Some couples seem to just conjure up the idea of getting pregnant and, bam:it happens. For others it can feel like a waiting game or a full-on uphill battle.
We know that age plays a big part: approximately one third of women ages 35 to 39 and half of women over 40 have trouble getting pregnant (defined as trying unsuccessfully for 12 months). And male age starts to be a fertility factor in the late 30’s as well – for example, one study found that for men between the ages of 35 and 40, the percentage who don’t conceive after 12 months goes from 18 to 28 percent.
That’s the somewhat inevitable part of the equation – we can’t always choose when we’re ready to have kids. But what about the aspects of fertility that we do have control over? What does the research say about how your environment, lifestyle, and health habits play into the complex process of baby making?
It’s not an old wives tale – what you eat can really affect your chances of getting pregnant. One of the biggest studies to examine the role of diet in fertility was conducted by Harvard researchers in 2007. After studying almost 18,000 women and asking about their dietary day-to-day, the scientists did indeed find a pattern of eating that seemed to boost baby-making potential. For example, moms with the lowest risk of difficulties getting pregnant ate fewer trans fats and sugars, more protein from veggies instead of animals, more fiber and iron, and consumed more high-fat dairy products than low-fat ones. The pattern held for women regardless of age.
Babies and cigarettes don’t mix – this we know. And studies confirm that smoking lowers a woman’s chance of getting pregnant both naturally and when using fertility treatments like IVF.
And it’s not just that smoke hinders the process while mom is busy trying to get pregnant, the effect seems to reach from far back in the past. Women who were exposed to second-hand smoke as children have been shown to have a harder time getting and staying pregnant (with up to a 68 percent higher chance of miscarriage or difficulty conceiving). And smoking early in pregnancy is thought to reduce a fetus’ germ cells – which later turn into sperm and eggs. So quitting smoking before trying isn’t just a good idea for your own healthy pregnancy, it helps ensure that, down the line, your baby will have a healthy pregnancy too. And men aren’t off the hook here because smoking has been shown to lower healthy sperm counts as well.
We’ve always known that weight influences the reproductive cycle, and getting pregnant is no exception. An excess or deficit of fat cells seems to upset the delicate cascade of chemical events that are needed to make a baby.
Being overweight can exacerbate polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal disorder in which the ovaries can be enlarged and have small cysts – possibly through insulin imbalance. But even for women who ovulate, weight has been shown to play into fertility. There’s a strong association between having a BMI over 30 or under 20 and delayed conception. One study found that for every BMI interval over 29, chances of pregnancy went down by five percent. Roughly one in four U.S. women of childbearing age is obese.
A handful of chemicals are suspect when it comes to getting pregnant – for example, phthalates (used in plastics, food packaging, toys, and more), pesticides, bisphenol A (BPA), air pollutants, as well as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Last year, for example, a study of Chinese factory workers found that those with higher levels of BPA exposure had lower semen quality. PCBs, which were banned decades ago but still linger in the environment, seem to clearly affect sperm motility and damage sperm DNA.
It’s not a bad idea to find ways to limit exposure to the dubious chemicals (buy organic “dirty dozen” fruits and veggies, use BPA-free products when possible, consider not living near a highway, eat less processed and packaged food, check your cosmetics with the Environmental Working Group’s database, and so forth).
But there are a few reasons not to head for full-blown panic over chemicals in the environment. For one, it’s very hard for scientists to accurately pinpoint how and in what quantity one particular chemical affects something like sperm health because controlled studies are near impossible. Consider also that we bump into hundreds of environmental chemicals every day through no choice of our own – to a large extent it’s all out of our control.
Know your facts, but don’t overthink
It’s tempting with information like this to go overboard, especially when something as precious as your fertility is seemingly at stake. That said, just as with age and fertility statistics, lifestyle and fertility stats are just that – averages and trends across large samples of women. Plenty of moms get pregnant without a hitch on a steady diet of hamburgers, just as plenty who have impeccable diet and exercise habits struggle with infertility. Your best plan for getting pregnant? Stay informed, but don’t make yourself crazy with the details.