promote fat and bile flow through the liver, which is important for metabolizing fat.
Macronutrients: The nutrients your body needs in larger amounts, categorized as carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
Minerals: Nutrients that come from animals and plants, which are absorbed from soil and water. Some minerals we only need in trace amounts, such as copper, iron and zinc.
Methylation: This series of chemical reactions happen billions of times per second all over the body and occur when a methyl group (such as numerous B Vitamins and Choline) attaches to other molecules, such as DNA, to help them complete their tasks. If a nutrient is “methylated” it is active and bioavailable to the body.
Micronutrients: The nutrients your body needs in small amounts, including vitamins and minerals.
N-Acetyl Cysteine: An antioxidant that helps balance blood sugars, this amino acid reduces oxidative stress and helps the liver process hormones. It’s also a precursor to glutathione, our most potent internally made antioxidant. For fertility, it’s often used to support egg quality and protect the uterine lining.
Omega-3: This fatty acid comprises Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA), Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found in plant oils, and EPA and DHA are rich in fish, seafood and algae. Fatty acids are an important part of cell membranes and are really concentrated in sperm, meaning consuming Omega-3 can help improve sperm quality.
Oxidative Stress: While our own antioxidant system—including a healthy diet—is designed to neutralize cell-damaging molecules (known as reactive oxygen species), oxidative stress happens when our body can’t keep up in neutralizing them. Antioxidants found in supplements can help boost the body’s defences against oxidative stress.
Precursor: Vitamins, minerals or enzymes that get converted into something else within the body. For example, Beta-Carotene, found abundantly in orange fruits and vegetables, gets converted into Vitamin A.
Resveratrol: This antioxidant, which comes from grape skins, can help reverse DNA damage, support hormone metabolism, and is helpful for conditions such as endometriosis.
Selenium: Selenium is a mineral that’s found naturally in soil and, for humans, it’s an essential nutrient, which means we can’t make it ourselves so we need to get it from our diets. You’ll find it in protein-rich foods like beef, poultry, pork, fish and eggs, and in some vegetarian sources like beans and nuts. For males (or people with sperm), Selenium helps with sperm morphology and sperm motility, while for females (or people with eggs) it's crucial for the development of follicles and supports hormone production.
If you can’t get enough from food, you’ll want to reach for a supplement so you can reap all of Selenium’s benefits. It's used for things like DNA protection, thyroid function, fighting infection, reducing oxidative stress and, of course, reproduction.
Vitamins: Nutrients that are made in plants or animals. We get them through the food we eat or supplements, and they can be dissolved in water or fat.
Vitamin B12: The vitamin is required for the health of nerves, brain and red blood cells, and it also helps make DNA. There are four types of B12, but in supplements you’ll often see Methylcobalamin (an active form) and Cyanocobalamin (a synthetic form the body has to convert).
Vitamin D: This sunshine vitamin is necessary for proper bone and immune-system development, and both male and female reproduction. There are two main types: D2 and D3. Vitamin D3 has been shown to correct low Vitamin D levels better than Vitamin D2.
Water-Soluble Vitamins: Vitamins that need water to dissolve and absorb, including Vitamin C and the B Vitamins.
Zinc: This mineral is considered to be one of the key building blocks for sperm (you might hear your doctor refer to them as ACES+Z, which means Vitamins A, C and E, Selenium and Zinc). For people with eggs, it helps regulate hormone levels and supports egg development.