Our fertility is very precious and it does not last for ever. The way we choose to live our lives will inevitably affect our overall health and our fertility. Of course, there are factors in life that we are unable to change, for example, our inherited constitution, accidents and some illnesses. Lifestyle, however, is an area where those wishing to conceive can exert some control. Fertility specialist, Emma Cannon (Author of FERTILE) explains how lifestyle choices may impact your fertility and how you can make wise choices to boost your chances of conceiving.
Getting to the correct weight to have a baby can make a big difference to your chances. A fertile weight is neither too heavy nor too light. Of course, this does not mean that very thin women can’t fall pregnant nor that women who are overweight will necessarily struggle; there are always exceptions to the rule. However, there is an optimum window that is considered to be healthy for conception.
What the research says
Body fat helps convert the male hormone androgen into oestrogen. It’s also been shown that having too little body fat can affect the menstrual cycle, and you may stop ovulating even if you are having periods each month. There is also a higher risk of miscarrying in the first trimester of pregnancy – women with a low body mass index (BMI) are 72 per cent more likely to suffer a first trimester miscarriage.
On the other hand, being overweight can affect your fertility too. You may develop insulin resistance, which can lead to an overproduction of the hormone leptin. This can contribute to irregular ovulation, or again an absence of ovulation altogether. Obese women suffer about eight more fetal and infant deaths per thousand births than women who enter pregnancy at a recommended weight.
Modern exercise trends, which include ‘boot-camp’-style workouts, Bikram (‘hot’) yoga and triathlons tend to be extreme and not conducive to conceiving. Many people are running on empty and depleted in vital energy. In some people, the body may not have enough energy to support both intense physical training and pregnancy. For example, more than three hours of aerobic exercise a day has been shown to reduce pregnancy rates in IVF patients. However, regular and moderate exercise has been shown to improve blood flow and reduce oxidative stress, which may improve fertility.
My view is that vigorous exercise can deplete the vital substances – the Qi (vital energy), the Blood and ultimately the Jing. But when practised appropriately, mindful exercises – such as yoga, meditation, walking, dancing, cycling (although not so great for sperm), rebound exercise and any- thing that creates movement but not exhaustion – cultivate Qi and therefore are likely to benefit fertility. Moderate exercise moves Qi and calms the emotions.
Stress is all around us; my observation is that in the past ten years we have become more stressed and more tired than previous generations, despite all our marvellous time-saving devices! Research studies demonstrate that the likelihood of becoming pregnant is reduced when stress levels are high. A recent American study of 501 couples over 12 months found a 29 per cent reduction in fertility and a two-fold increase in risk of infertility in couples demonstrating high levels of stress.
Lowering stress levels brings many benefits to couples trying to conceive. It is really important for you to find ways to live a calmer life. Sometimes it is simply a matter of acknowledging how much noise there is in your mind and deciding to switch off. Women often get worried after one month of trying that there is something wrong. It is completely normal for it to take several months (even a year) to get pregnant. Most couples are not infertile, but subfertile, so improving your diet and lifestyle and living a more fertile life will improve the chances every month of conceiving.
Drinking as little as two units per day can have a negative impact on female fertility and excessive alcohol consumption has been found to cause infertility. The negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption on fertility include increased time to conception, anovulation (no ovulation), luteal phase dysfunction, poor or abnormal embryo development and even early menopause. Evidence regarding ‘safe’ levels of alcohol intake in terms of fertility is not conclusive and it is often confusing trying to work out how much is safe or if you should be drinking at all.
Like so many of these things, it is likely that moderation is the best route, but moderation really is quite moderate, and some people find it easier not to drink at all. Alcohol can become a bone of contention between couples, creating resentment if one partner abstains while the other does not. For women with poor egg quality and men with poor sperm results, I suggest abstinence. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) state that women trying to conceive should avoid alcohol altogether.
Research consistently demonstrates that smoking negatively impacts both male and female fertility. Smoking increases the risks of miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy, adversely impacts semen quality and sperm count, and reduces the chances of IVF success. Women whose mothers smoked during pregnancy had a reduction in their egg quality. And other research demonstrates that women who smoked during assisted reproductive treatment (ART) were less likely to become pregnant or have a live birth, and were more likely to have an ectopic pregnancy or miscarry.
My observations over many years tell me that women with a history of smoking are likely to have depleted their fertile fluids – their ‘Yin fluids’. In my experience, women who are Yin deficient struggle to produce good quality embryos. Smoking will make this situation even worse. From a reproductive point of view it is the single worse thing you can do to your fertility.