Expert / 2 November, 2021 / Dr Larisa Corda
One in six couples has trouble conceiving and this number is only set to get bigger as both men and women chose to postpone childbearing until later in life. This has been led by many societal changes, not least the fact that both men and women are now gaining equal footing on the career ladder. Yet, biologically, nothing has changed and doesn’t look likely to change unless we develop new technologies allowing us to beat natural reproductive ageing. But what if we could do something to help maintain the eggs and sperm in their most fertile state for our age and optimise the ability of our body to become pregnant and create the healthiest babies possible?
Up to a third of people have what we call unexplained infertility, with no obvious clinical cause found despite multiple investigations. Traditionally these have been the people we have treated with assisted reproductive technologies, without being able to explain why they can’t get pregnant. Yet we are not doing enough to answer the bigger question of why, aside from age, is fertility on the decline and what can we do to help counter this worrying trend at all ages.
I believe a lot of the answers to this lie in our environment and habits, related to eating, exercise, stress and exposure to certain chemicals. A growing number of studies is suggesting strong correlations between all of these having an ability to influence not just our own state of wellbeing, but our very DNA, which in turn is passed on to our children. Put simply, if we don’t look after our minds and bodies, the long term consequences are not just on our health and fertility, but also our children’s health too.
The Conception Plan addresses these four major areas where almost all of us need to improve. It isn’t a case of radically overhauling everything, as this is more often than not too difficult to achieve and means a lot of people give up at the first hurdle. It’s about first of all understanding that you have the power to control so much of your own health through adjustments made in your direct environment, that will change your behaviour, which in turn will change your long term habits and relationship with your mind and body. Small steps taken each day are what this is all about, and when sustained, will not only improve your fertility, but also your general sense of wellbeing, leaving you with more energy, better mental clarity, and able to keep your body mass index within the normal range. I have seen this approach help many patients, and most recently a couple affected by both male and female factor infertility for 3 years, whose journey has been aired on This Morning, and who have become pregnant via the help of this very same plan.
Your diet is possibly the most important way you can have an impact not just on your own health and fertility, but your baby’s too. You are literally what you eat. So if you eat food high in unhealthy fat, processed and full of sugar and salt, additives and flavourings, can you imagine the consequences that has on not just your health, but the health of any children that are born? Recent studies are beginning to show that what we put into our bodies, including food, is a major contributor to influencing the genetic blueprint of your baby and switching certain genes on and off, potentially predisposing your child to health problems later in life, if you don’t consider what you’re eating. I find these epigenetic studies fascinating and the possibility that our food choices can have transgenerational effects is even more reason to become savvy and conscientious about what you eat.
The first thing to say is that you want to eat as cleanly as you can. This means eating food that isn’t processed or over boiled, or over cooked, but instead is nutritionally dense and as close to its natural state as possible. It also means eating organically where you can, ensuring the food is free from hormones and pesticides, which are essentially toxic. Seasonal food is far more likely to be chemical free than food that is out of season and has had to be transported over long distances. A clean diet will also help to reduce inflammation in your body, especially if you have inflammatory conditions such as endometriosis or polycystic ovaries, and will also help regulate hormones such as insulin, leptin, cortisol and the sex hormones, all of which can have profound effects not just on fertility, but general health and weight too.
Refined sugar is an inflammatory agent, as is gluten, dairy for an increasing number of people, as are additives in processed food. All of these need to be removed or significantly reduced in your diet or dairy free versions found which are fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Having a diet that is predominantly plant based is important, though it’s not to say meat needs to be excluded. In small doses, lean organic meat is beneficial, but focusing on including as many plants as possible also means you’re eating lots of healthy fats, that are important for fertility, and you’re eliminating your exposure to toxins that accumulate the further down the food chain you go.
It’s also important to make sure that when you’ve adjusted your diet, you’re also supporting your body in eliminating any excess toxins, so eating a diet rich in fibre, to encourage daily bowel motions, and supporting your gut and uterine natural microbiome, by taking a probiotic daily and eating fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, regularly. There are now more and more studies looking at the role of the microbiome in the womb and how it may impact on implantation as well as the risk of miscarriage. In addition, a probiotic is also beneficial for the baby’s immunity too.
There are so many benefits to exercise when you’re trying to get pregnant, for both men and women. It helps boost your circulation to your reproductive organs and also helps maintain a healthy body and mind. It encourages blood flow to the womb and ovaries, releases feel good endorphins, and improves libido and motivation. Exercising outside boosts levels of Vitamin D which, in itself, helps to improve fertility in both men and women. It also increases levels of serotonin that can stave off depression and suppress appetite, allowing us to make healthier food choices. This isn’t a competition, but a gradual process that may feel difficult committing to at first, but which will soon start to become something you crave doing. Around 150 minutes spread out over the week is what is recommended as a minimum.
Exercise is a key component to managing weight, which is important for getting pregnant due to hormonal imbalances that occur with being overweight. Studies show that when a woman’s body mass index is above the normal range, losing as little as 5% of body weight can significantly improve the chances of getting pregnant. Research has shown that moderate physical activity gives women better insulin function and an improved hormonal profile, and thus better conditions for fertility, especially if you have polycystic ovaries, where blood sugar regulation can be a problem. In men, exercise has been shown to boost both number and quality of sperm.
Improvements in sleep and psychological stress can be seen too, both of which influence fertility in men and women. However, if too much exercise is done, your body starts perceiving this as a form of stress and this signals to the hypothalamus in the brain it might not be a safe time for reproduction, which can set off a cascade of hormonal changes leading to a problem with menstrual cycle regularity and ovulation. Moderation and balance is essential here. Yoga, in particular, can be very beneficial as it reaps all the rewards of exercise but has the added benefit of specifically addressing stress through mindfulness, and can be done before, during and after pregnancy, with long lasting results.
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Research has shown that the psychological stress experienced by women with infertility is similar to that of women coping with long term illnesses such as cancer, HIV, and chronic pain. Men are also at risk of anxiety, depression, experiencing physical aches and pains related to emotional distress, sexual dysfunction, and decreased self-esteem. Intimate relationships can often be put to the test and become strained and then there’s the actual process and pressure of trying to conceive which can put a lot of strain and pressure on sex. Added stress comes from the costs of any treatment and investigations that may be needed, and the pressure to do well in these, as well as facing the frustration of being declined treatment or unable to access it.
Feeling inadequate, empty, a failure and depressed is all normal, in particular if you’ve struggled to have a baby for a long time. In fact, a literature review has shown that up to 60% of people with infertility report some sort of psychiatric symptoms.
If we consider this logically, stress is part of our inbuilt fight or flight response. It’s there to protect us from danger. It leads to an increase in cortisol, the stress hormone, which then triggers a cascade of events that lead to priming the body ready to escape or defend itself. In this situation, stress is useful. But not if you’re trying to have a baby, where the excess cortisol can end up having negative effects around the body, such as reducing progesterone production and increasing oestrogen dominance in the body, which in itself can increase inflammation and create an unfavourable environment for fertility. A recent study found that women with high levels of alpha-amylase, an enzyme that correlates with stress, have a harder time getting pregnant. Saliva samples taken from 274 women over six menstrual cycles (or until they got pregnant) revealed that those with the highest enzyme concentrations during the first cycle were 12 percent less likely to conceive than were women with the lowest levels.
I am a big fan of techniques such as yoga, reiki, crystal healing and acupuncture, as well as reflexology, hypnosis and massage, which can all help lower stress by encouraging a person to reconnect with their emotions, something we tend to sweep under the carpet and neglect, until the problem starts manifesting in areas of our health. In addition, having hobbies and connecting with others, journaling and honouring yourself with time dedicated each day to do something just for you is all really important when it comes to helping to lower stress and manage it long term.
The same principles about cleaning up your food apply to your general environmental exposure to toxins. And more and more science is beginning to prove associations between our exposure to certain chemicals and effects on sperm and eggs, including a very recent study presented last month at the largest fertility congress called ESHRE, that showed an association between increasing pollution and an earlier decline in egg number or earlier menopause. We may not be able to control our exposure to pollution if we live in bigger cities (though I would recommend wherever possible making sure you have regular time spent outside of the city environment), there are many other chemicals we can control, and we need to get serious about this.
The first thing we need to eliminate is smoking and alcohol. These can not only damage hormone health, but also sperm and eggs, as well as leading to developmental problems in the baby, so removing them altogether, or at least minimising alcohol, is important. The average women carries more than 120 chemicals every day when she steps outside of the house, due to a combination of food she eats, that may contain herbicides, GMO and pesticides, household cleaning products, pollution and skincare products whilst the average human placenta, so what your baby feeds off, contains more than 200!
Many health conditions affecting children can be traced back to environmental toxins and exposure to these. There has been an escalation of conditions affecting children, in particular allergies and autoimmune conditions and also less well understood conditions such as autism. Studies have shown that at the time of birth, babies could have around 300 different environmental toxins in their blood stream, this is before they’ve even been exposed to the outside world. Science is showing more evidence that these harmful substances can not only affect the health of the child by absorbing into their blood stream in utero, but also that they can alter the genetic blueprint of the baby. Meaning that the effects could be transgenerational.
The good news is that with a couple of changes made to your lifestyle, these toxins can drain out of our body system and stop having the adverse effects they would otherwise have done. The first step towards detoxing is going organic where possible. Not just with food, but also with beauty products too. Most women are leaving to go to work in the morning having inadvertently applied dozens of chemicals on to their bodies. In addition, so much of what we use contains plastic that has been shown to leach endocrine disruptors, that adversely affect hormones in both the man and woman, and recent studies also suggest a direct impact on sperm. It may sound tedious, time consuming and expensive to make switches to clean organic food, and glass based products, as well as organic skin care, but this is an investment you’ll be making not just for yourself, and also your child’s development and their children.
There are many budget friendly ways in which you could detox your approach to food and products you use on yourself and around the home. Check out my website for home DIY recipes that are super easy and cheap, as well as ways to plan your meals each week to save money, along with healthy fertility boosting recipe ideas.
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