People usually don’t wonder whether their fertility is in order until they try to start a family.
A healthy lifestyle, it’s good to know, can help promote fertility and increase your chances of conceiving a child.
Two gynaecologists specialising in reproductive medicine have some tips for would-be parents in this regard, and advice on what they can do if she has trouble getting pregnant.
”What clearly impairs fertility is smoking,” says Dr Corinna Mann. ”Both partners (if they smoke) should quit immediately if they’re planning a pregnancy.”
This is confirmed by Dr Wolfgang Würfel.
Smoking makes both conceiving and maintaining a pregnancy more difficult, he says. In men, it decreases sperm quality.
Body weight is another factor that can adversely affect fertility.
”Being overweight is bad for ovarian function,” Dr Würfel says. “This applies to conceiving, maintaining a pregnancy and the likelihood of birth complications.”
It can also reduce male fertility since it disrupts the hormonal system.
“The proverbial ‘beer belly’ is caused by oestrogen-like compounds called phyto-oestrogens,” explains Dr Würfel, who says they’re found in hops and can impair sperm quality.
Being extremely underweight can also make it harder for women to become pregnant.
Some female athletes, Dr Würfel notes, are so rigorous in their training and eating habits that they develop what’s known as amenorrhoea.
“This means they completely stop menstruating or, at the very least, have serious menstrual cycle disorders.”
Dr Mann advises women who want to get pregnant to avoid extreme or competitive sport.
“It’s not helpful,” she says. “When the body switches into fight or flight mode, it can’t procreate well.”
A balanced diet is important as well, she adds, and recommends a Mediterranean diet with plenty of dietary fibre, such as is contained in wholegrain food products.
Fortunately, you needn’t abstain from coffee for the sake of your fertility.
When consumed in moderation, it even has a fertility-enhancing effect, according to Dr Würfel.
This applies to both men and women.
Dietary supplements can also help a woman’s body prepare for pregnancy.
“What’s especially important for all women trying to have a baby is folic acid, which is beneficial to foetal development and should be taken before pregnancy as well,” Dr Mann says.
Vitamins B6, B12 and D, iodine, zinc and coenzyme Q10 are worthy of mention too, as taking them can improve fertility. But you should have a doctor give you a blood test beforehand, in part to prevent any overdoses.
What about stress?
While it helps to have little, its role shouldn’t be exaggerated, Dr Mann says.
However, “if you’re extraordinarily stressed and tense, travel a lot and do a lot of sport, your menstrual cycle can change, which definitely affects the likelihood of pregnancy.”
It’s important to know that the stress couples feel when they have trouble conceiving has no real impact on their fertility, Dr Mann says.
”Many such couples are advised by friends: ‘Just relax, and everything will be fine!’ But that’s usually not enough.”
Difficulty getting pregnant can sometimes be hormone-related.
“For example, a luteal phase defect (a condition that affects a woman’s ovulation cycle) can hamper pregnancy,” points out Dr Mann.
“This is a hormone deficiency that can be offset with natural progesterone.
”Normal thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) levels are also important if you’re trying to get pregnant or already are. If they’re too high or too low, there are tablets you can take to bring levels into the normal range and decrease the chances of fertility or pregnancy problems."
An anti-Müllerian hormone (AMH) test is another fertility indicator: A low AMH level points to a diminished reserve of eggs in a woman’s ovaries.
“One in 100 women enter the menopause before the age of 40,” notes Dr Mann, “and discover to their disappointment in their late 30s that they’re no longer able to have a baby.”
A woman’s fertility begins to decline slowly by age 30, Dr Würfel says, the decline becoming more rapid in her mid-30s and then very rapid after age 40.
“As far as we currently know, egg cells aren’t newly formed (i.e. women are born with all of them already), so they age as the woman ages.”
And their quality deteriorates over time, increasing the probability of chromosomal abnormalities.
Some women, Dr Würfel says, falsely assume that their youthful appearance is a sign of fertility.
Reproductive medicine specialists recommend an examination for women under age 35 who have been unable to get pregnant despite trying for a year.
Women over 35 should be examined after just six months of trying without results.
Dr Mann urges would-be parents to clarify the problem promptly so as not to lose precious time.
But they should also know that “an unfulfilled desire to have a child is extremely common,” she says.
“In Germany, it affects approximately one in six couples. I’d be happy if people were more open about it,” she adds, because couples unsuccessful in conceiving a child often feel that they’re alone, while other couples seem to have no problem having kids.
”That’s not true though.” – dpa