Is Cassava Safe for Trying to Conceive?
Cassava: Too Good to be True?
In the realm of TTC, or "Trying to Conceive", a popular term that's being thrown around is Cassava, whether it's a reference to cassava root or supplement. I'm curious myself, and I am trying to conceive after last having a baby in 2009. I noticed that a favorite online retailer was selling a high-quality supplement. I considered trying it but felt more comfortable doing research first. Sometimes we peruse the TTC forums, searching for advice, but what we come across is a lot of other confused souls and open-ended questions that never quite reach a conclusion. I would like to explore the origins of the plant, its use in its original country, how it affects women in that particular country and how the popularity of cassava came to be within the Western TTC community.
What is Cassava?
Cassava is a tuber root. The flowers of the root and the leaves are edible. It's also known as Yuca in several parts of Central America and the United States or even Brazilian arrowroot. It's important to remember that it's not the same thing as the 'yucca' that are normally found in stores. Both are vascular plants, but they are completely different, as yucca is part of a different genus and family than yuca. It's confusing, but it's essential to keep in mind. It's starchy, easily grown in tropical regions, and is a huge source of carbohydrates. When it's dried down and reduced to a powder, it's known as tapioca.
Cassava and West Africa
The birth rate in West Africa is almost four times more substantial than the birth rate from the rest of the world. This translates to about fifty live births for every thousand live births. The area with the highest level of birth rate in West Africa is named Igbo-Ora. It's a town nestled somewhat in Nigeria. Most homes in this town have at least one twins in this high-populated area. In this area, a significant portion of the diet of the Yoruba people is the cassava plant.
Cassava and Possible Thyroid Link
It is thought that this tuber plant helps release two eggs or more, which of course, may lead to twin live births. Some studies have been conducted that have tied the Yoruba women's tuber foods to the excessive prevalence of the chemical components found in the plant. There was a study done where a high consumption of the leaves of the tuber plant was ingested as a tea for twelve days, but thyroid hormones were reduced in nine days, and iodine was absorbed within the body. Interestingly, thyroid hormones are directly correlated with estrogens, progesterone and other reproductive hormones. They help keep natural systems within the ovaries and regulate the egg's maturation as well. If the thyroid releases an excessive amount or a diminished amount of hormones, reproductive hormones can be significantly affected. So there is evidence that the thyroid synergizes with the follicle-stimulating hormone, and in turn, has effects on the corpus luteum formation. The corpus luteum is a hormone-secreting body within the reproductive system of a woman. It is formed in an ovary that has matured and released its egg during ovulation. An endocrine report noticed that there was no difference in thyroid hormone concentrations between single or twin pregnancies
Cassava and Gonadotropin-Releasing Hormone
There is evidence that Gonadotropin-releasing hormones affect the pituitary gland at a cellular level. It may be involved in the biosynthesis and secretion of the LH (luteinizing hormone) and FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) values. In trying to stimulate ovarian hyperstimulation, GnRH is given to trigger oocyte (egg) release. (Pesce, 2014) Naturally occurring GnRH released by Cassava my trick the brain into thinking that there's not enough estrogen, according to a fertility supplement site. This may, in turn, cause the brain to release extra hormone named gonadotropin, which has the effect of increasing the ovulation rate. This is a claim that some fertility supplement websites may use, but I was not able to find scientific proof to support the claim.
Cassava and Toxicity
Cassava roots do have toxic components present. They contain cyanogenic gluconides. They also have lotaustralin and linamarin. Many plants have these ingredients, such as apricot kernels and bamboo shoots. The toxic levels are significantly reduced when the plant is processed correctly. Cyanogenic gluconides are sometimes comparable and at the concentrations of, releasable hydrogen cyanide. The drying process of cassava root can significantly lower the risk of poisoning. Of course, the plant within a powdered, capsule form should be safe, but still is not FDA approved. "The ingestion of high levels of cassava has been associated with chronic cyanide toxicity in parts of Africa, but this appears to be related to inadequate processing of the root and poor overall nutrition." (Cock, 1982)
Skip the Cassava Hype when Trying to Conceive
Ultimately, it's best to skip the cassava supplements altogether. I was not able to find any scientific evidence through peer-reviewed articles that cassava root directly correlates to a higher incidence of twins. It seems that the nutritional properties of the tuber root itself are destroyed in processing, meaning that many cassava supplements can either have a placebo effect or could cause harm due to the natural toxicology reports of eating too much raw cassava. Ingesting too much cassava can cause cyanide poisoning and negatively affect the thyroid. (Teles, 2002) Even though a supplement may claim that only the safest part of the root itself is utilized, there is no evidence that the leaves or other parts of the plants are not used as well, as these will increase the chances of possible poisoning. I decided, after much research, that cassava supplements are not the cause of increased twinning in Nigeria. There's another underlying factor with those birth rates, but it's quite possibly not associated with cassava. What I did find is that several peers reviewed reports mentioned that cassava lowered thyroid hormone levels, and had no significant effect on ovulation or twinning.
Truth Regarding High Twinning
It's better to take a high quality prenatal with DHA and folate, as opposed to folic acid. Folic acid equals the synthetic form of the naturally occurring folate. After much research, I did not find evidence that cassava is correlated to twin births and much less to fertility. There is a possibility that pituitary glands may be affected, in turn changing the mechanisms of specific areas in the female reproductive systems, but a time where one is trying to conceive is not a good time to experiment with science, as a supplement like this may cause more harm than good, unknowingly. What may have a scientific basis is that twinning rates are high due to increased follicle-stimulating hormones that rise when a woman is breastfeeding. (Smits, 2011) Since many babies are born within a short period of one another, and the probability of pregnant wet nurses that are available, the FSH could release more eggs during ovulation, increasing the rate of twins. Another study has suggested that drinking more milk that has been laced with growth hormones also acts as an FSH stimulator for the ovaries, increasing ovulation. Perhaps a more strange reason for high twinning and fertility rates is due to environmental condition, such as excessive fertility drugs in the drinking water, or another condition that drove down estrogen and increased FSH levels. Either way, cassava root may not be the answer, and with its toxicology report, it's better to remove it from the cart, instead of taking a chance.
Cock, JH (1982) Cassava: a basic energy source in the tropics. Science. 1982 Nov 19;218(4574):755-62.
Pesce, L., & Kopp, P. (2014). Iodide transport: implications for health and disease. International Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology, 2014(1), 8. http://doi.org/10.1186/1687-9856-2014-8
Smits, J., & Monden, C. (2011). Twinning across the Developing World. PLoS ONE, 6(9), e25239. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0025239
Teles, FF. (2002) Chronic poisoning by hydrogen cyanide in cassava and its prevention in Africa and Latin America. Food Nutr Bull. 2002 Dec;23(4):407-12.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2017 Charlotte Doyle