It’s not just lifestyle factors like your weight and age that can affect your chances of conceiving – certain conditions and deficiencies can also influence your reproductive health. Not all of the research is conclusive, but when you’re trying everything to conceive, it’s worth taking all information and advice into account.
Here’s a look at 9 health conditions and factors that could be affecting your fertility, as well as some common treatment approaches that may help increase your chances.
PCOS is a hormonal condition that affects up to one in five women of childbearing age. The two main hormones involved are insulin and testosterone. When produced in higher levels than normal, these hormones may lead to symptoms such as:
- Irregular periods
- Excess hair growth on face, stomach and back
- Acne or pimples
- Easy weight gain
- Difficulty getting pregnant
- Increased risk of diabetes
- Increased risk factors for heart disease
- Anxiety or depression
Not all women with PCOS will have all of these symptoms as the condition can vary between women and symptoms change with age. On a positive note, most women with PCOS are able to conceive, but may take a little longer to get pregnant. Symptoms can be reduced by eating well, exercising regularly and generally staying healthy.
STIs, particularly gonorrhoea and chlamydia, can affect the fertility of both women and men. Before starting a family, you and your partner should be tested for STIs to minimise the risk of passing on an infection to your child. Practising safe sex is the best protection.
Chlamydia: A very common bacterial infection. It affects fertility because of inflammation of the urethra and/or the cervix. If left untreated, the infection can travel to the uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries. When the infection moves to these areas, it is referred to as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID may form scar tissue and adhesions, which can result in serious health issues including chronic pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancy and fertility problems.
At least 75 per cent of women and 25 per cent of men will experience no symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they include:
- Pelvic pain
- Painful and heavy periods
- Deep pain with vaginal sex
- Bleeding between periods or after having sex
- Frequent and burning urination
- Unusual vaginal discharge
Gonorrhoea: A bacterial infection that usually affects the genital area, although the throat or anus may also be affected. It’s easily transmitted during vaginal intercourse but can also be transmitted during anal or oral sex. Often there are no symptoms it sometimes causes:
- An unusual vaginal discharge
- Pain while urinating
Like chlamydia, if left untreated, gonorrhoea can lead to PID, which can cause infertility.
Diabetes is associated with lower rates of fertility but many women with diabetes are able to conceive, particularly if it is well controlled and you maintain a healthy body weight. It’s a good idea to see your doctor for a diabetes review at least three to sex months before you want to get pregnant.
If you’re planning to get pregnant, talk to your doctor about any prescription medications, over-the-counter medications or complementary medicines to make sure they are safe to take while trying to get pregnant and during pregnancy itself. Always speak to your doctor before stopping any medication.
Taking the pill?
If, like many women, you use an oral contraceptive, don’t be too concerned if you have trouble getting pregnant right after you stop taking it. Danish researchers have found that once you go off the pill, it can take between two to six months to conceive.
Fertility can be affected by a range of genetic abnormalities. The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute provides comprehensive information, alongside a list of experts to contact for more information. Visit this website for more.
The most common genetic cause of infertility in women is Turner syndrome.
Cancer and cancer treatments affect your ability to have children. Most chemotherapy drugs can damage your eggs. This depends on your age, the types of drugs and the dosage, making it hard to predict how the chemo will affect your fertility.
Radiation treatments use high-energy rays to kill cancer cells, which can damage your ovaries.
Talk to your doctor, nurse, or another member of your health care team about fertility before treatment when possible. There might be ways to save or protect your fertility before and maybe even during treatment.
For more information about cancer and fertility, visit this website.
Environmental toxins known as endocrine disruptors are chemicals that interfere with your hormones and may affect fertility. Some examples are BPA (bisphenol-A), PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls), and phthalates and they can be found in plastic drink bottles and food containers and cosmetics (hair products, make-up and perfume).
These chemicals may also be found in household products (surface cleaners and disinfectants). It can be difficult to avoid everyday chemicals completely but you can reduce your exposure by drinking out of glass bottles as often as possible, microwaving food in ceramics instead of plastic, reading the labels on products and washing your fruit and vegetables.
CALLING ALL SOY LOVERS
US research is looking at the potential health risk of long-term exposure to plant-based oestrogens like those in soy foods. One in particular, genistein, is linked with fertility problems. It’s also classified as an endocrine disruptor by the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences as it can interfere with bodily systems that are controlled by hormones.
The findings are preliminary, but if you regularly consume soy milk, tofu and miso, consider taking a break if you plan to conceive in the near future. Levels of genistein are even higher in fermented soy products like miso.
Endometriosis, a condition in which the tissue that lines the uterus is also found outside the uterine cavity, is thought to affect one in 10 women at some point.
About 30 per cent of women with endometriosis will have difficulty getting pregnant but treatment is available.
Endometriosis affects fertility in several ways: chemicals released from the endometriosis cells may interfere with the ability to conceive or affect early normal development of the embryo; scarring may cause problems with ovulation and the passage of the egg along the tube because of damage or blockage; scarring can also prevent the sperm from reaching the egg.
Remember, though: not all women with endometriosis are infertile. Many have children without difficulty; have already had children before they are diagnosed; or eventually have a successful pregnancy.
New research suggests even mild thyroid dysfunction – when your thyroid is functioning at the low end of the normal range – may contribute to unexplained infertility. The study found women who have unexplained infertility were nearly twice as likely to have higher levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) than women with normal levels. Elevated TSH levels can be a sign of an underactive thyroid.
Natural fertility boosters
Targeting your health from different angles can help with fertility issues. There are natural therapies you can try. Some help lower stress to boost fertility, others appear to have a direct beneficial effect on reproductive health. Whichever you try, check with your GP first.
Acupuncture has been a treatment for infertility and menstrual disorders throughout the history of Chinese medicine. These are some of the main research areas for acupuncture and its fertility-boosting effects:
IVF: In some studies there were no benefits to having acupuncture, whereas in other studies women were more likely to become pregnant if given acupuncture while undergoing fertility treatment.
Quality of sperm: When men were given acupuncture every fortnight for two months, more sperm was produced.
PCOS: In one study, when women had acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine alongside a fertility drug like Clomid, they were more likely to conceive. In another study, women who had acupuncture ovulated more often, compared with those who just had physical therapy sessions.
Stress: Stress is known to negatively impact reproduction and studies show acupuncture lowers anxiety and stress.
Ovulation: Repeated acupuncture has been shown to stimulate the return of ovulation without adverse side effects.
Endometriosis: Acupuncture has been shown to be effective in women with endometriosis-induced infertility.
Sometimes a helping hand is needed to get yourself in good shape to conceive. Many naturopaths offer fertility services, which usually involve a regimen of supplements and herbs as well as lifestyle changes to boost general health and fertility.
These can be used along with your standard care. Be sure to tell your doctor if you plan to start taking herbal remedies or supplements.
Meditation can help to reduce stress and anxiety. Stress is a part of everyday life, and demanding careers, major life events, and trying to conceive month after month can all add to the stress.
Sustained or high-level stress can disrupt ovulation, deplete your body of essential nutrients and affect the quality of sperm. So it’s important you both feel as relaxed as possible when trying to get pregnant. Try a free meditation app like Calm and start a daily practice.
When you’ve decided to start a family and find it difficult, it can be emotionally draining and add to your stress. Finding a therapist you feel comfortable with can give you the skills to cope with your situation and keep you calm, boosting your chances of conceiving. Ask your doctor to find you a therapist or find one here.
Your reproductive system is on a cycle linked to your circadian rhythm, so getting lots of sleep is important. If getting to sleep or staying asleep is a problem, here are some tips to help you catch better quality Zs.
General note: This is intended as a general introduction to the topic and in no way should be seen as substitute for your own doctor’s or health professional’s advice. All care is taken to ensure the information contained here is free from error and/or omissions, however, no responsibility can be accepted by the publishers, author, editor or any person involved in the preparation of the material for loss occasioned to any person acting or refraining from action as a result of the published information. Before commencing any health treatment, you should always consult your doctor.