When it comes to matters of the womb, everybody seems to have advice. Fertility is a field at the intersection of old wives' tales and the latest advancements in science. The information out there can be overwhelming! And the internet is a dangerous place to go looking for answers (yup, I know...bear with me). At Xandara, we go back to the basics - with both an evolutionary lens on women's biology and a focus on published scientific research to back our claims. Here we tackle some popularized claims about fertility to separate fact from fiction.
FERTILITY MYTH #1: I am a walking baby magnet. I ooze fertility. If I even sit next to a guy or look at him suggestively, he will probably impregnate me.
Truth #1 - That message was probably timely and relevant when you were 13. Not so much when you’re in your 30’s. In fact, there are only ~6 days each month that a woman can get pregnant - the 5 days prior to ovulation and the day of ovulation itself. This is the so-called “fertile window”. Yeah, that was a huge eye opener for me too. So many unnecessary condoms wasted…
FERTILITY MYTH #2: Fertility declines directly with age. In fact, when you turn 35, you turn into a pumpkin. Too bad, so sad.
Truth #2 - Age is only ONE factor of many that can affect your fertility. There is a difference between chronological age, meaning your age in years, and biological age, meaning the “age” or vitality of your cells. Not all 35 year olds are created equal. It’s the life in the years not the years in the life. Were your 20’s marked by clubs, heavy drinking, late night pizza and lots of pick-me-ups to compensate? Or were they of the Kum ba yah / meditation circle variety? No judgment here. You just have to know what you’re working with. The bottom line is this: the older you are, the more your health matters. Youth forgives a lot of ills. But, regardless of age, there are specific steps that you can improve your egg health and uterine environment...and therefore, your fertility.
FERTILITY MYTH #3: There is nothing that women can do to improve our ability to get pregnant, improve our egg health, or to control my time to conception.
Truth #3 - There are TONS of things that you can do to improve your fertility. Your fertility is a barometer of your health. The healthier you are, the more fertile you are. And, you can control your time to conception by knowing your fertile window (which we discussed in myth #1). See, you are already ahead of the game.
An egg is just like any other cell in the body. Except that unlike other cells which are constantly dividing to make new cells while old cells die off, the human egg exists in a state of suspended animation - essentially frozen in time from prenatal life. After puberty, in the months leading up to ovulation the body releases hormones which stimulate some of these eggs to come back to life and continue the process of maturity. Each month, one will eventually mature fully and ovulate. The complex machinery in the cell that coordinates this maturity and cell division is error-prone and it is during this short window when most abnormalities accumulate. Let me say that one more time.
The evidence shows that the chromosomal errors affecting a woman's eggs do not accumulate gradually over the course of her life. They occur over the span of only a few months; when an individual egg reactivates leading up to its ovulation.
So, if a woman can optimize the conditions during this time period when the egg matures and divides can she improve the quality of her eggs? The science suggests so. Ladies, you are in the driver's seat!
FERTILITY MYTH #4: Infertility implies sterility
Truth #4 - Infertility is not the same thing as sterility. If you are infertile, you are unable to conceive within a year of unprotected intercourse. If you are sterile, you are unable to conceive naturally. Essentially, infertility is reversible; sterility is not. One study estimated that sterility occurs in ~1% of the population. 1%, ladies. The point here is that only a very, very, very small percentage of the population cannot conceive naturally...far fewer than we’ve been led to believe. The rest of the population with so-called “infertility” are actually experiencing subfertility - a constellation of factors that dampen natural fertility. When you remove those interlopers, the body should be able to conceive naturally.
FERTILITY MYTH #5: Getting pregnant is a medical issue
Truth #5 - You would be forgiven for thinking this, since all of the solutions to pregnancy problems are “medical” in nature. However, getting pregnant is NOT a medical issue - it’s an environmental issue. Your body was designed to conceive; the modern environment was not designed to support your ability to conceive. This modern environment includes factors such as diet, movement practices, stress and toxins.
FERTILITY MYTH #6: Preparing for conception is some new-age hooha
Truth #6 - Most ancient cultures had pregnancy preparation rituals and these rituals usually included both partners. For example, the Maasai tribes only allowed couples to marry after spending a few months drinking milk from the wet season; this led to lusher grass and therefore, much more nutrient dense milk. Pregnancy is the most nutrient dense undertaking a human body will ever undergo. Preparation is necessary.
FERTILITY MYTH #7: Getting pregnant is a woman’s issue. All of the focus and intention and pressure falls on the woman
Truth #7 - Getting pregnant is a couple’s issue. It literally takes two to tango. And, it takes two health individuals to create the raw materials necessary to make a baby. You are going to be parenting together, so you might as well start preparing together as well. Getting pregnant is a partnered act. Treat it like one.
FERTILITY MYTH #8: Low fat and low carb diets will help me get pregnant
Truth #8 - I hope this will come as a relief to all of you, but both low fat and low carb diets have been shown clinically to interfere with fertility. Of course, food quality matters here, but I’m sure you already knew that. Saturated fat (which has been much maligned in the media for years) is a precursor to all of your sex hormones. In other words, you NEED saturated fat to make estrogen, testosterone and progesterone. Similarly, going too low carb stresses your body out, which increases cortisol...and subsequently decreases progesterone. Not enough sex hormones, no baby. It’s really that simple.
FERTILITY MYTH #9: Prenatal supplements are only for women
Truth #9 - It's obvious to focus on a woman's nutrient status when it comes to fertility matters. After all, she provides the egg, housing accommodations, and basic utilities to the placenta as the child grows and develops. However, for conception to even take place, and to do so with the highest quality genetic material, she is only half of the equation. In fact, 1/3 to 1/2 of all infertility cases are related to male factors. Male factor infertility can be caused by structural problems like varicoceles (enlarged veins in the testes), undescended testicles, scar tissue from surgery, or genetic factors. However, such causes represent only a small percentage of male factor infertility. The majority of cases involve immune, hormonal or "unexplained" factors; and these usually translate to problems with the sperm themselves.
A large scale review of 24 published studies on the topic included antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, zinc, folate, N–acetyl–cysteine, and carnitine amongst the studies.
The importance of a healthy lifestyle with a whole-food based diet, regular exercise, and avoidance of toxins and radiation can NOT be underemphasized in men planning a pregnancy with their partner.
The authors concluded that oral antioxidant supplements are beneficial in improving sperm function and DNA integrity. Specifically, when it comes to pregnancy outcomes in couples struggling with infertility, a large Cochrane review published in 2011 looked at over 2,800 couples undergoing assisted reproductive techniques (ART) and found that antioxidant supplementation in subfertile males improved the pregnancy rate (by up to 4 fold) and live birth rate (by up to 6 fold) with no report of side effects.