Spring is the perfect time to talk about fertility, as it’s the season of rebirth. Plus, more couples tend to try to conceive during the warmer months. That’s why it seems fitting that a week in April is dedicated to national infertility awareness—April 23-29.
Unfortunately it seems that women are having a harder time getting pregnant these days than decades past, which could be the result of a number of factors. When one of my female patients wants to discuss her fertility, or chances of getting pregnant, I first take an integrative medicine approach, looking at everything from her diet and lifestyle to her hormone function. Age and genetics also play a role, but unfortunately neither are in our control. Whether or not you plan to start a family this spring, summer or fall, here are a few factors that do affect your fertility and what you can do to improve your health and the health of your future children.
Over the years, I’ve seen what seems like a hopeless situation turn completely around through a change in habits and nutrition. You can improve your odds of getting pregnant by eating the right foods. It’s all about getting your daily recommended doses of vitamins in and minerals. Here are some fertility foods I recommend:
- Lentils: Lentils are high in B vitamins, which play a key role in estrogen and progesterone, the hormones routed in fertility. Soak these delicious dried beans overnight and incorporate them in everything from soups and curries to salads and side dishes.
- Eggs: In addition to being high in protein and good-for-you fats, like omega-3 fatty acids, eggs contain choline, a phospholipid that plays an important role in fertility. Choline aids fatty acid metabolism and liver detoxification, preventing fatty liver and insulin resistance. This especially comes in handy for those battling PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), as they aid in managing insulin and fat metabolism is crucial for optimal fertility. Aim for 4-6 servings of eggs per week.
- Broccoli: This cruciferous vegetable is an important piece of the fertility equation, as it serves up a hefty dose of antioxidants, helps metabolize estrogen, improves oxygenation and detoxification and creates a healthier preconception environment. Aim for 2-3 servings of broccoli per week.
- Red meat: A functioning thyroid is vital for a good ovulatory response, and iron is essential for a properly functioning thyroid. While the greens are a great iron source, it can be hard to absorb these vegetarian sources of iron. Two servings of red meat per week can help to boost your thyroid, solving another piece of the fertility puzzle.
More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, according to new statistics put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s pretty scary, considering carrying around extra pounds can have an impact on hormone production, making it more difficult to conceive. This has to do with proper functioning of the ovary, the organ that releases the egg that inevitably is fertilized by the sperm. When a woman is overweight, her ovaries are less likely to work the way they’re supposed to. In addition, a study published in the journal Fertility and Sterility, found that obese women over the age of 18 were more likely to develop PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome. This condition occurs when a woman has an excess of the androgen hormone, which causes hormones to become imbalanced.
Just as topping the scales can affect fertility, so can clocking in at a weight that’s too low for your body size and structure. To know where you stand, it’s important to keep track of your BMI, or body mass index. This is a standard measurement of body fat based on your weight and height that differs for men and women. Here is a calculator where you can figure out yours. When your BMI is too low, or under 18.5, your body becomes deficient in the hormone leptin, which controls hunger and impacts your menstrual cycle. To maintain a healthy body weight, it’s important to get your daily fill of vitamins and nutrients through your diet and partake in moderate exercise weekly. This will go a long way in increasing your chances of carrying a baby now and in the future.
Working out is important for your overall health—and exercising several times a week is usually quite beneficial to your chances of getting pregnant. But there is such a thing as overdoing it, regardless of what the scale says. A study published in the journal of Fertility and Sterility found that women with normal BMIs who exercised more than five hours a week had a more difficult time conceiving than those who exercised less. A good way to tell if you’re hitting the gym too often, or for too long, is if your menstrual cycles are normal. Overexercising can result in lighter and shorter—or infrequent—periods. If you’re experiencing this, see your doctor, who can determine the root of the cause.
It’s true that fertility factors can be genetic. Just like you might have your mom’s smile or curly brown hair, you also might go into menopause around the same time she did. Most women experience menopause between the ages of 48-55, the average age being 51. But there really is no set age—women can go into menopause in their early 40s, or experience premature menopause, which occurs in a woman younger than 40. If your mom started menopause on the earlier side, chances are you will too. This is definitely not something to worry about, but you should keep this in mind if you plan on postponing pregnancy to your later childbearing years.
Believe it or not, but some of the chemical products you keep in your home have been linked to decreased fertility. In fact, a study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found pollutants, pesticides and industrial compounds to be a cause of infertility, decreasing a couple’s chances of conceiving by up to 29 percent. In addition, a Washington University study found that 15 common chemicals, including phthalates found in many personal care and beauty items, were associated with early menopause. While many infertility-causing chemicals, like PCBs, have been banned, it’s important to check the labels on your product to make sure they are phthalate-free.
You know it’s bad for you—and, chances are, you might even be planning to quit once you have a child in the home. But it’s actually in your best interest to quit now if you don’t want it affecting your ability to have a child in the first place. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine found that smoking is the culprit for up to 13 percent of all infertility cases. In addition, smoking during pregnancy or experiencing second- or third-hand smoke during pregnancy, can hurt a growing baby.
Another lifestyle don’t you’re probably already aware of—but when it comes to conceiving it can seriously set you back. In fact, a Swedish study that analyzed a random sample of 7,393 women over the course of 18 years found that those who drank the most and large amounts were more likely to have trouble conceiving. The best piece of advice I can give is to not overdo it on the booze, whether or not you’re trying to conceive—and especially when you’re trying to conceive. If you’re serious about getting pregnant, try cutting out alcohol to increase your chances, or at least cutting back quite a bit.
Your Caffeine Fix
Yep—sadly your reliance on that morning cup of joe may be holding you back from getting pregnant—that is, if you’re drinking too much of it. The science isn’t totally decided on the matter, but certain research has shown caffeine is not a friend of fertility. One study by the Nevada School of Medicine found that caffeine reduces muscle activity in the fallopian tubes that carry an egg from the ovary to the uterus. And another study published in the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology found that drinking more than five cups of coffee a day may reduce a woman’s chances of conceiving via IVF by 50 percent.
Too Much Stress
In this day and age it’s almost impossible to escape the work and social pressures surrounding us—but it’s important to try your best to maintain a peaceful, relaxed persona. Doing so might even increase your chances of getting pregnant. A study published in the journal Human Reproduction found that women with higher levels of stress as measured by salivary alpha-amylase are associated with an increased risk of infertility and a longer time-to-pregnancy (TTP). Try your best to incorporate relaxing activities, like yoga and meditation, in your life and keep a handle on your workload so you know when you’re taking on too much.