Fertility-on-track

How and why to keep your female fertility in check

The increasing importance of education and a career for women means that women are choosing to delay starting a family until later in life. Unfortunately, age is the most important factor when it comes to female fertility. A woman is born will all of the eggs she will ever have, and as time goes on, the number and quality of these eggs will decline, especially after the age of 35.

WHEN WE LOOK AT THE STATS:

  • Women under 30 have about a 20% chance of getting pregnant naturally each month
  • By the age of 40 this number decreases to about 5% each month

Although we can’t turn back time or pause our biological clock, there are ways to support female fertility in younger women to increase the chances of having a baby in the future. By knowing what will impact your fertility, you can make the necessary changes to keep your body and your eggs healthy. So let’s discuss what you can do to naturally optimize your fertility, even if you aren’t quite ready to start a family.

MAINTAIN A HEALTHY BODY WEIGHT

There are well-known negative effects of being overweight on female fertility. Obese women have reduced pregnancy rates, increased miscarriage rates and more complications throughout pregnancy and labour. One of the reasons behind this is that fat cells produce estrogen, and hormonal imbalances contribute to infertility. Also, women who are overweight have a higher risk of being insulin resistant, which impairs egg quality and the ability to get pregnant. By losing excess weight you will improve the quality of your eggs. On the flip side, being too thin also impairs female fertility by impacting ovulation. Women need body fat to support hormone production and to maintain a pregnancy, which is why women carry more body fat than men. In terms of fertility, I see the best results when women are about 20-25% body fat.

QUIT SMOKING

The toxic metabolites from cigarette smoke float through the bloodstream and travel to the ovaries. When the eggs are exposed to these chemicals, it is well known that egg quality is impaired. Studies show that women who smoke take longer to get pregnant and have many more complications through pregnancy. Smoking is also associated with early menopause and menstrual abnormalities, which can greatly impact your chance of conceiving, especially if you are waiting well into your 30’s. Studies have also shown that marijuana can reduce female fertility as well. The female endocrine system is very sensitive, and the cannabinoids from marijuana may disrupt the delicate balance.

BOOST YOUR NUTRITION

The ovaries and the eggs are very metabolically active which means they require a lot of nutrients to thrive. Consuming a well-balanced diet emphasizing the intake of nutrient-rich, whole foods is key in maintaining your fertility. A fertility diet should focus on good quality protein, healthy fats, and abundant fruit and vegetables while being mindful to include foods high in antioxidants to protect the egg from free-radical damage. Free radicals come from fried foods, alcohol, tobacco, pesticides and air pollution, to name a few. In addition, the focus of the diet should be on blood sugar balance. When we eat sugar or carbohydrates, insulin is released in response. If insulin becomes too high, it can impair female fertility and egg quality.

Since it can be challenging to get all of the nutrients needed through food alone, and because things like stress, environmental toxins, and the birth control pill deplete many important nutrients required for optimal female fertility, it may be necessary to use supplements to support egg health. In women looking to support their fertility, I recommend a high-quality prenatal vitamin as a daily multi. A good quality prenatal will have a wide range of vitamins and nutrients at doses high enough to support a growing fetus, so it packs a pretty good punch. All supplements aren’t created equally, however, and so look for one that has therapeutic doses of activated folic acid, B12, iron, B-vitamins and vitamin D. There are many important nutrients when it comes to fertility.

FOR EXAMPLE:

  • Iron deficiency is associated with poor egg quality, impaired ovulation, and menstrual abnormalities. You should always have your iron tested before you supplement.
  • A B12 deficiency can impair egg quality
  • Vitamin D is very important for hormone balance and egg quality

Depending on your history other supplements may be recommended, but this is determined on a case by case basis. For example, if you were a past smoker you may need some additional antioxidant support.

CONSIDER DITCHING THE PILL

Although the pill does not directly impair fertility, it could be masking health concerns that impact your fertility. Now the pill isn’t all bad, but if you want to understand and preserve your fertility, it may be time to consider another form of birth control. When you are on the pill your body stops creating its own hormones, and it can take time for your body to regain this ability after the pill. Many women go off the pill at the same time they want to start trying to conceive, only to find out that they have some underlying issue that was hidden for all of those years she was on the pill. Unfortunately, it can take months to correct hormonal imbalances after the pill. If you are willing to use another form of birth control, like condoms or the copper IUD, you will be able to assess your fertility a lot more clearly. If you aren’t ready to ditch the pill, I recommend stopping the pill at least 3-6 months before trying to conceive to get your body baby ready before getting pregnant.

To learn about what you need to know before coming off the pill, read my post here.

LIMIT YOUR TOXIC EXPOSURE

Although it is difficult to completely avoid all chemicals in the environment, there are ways to reduce your exposure and there is convincing evidence to do so! Studies show that endocrine disrupting chemicals decrease the quality of eggs and decrease the chances of getting pregnant. About 95% of people have detectable levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals in their bodies and women struggling to get pregnant have higher levels. This is because these chemicals have the ability to mimic the action of estrogen in the body. High levels can cause altered hormone levels, decreased egg quality, damage to DNA, longer menstrual cycles, increased risk of miscarriage and earlier menopause.

THE MOST DANGEROUS ENVIRONMENTAL TOXINS THAT IMPACT FERTILITY INCLUDE:

  • bisphenols (like in BPA)
  • phthalates
  • parabens
  • persistent organic pollutants
  • pesticides, herbicides and insecticides, and
  • heavy metals.

You can find these in plastics, sales receipts, linings of canned foods, personal care products, preservatives, flame retardants, many food products, smoking, air pollution, dental fillings, and household products.

IF YOU WANT TO EVENTUALLY GET PREGNANT, START REDUCING YOUR EXPOSURE TO THESE CHEMICALS BY:

  • Choosing organic fresh fruit and vegetables and thoroughly washing them before consuming
  • Avoiding processed, canned and pre-packaged foods
  • Limiting your use of plastic wraps and never heating anything in plastic
  • Choosing organic, free-range meats and wild fish
  • Using a glass or steel water bottle
  • Avoiding air fresheners, smoke, strong chemicals, and fragrances like perfume
  • Swapping your household cleaning products for “greener” products – same goes for beauty products too!
  • Be aware that products advertised as “BPA free” may have replacement chemicals like BPS, which can be just as harmful!

BE MINDFUL OF CHANGES IN YOUR BODY

If you notice changes in your menstrual cycle, it is important to speak to a medical professional. Moreover, if there are any underlying issues, it is best to get them sorted out well before you are trying to conceive. Also, if your cycles start to shorten, this may indicate early menopause, and this could dictate your timeline when it comes to getting pregnant. The thyroid is also really important when it comes to fertility. If you notice changes in your mood, weight, energy levels, sensitivity to hot or cold, heart palpitations, etc. a simple blood test can tell you how your thyroid is functioning. You know your body better than anyone, so if something doesn’t quite feel right, speak to your doctor.

If you are waiting to start a family, understanding how your age, diet, and lifestyle affect your chances of getting pregnant and having a healthy baby is critical. There are many things you can start incorporating now to protect and maintain your fertility. In my opinion, women need to start considering their fertility in their early 20’s, when fertility is at its peak. Please don’t wait until you are ready to get pregnant before you start considering your fertility, especially if you are waiting well into your 30’s! If you have questions about your fertility or want to understand your baseline, speak to a functional practitioner or naturopathic doctor to ensure you have all of the knowledge to make informed choices about your fertility.

To healthy eggs and preserved fertility,

Dr. Bronwyn

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WRITTEN BY:

Dr. Bronwyn is a naturopathic doctor in Toronto, Ontario with a clinical focus in Women's Health. She works with women transitioning off the oral contraceptive pill and those with specific fertility concerns, to reach a state of hormonal balance or in preparation for a healthy pregnancy. Dr. Bronwyn is passionate about empowering women to reclaim their hormonal health, to enable a full and vibrant life.

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