As many as 22 per cent of men and 26 per cent of women have experienced infertility problems by the age of 38, according to new data from the University of Otago’s Dunedin birth cohort (a highly regarded study of 1000 babies that has been going for over 40 years) – far higher than the traditional ‘one in six couples’ estimate.
One of the reasons is that we’re having our children later in life. The average age for a woman to have her first child is now 30, and last year, for the first time ever, more babies were born to women aged 35 to 39, than to women aged 20 to 24. According to Statistics New Zealand, one in four women born in 1975 will remain childless – not always by choice.
Of course, it’s not all about the women. For couples that struggle to get pregnant, it’s estimated that for 30 per cent the reason is ‘female factor’, 30 per cent it’s ‘male factor’, 30 per cent it’s both and in 10 per cent of infertility cases the cause remains a mystery. We all know fertility declines with age and you can’t turn the clock back. But there are lifestyle changes you can make to improve your chances of conception.
Being told that stress is a cause of your extremely stressful infertility is a bitter pill to swallow. But Dr Mary Birdsall, a reproductive specialist at Fertility Associates, says it can be a factor and that it can take slightly longer to conceive if you’re stressed.
Rebekah Paddy, naturopath and director of Mother-Well Holistic Health, agrees. “Stress has a major impact on all areas of our life and the infertility journey increases stress, month to month.” She recommends yoga, but it could also be as simple as time spent with friends or time alone: whatever you find relaxing. The couple that gives up on IVF, spends a week in Rarotonga and ends up pregnant is a cliché for a reason, says Dr Paul Henderson, an obstetrician at Kate Sheppard Midwifery in Auckland. High stress levels can mean less sex. If you can keep enjoying regular sex and prevent it from becoming a chore, that will help you maximise your odds of conception without adding to your stress levels.
Chlamydia is “the silent villain of the piece” says Dr Henderson; the earlier you find out about it, the better your chances at preventing it from damaging your fertility.
It’s also helpful to have early diagnosis of other conditions that commonly reduce fertility, like polycystic ovarian syndrome and endometriosis. Better management of those conditions will help reduce their negative impact on your fertility.
It’s possible low-level exposure to chemicals like phthalates and BPAs could disrupt your hormones, says Rebekah Paddy. “Women are the worst perpetrators of putting chemicals on themselves every day – by looking for the most natural options when it comes to your skincare you can reduce your ‘toxic load’.” She advises women to avoid storing or heating foods in plastic containers and change from plastic water bottles to glass ones.
Janet Lovegrove, a midwife at Kate Sheppard Midwifery, says many women think they’re eating well, but are consuming too much sugar and too many refined carbohydrates.
Dr Birdsall recommends eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and lean proteins – and fewer processed foods. Avoid trans fats where you can. “There is some evidence that eating trans fats (found in fried and long-life foods like biscuits and chips) leads to longer delays in conception.”
A higher caffeine intake is associated with a delay in getting pregnant: “The more you drink, the worse it is,” Dr Birdsall says. “The effect is more pronounced with four to six cups a day.”
Consume plenty of antioxidant-rich foods (like berries, beans, and nuts) as part of a healthy, well-balanced diet: “There’s a lot of good emerging evidence about high-antioxidant foods helping to produce higher-quality sperm,” says Dr Birdsall.
Some drugs can interfere with sperm quality, says Dr Birdsall, including some blood pressure drugs, anti-depressants, anti-psychotics and even antibiotics. Talk to your GP before you start trying to conceive to check you’re on appropriate medication.
If you don’t always eat a balanced diet, you may like to take a dietary supplement designed specifically for men, says Dr Henderson: “There’s some scientific evidence that trace elements like zinc and magnesium are important. It’s hard to know, but a men’s vitamin might be the thing that swings it – I know people who swear by it.”
It’s well established that smoking causes damage to sperm, making them less likely to fertilise an egg. This seems to apply to both tobacco and marijuana, both of which are commonly used by New Zealand men. Other recreational drugs are unlikely to do your sperm any good either, Dr Henderson adds.
The testes are designed to be cool so don’t jump in a hot bath or spa pool each night, advises Dr Birdsall. Let your testicles have some breathing space in your clothing, too.
The harder end of gym supplementation, like anabolic steroids and testosterone, might seem like they would help make you more virile. In fact, taking testosterone is a “very potent contraceptive for men,” says Dr Birdsall.
Obesity reduces fertility for men and women. Midwife Janet Lovegrove says people with high BMIs do get pregnant, but she’s also seen couples whose weight loss seems to have been the precipitating factor for pregnancy.
Excess weight is also a problem for couples who want to undergo assisted reproductive technology (ART), adds Dr Henderson: “It’s a competitive business and they only want the best candidates, so they often won’t accept people with a BMI over 30.” He says a BMI of 30 seems to be a critical point over which infertility is more likely in women. For men, Dr Birdsall says it may be as simple as the extra heat generated around the testes of an overweight man that reduces sperm quality.
Alcohol consumption increases a woman’s chance of infertility, probably by disrupting hormone levels.
It causes problems with male fertility, too; it lowers libido and reduces sperm quality and testosterone levels.
Talk to your Unichem Pharmacist who can discuss ovulation kits, pregnancy tests and pregnancy support supplements with you.