Having a baby is one of the most miraculous, magical, and life-changing experiences a woman can have. But for so many women around the world who are unable to get pregnant and who struggle to start a family, it’s also one of the most difficult, disappointing, and emotionally draining experiences. Because not all women get pregnant by just thinking about sex. Because not all women forget to take their birth control and get pregnant the first night. Because not all women who long so desperately for a baby can get pregnant even after a month, a year, or several years of trying. Because infertility is prevalent, persistent, and very painful.
The sad truth is that we as a culture don’t talk about infertility nearly enough, and equally important, we don’t talk about the small things we can do to support and enhance our fertility. By not talking about it, we’re unintentionally creating (or perpetuating) the stigma that surrounds infertility — we’re making women feel isolated even though they are far from alone in their experiences, and we’re making it embarrassing to access important information that just might help women working so hard to have a baby.
Women (and men for that matter) everywhere could benefit from a healthy dose of honesty, openness, and a celebration of what their bodies can do, as opposed to only worrying about what they can’t. So, let’s take this opportunity, in honor of National Infertility Awareness Week and beyond, to change the conversation and focus on positivity, realness, and actually useful tips to help boost spirits and boost fertility, one healthy habit at a time.
The Facts About Infertility
Before we can talk about ways to boost fertility by practicing a conscious, healthy lifestyle, we need to talk about the fertility (or infertility) facts. Infertility is defined as an inability to become pregnant or difficulty maintaining a healthy pregnancy. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, infertility is when a woman is not able to “become pregnant after having regular intercourse (sex) without birth control after one year (or after six months if a woman is 35 years or older).” And while, statistically speaking, 9 out of 10 reproductively healthy couples will become pregnant within 12 months of trying, the truth is that getting pregnant is actually really hard and requires a whole lot of extremely important things to occur in sync in order to conceive a baby.
Let’s talk about what it takes to get pregnant. Spoiler alert: It’s a lot more than just one night of unprotected sex. Consider this your sex-ed refresher course.
First, a woman needs to have a healthy uterine lining and healthy eggs. She then needs to release an egg/eggs at the exact right time when she and her partner also have unprotected sexual intercourse. The man’s sperm need to not only be plentiful but also mobile and strong. They also need to be in the right place at the right time. The woman’s cervical mucus needs to be conducive and hospitable to transport the sperm to the egg, and the egg and sperm need to meet at the exact right place at the exact right moment to have any chance of conception. But that’s not all! Assuming conception does occur, the fertilized embryo then needs to travel to the woman’s uterus and implant in that uterine lining, where it develops into a healthy fetus over the next 40 weeks. And along the way a lot has to continue to go right, from the development of the placenta to the woman’s hormone levels to the genetic makeup of the baby and so SO much more. If it sounds exhausting and incredibly improbable, that’s because it is. While this reality can certainly be hard to accept, in some ways it can also be a bit comforting for women struggling to get pregnant — it’s not easy for everyone, infertility is emotionally and physically exhausting, and you’re not alone.
Out of 100 couples in the United States, about 12 to 13 of them have trouble becoming pregnant, and approximately ten in 100 (6.1 million) women in the United States ages 15–44 have difficulty becoming pregnant or staying pregnant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 6 million American women struggle with infertility. Think about that. And to be clear, that number is most likely an under-estimate, because many women suffer in silence and never admit their struggles, or never seek testing and medical assistance to address their fertility issues.
National Infertility Awareness Week is a week intended to change the conversation around what infertility is all about and to help remove the stigmas and barriers that stand in the way of building families. And while we’re all about any week or month dedicated to a healthy and supportive conversation and community around fertility, it’s important to remember that every day is an opportunity to get educated, get inspired, take action and increase hope in the journey to motherhood.
Consider Healthy Supplements to Boost Fertility
So, we know that infertility is incredibly common, and getting pregnant is really (really) hard for a lot of women and couples. And luckily, we live in a time when fertility treatments and reproductive technologies have changed the game and can provide hope and assistance to women longing to start a family but in need of some help. But what if you are looking to support your fertility and a healthy reproductive system long before any fertility issues may arise or be diagnosed? It’s never too early to start thinking about your health in new and important ways, and experts are suggesting that various healthy habits, lifestyle changes, and dietary practices can actually help safeguard you from modern-day reproductive threats, boost your fertility, and increase your chances of becoming pregnant.
The American Pregnancy Association explains that every day we (all of us, women, men, children, everyone) come into contact with excessive free radicals that can have negative impacts on fertility. While our body does make some of these substances and they are necessary for natural and healthy reproductive functions (like ovulation), exposure to too many free radicals can harm fertility and might be linked to recurrent pregnancy loss. Our free radicals can increase due to exposure to toxins, poor nutrition, too much caffeine, psychological stress, and more. To combat this, it’s a good idea that both men and women increase their intake of antioxidants.
What does it mean to increase antioxidant intake? For starters, many fertility doctors may recommend that their patients take an antioxidant-rich prenatal supplement in an effort to protect egg health, especially as a woman ages into her mid- to late-thirties. Some studies have shown that antioxidants can improve egg health and increase the number of ovarian follicles to improve ovulation. For men, antioxidants may help to improve sperm health and mobility.
That said, other studies are less clear on whether or not antioxidant intake is directly linked to improved fertility, but the potential benefits seem to outweigh the lack of evidence according to many experts.
The American Pregnancy Association also stresses the importance of taking an active folate supplement to improve the absorption of folic acid, which has long been known to reduce the risk of developmental neurologic problems in the developing fetus and reduce the risk of neural tube defects. In 2018 researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School found that for women trying to become pregnant naturally, the following vitamins and nutrients were linked to positive effects on fertility:
– Folic acid
– Vitamin B12
– Omega-3 fatty acids
– Healthy diets (such as the Mediterranean diet)
Most prenatal vitamins contain the recommended amount of folic acid, B12, and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which might be helpful for women trying to boost fertility. And to be clear, prenatal vitamins are recommended for all women of reproductive age who are not on birth control and are hoping to become pregnant, not only for women who are currently pregnant.
A Healthy Diet and Healthy Habits Are Also Crucial for Reproductive Health
Some healthy habits and lifestyle changes have everything to do with what you put in your body. And some habits have nothing to do with what you eat or what supplements you take, and everything to do with how you spend your time and take care of your mind and spirit, as much as your body.
First, the most obvious bit of advice from experts: Get enough sleep. According to the experts at IVF South Florida, sleep does a lot more than just affect our mood. Failing to get enough sleep also influences the hormones a woman secretes throughout her cycle, both during fertility treatments and when trying to conceive naturally. “Studies have shown that getting enough quality sleep has a positive effect on the reproductive hormones a woman produces, including progesterone, estrogen, Leptin, and Follicle-Stimulating Hormones (FSH).” It is incredibly important to get enough sleep, and get quality sleep, when trying to become pregnant. In fact, a study from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine found that women with low quality sleep had lower rates of fertility than those getting adequate rest.
Next up: Stay active. Exercise helps both your physical health as well as your mental and emotional health, all of which are crucial aspects of overall wellness if you are hoping to become pregnant and have a healthy pregnancy. Not only is physical activity a great outlet for stress or anxiety related to pregnancy (or an inability to become pregnant), but it also keeps your body healthy and keeps your weight in check, which can also improve fertility and encourage a healthy pregnancy later on.
Speaking of weight, it’s essential to maintain a healthy weight and a healthy diet prior to conception. Studies show that obese women have a higher risk of complications during pregnancy, and even prior to conception, obesity and excess weight can negatively impact egg quality, according to Dr. Amanda Kallen, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the Yale Fertility Center. “Women who are overweight or obese are more likely to have imbalances in insulin levels, in testosterone levels and in levels of FSH and LSH, and these hormones drive the growth of follicles and ovulation,” Kallen explained to CNN.
In terms of diet and nutrition, there are several “fertility diets” that claim to boost fertility simply by adjusting what you eat. For example, in The Fertility Diet: Groundbreaking Research Reveals Natural Ways to Boost Ovulation and Improve Your Chances of Getting Pregnant, Dr. Jorge Chavarro and Dr. Walter Willett from the Harvard School of Public Health, suggest that certain dietary habits can help a woman’s chance of getting pregnant. After reviewing the diets of more than 18,000 women who were trying to get pregnant (with no history of fertility issues) from the Nurses’ Health Study, they found that the quality of your diet can help (or hurt) your chances of getting pregnant. They recommend the follow dietary practices:
– Cutting back on red meat and trans fats
– Getting protein and iron from veggies and nuts
– Choosing whole-fat milk and even ice cream
– Drinking coffee, tea, and alcohol in moderation
– Losing weight (if needed) and exercising
Beyond that, a nutrient-rich diet comprised heavily of fresh fruits and vegetables is always a good idea, and try to cut back on processed foods. “There is evidence that supports that various dietary patterns support fertility goals; however, most patterns have components in common, such as being rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and seafood,” said Lauren Manaker, an infertility and prenatal dietitian who counsels women and men who want to conceive. “Eating this way will likely not hinder chances of conception versus eating a diet that is common in the Western world, which is rich in refined carbs and processed foods and low in vegetables.”
Another obvious tip really applies to anyone at any age, but is especially important for women trying to get pregnant or who become pregnant: Don’t smoke. Cut back on or eliminate alcohol and other recreational drugs from your diet, and remember that what you are putting in your body matters not only for your personal health, but the health of your eggs and the health of your future pregnancy.
And when in doubt, always consult with your doctor to discuss dietary changes, healthy habits, or pre-pregnancy changes that you should make to your lifestyle. It’s a good idea to schedule a preconception visit to review the ways that you and your partner can maximize your chances of a successful pregnancy, and to discuss any substances, foods, or activities to avoid to increase your reproductive health and boost fertility before you even begin trying to get pregnant. Knowledge is power and preparation is everything, so get educated, have open conversations about your health, and do whatever you can to protect and support your fertility today and for the future. And please remember, whatever you are going through with fertility struggles, you are never alone.