Can I let you in on a not-so-little secret? One in eight couples today have trouble getting pregnant and/or sustaining a pregnancy. Why is infertility such a taboo topic? Unfortunately, there is so much shame and secrecy around the topic that couples tend to keep their journey hidden, under lock and key, until — and if — a successful pregnancy occurs.
Chances are, someone in your life has struggled with infertility. And, the reality is, that someone is probably stronger, braver and more persistent than you’ve given them credit for.
So, let’s talk about infertility: what it is, what causes it and how you can optimize your body for conception when you’re ready.
WHAT IS INFERTILITY?
As defined by the International Committee for Monitoring Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ICMART), infertility is a condition characterized by the failure to establish a clinical pregnancy after 12 months of regular, unprotected sexual intercourse or
due to an impairment of a person’s capacity to reproduce either as an individual or with his/her partner.
There’s a common misconception that infertility only pertains to the female partner when, in fact, one-third of infertility is
attributed to the female partner, one-third attributed to the male partner and one-third is caused by a combination of problems in both partners or is unexplained.
CAUSES AND RISK FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TO INFERTILITY
Each and every step of ovulation and fertilization needs to happen correctly in order to get pregnant. There are many medical conditions that can be the underlying cause of infertility for both men and women. Some of these conditions are simple to diagnose, like hormone imbalances, while others may require an array of additional testing and the expertise of a specialist.
Risk factors such as age, weight, reproductive history, genetics and length of time trying to conceive can have a significant impact on your odds of getting pregnant and having a healthy, full-term pregnancy without any complications.
Unfortunately, your age really does matter when it comes to fertility. At age 30, the average woman’s chance of conceiving during any one cycle is 20%. By age 40, that chance drops to a low 5%. Those are some crazy statistics, right? But, remember that the quality of our eggs (reflected by the health and quality of the environment of our bodies) make a significant difference in improving our odds of successful conception no matter what your age.
Weight can also be a major fertility factor; being excessively thin or overweight can lead to infertility problems. Estrogen is partially produced in our fat cells, so too much or too little fat on the body can wreak havoc on estrogen levels.
Being diagnosed with certain high-risk reproductive conditions, such as endometriosis, low ovarian reserve, fibroids, PCOS or a thyroid disorder most definitely affects your fertility health.
NAVIGATING THE JOURNEY
If you and your partner have been trying to conceive for a while, then you know that the internet is a dark and scary place. There is so
much information out there, both from reputable and not-so-reputable sources, that it can be tricky to navigate what’s really important.
It’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not. But, here’s what we do know for certain.
Preconception care is essential in preparing your body for a successful, healthy, full- term pregnancy. The best way to optimize fertility in preparation for pregnancy is to eat a nutrient-dense fertility diet and live in a way that supports the ideal functioning of the reproductive system.
It’s important to know what your hormones are doing and, therefore, what you need to do to regulate and balance these hormones, so you can get in prime baby-making condition before you start trying to conceive. This way, you can target your efforts instead of wasting precious time and energy.
Testing your hormones is an essential piece of the puzzle and understanding any hormone imbalances you might be struggling with is the first step to optimizing your fertility health and getting your body ready for baby-making. Without knowing exactly where your baseline hormone levels are, it’s like playing darts with a blindfold on.
Your fertility, menstruation, libido, weight, mood and cycle are all impacted by your hormone levels.
There are so many hormones that must be in balance to have a healthy cycle, healthy ovulation and a robust sex drive, so you can be in prime fertile condition to conceive easily and have a healthy, full-term pregnancy.
If you’re not being tested for all the various hormones that affect fertility, you are missing critical information about the various factors that may be negatively impacting your fertility health. Healthy ovulation patterns and menstrual cycles, in addition to egg and sperm health, can be disrupted by many imbalances, including thyroid dysfunction, testosterone levels, estrogen/ progesterone ratio and adrenal health.
By testing your hormone levels, you can take the guesswork out of what’s going on with your hormones AND your fertility status.
UPLEVEL YOUR DIET
Would your great-grandmother recognize what you’re about to put into your mouth?
No? Then don’t eat it. No exceptions. This means avoiding food with long ingredient lists, all refined sugar and refined grains, artificial sweeteners, non-organic meat and dairy products, GMOs, vegetable oils and fake, fast or fried foods.
Start eating high-quality, organic, clean, nutrient-dense, whole foods that you primarily cook yourself at least 90% of the time! I’m talkin’ clean, quality proteins (both plant and animal), tons of healthy fats and oils, eat the rainbow in fruits and veggies and include lots of fermented foods, like sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, properly fermented yogurt and kefir.
It’s important for your fertility to purchase the highest quality of food you can find and afford.
REDUCE YOUR TOXIN-LOAD
Did you know that research shows exposure to pollutants, pesticides and industrial chemicals can decrease a couple’s ability to conceive by up to 29%?
In our modern world, we are exposed to more chemicals than ever before in history. Unfortunately, many of these chemicals are estrogen-based, meaning your hormone and fertility health are the first to suffer. The majority of chemicals used today are endocrine disrupting and many of them are xenoestrogenic — meaning they mimic estrogen in your body by adhering to estrogen receptor sites on your cells and prevent your body’s production of estrogen from doing its job, as well as increasing your estrogen load. These xenoestrogens disrupt ovulation, create hormonal chaos, stagnate the liver and are linked to infertility and miscarriage.
So, how do we reduce our toxin-load? Most importantly, clean up your environment. This includes getting rid of chemical-laden personal care products, cleaning products, yard fertilizers and any other product you put on your skin or bring into your home. Eliminate plastic from your kitchen. Don’t drink out of plastic water bottles. Avoid canned goods, and only buy brands that specify “BPA-free.” Avoid antiperspirants and aluminum-containing deodorant. Look for cleaning and laundry products that are plant-based, fragrance-free and phthalate-free. Throw away all non-stick, Teflon-type cookware, and cook only in cast iron, stainless steel, glass or ceramic.
HYDRATE LIKE YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT
Because it actually does. Adequate hydration is essential for literally every function in your body. The goal is to drink at least half your body weight in ounces of clean, filtered water daily, so up your water a few ounces at a time until you’ve reached that.
Water helps flush toxins from your body, keeps your cells functioning at optimal levels and makes your fertility function happy.
MANAGE YOUR STRESS
If you’re constantly stressed out, your body perceives that stress the same as if you were constantly running from a bear. Your environment is not a safe place for a new life, so all unnecessary functions for survival (like your reproductive system) shut down.
Both acute and chronic stress send a signal to the pituitary gland in the brain that your body is in trouble, which slows the release of LH (Luteinizing hormone), the hormone needed to trigger ovulation. Our bodies don’t want us ovulating, and therefore reproducing, in times of stress. Even if ovulation occurs, a shortage of LH can mean a shortage of progesterone, which is necessary to nourish and sustain a fertilized egg.
Reducing stress is one of the most important things you can do to optimize your fertility. Easier said than done, I know. There are so many factors that are beyond our control, but it’s important to manage what we can control. Start small; take a daily walk outside to clear your mind, try meditation, deep breathing, yoga or massage. Make time for the things that truly bring you pleasure. One of the best ways to combat the negative effects of stress is experiencing joy.
MOVE YOUR BODY DAILY
The main artery that supplies blood to our legs also supplies blood to your uterus, ovaries and vagina. If we sit around a lot, especially if we have a desk job, the blood flow to our uterus may be compromised.
A sedentary lifestyle also contributes directly to weak muscles of the uterus. Consistent exercise is the first step in optimizing fertility and improving uterine health. However, you can have too much of a good thing. Too much intense exercise creates stress on the body, taking energy away from the reproductive system.
60 minutes of daily movement — yoga swimming, strength training, hiking, walking, jogging, pilates, biking, etc. — is usually the perfect amount to get your heart rate up, increase circulation to your reproductive organs and help you improve overall physical and mental health.
IMPROVE YOUR SLEEP HABITS
Sleep plays a huge role in hormone balance and fertility. When our body is able to get quality sleep day in and day out, it’s able to detox, restore and regenerate. When your quality or quantity of sleep is decreased, your body isn’t able to prioritize rest and repair, and your fertility is the system that is largely affected. Making a baby is not deemed necessary for survival in any way, so when things are off (like poor sleep), your reproductive system is one of the first to shut down.
Disrupted sleep patterns can decrease fertility in both women and men by suppressing ovulation, lowering progesterone levels, causing menstrual irregularity and interfering with healthy sperm development.
Balanced hormones are vital to a healthy menstrual cycle, including proper timing of ovulation. Sleep affects key fertility hormones including estrogen, progesterone, luteinizing hormone and follicle stimulating hormone.
Research has found that women getting less than seven hours of sleep are 15% less likely to get pregnant than women who got seven to eight hours. On the other hand, women undergoing a treatment like IVF who got seven to eight hours of sleep were 25% more likely to get pregnant than women who got nine or more.
Aim for a solid seven to nine hours of uninterrupted, restorative sleep per night. No electronics before bed, sleep in complete darkness and keep your space nice and cool to help promote a good night’s sleep.
IN A NUTSHELL
If you’re on the infertility journey, know that you aren’t alone. I know it takes bravery to speak up, but I encourage you to do it! Share your story, ask for support, seek connection with others who are on similar journeys and — most importantly — be gentle with yourself. Navigating the world of infertility can be long, lonely and isolating, so do what you can to take care of yourself and get the support and care you need.
Featured image by Nataliya Vaitkevich.
Originally published in Winter + Spring 2022-23 issue.