As a first step to improving a couple’s fertility, I encourage them to improve their overall health. Infertility affects couples — not just women. When a couple is having trouble getting pregnant, 40% of the time male infertility is the cause and another 30% of the time there is a combination of male and female factors.
My partners and I find that patients are most likely to successfully get pregnant when their physical and mental health is optimized. I believe in treating the whole patient.
Here are six things that couples can do to improve their overall health in hopes of a pregnancy. These are simple changes, but they take dedication. Lifestyle changes are always easier when you have a partner or someone to find strength in, someone to help you make good decisions.
Nutrition is more than avoiding excessive calories. It’s about nutrients. Couples trying to conceive need vitamins, minerals, protein and sustenance to improve their fertility and prepare for pregnancy.
Simply put, eat a balanced diet that includes vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean protein and heart healthy fats. Specifically, ensure your diet includes calcium (dairy, leafy greens), folic acid (citric fruit, fortified breads, lentils), iron (spinach, beans) and omega-3 (low-mercury fish such as salmon). Also be sure to drink plenty of water, avoid soda and minimize caffeine. Women should also start taking a multivitamin or prenatal vitamin that includes 800 mcg of folic acid.
In addition, I encourage patients to talk to their doctor about their overall health. Sometimes this may include testing for diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and thyroid disorders. These can be assessed through simple blood tests. Not only are these health issues important for increasing fertility, but also for the baby-to-be’s future health. There is growing data – in a field of study is called fetal origins – to support the link between a mother’s diet and overall health during gestation to the baby’s long-term health and gene expression. A couple’s choices and behaviors 90 days prior to conception can have long-lasting implications for their health in pregnancy and their baby’s development.
If nutrition and diet are overwhelming, then seek help from a nutritionist. At our practice, we have a full-time nutritionist on staff to help patients modify their habits and incorporate good choices into their daily eating plans. If a woman is overweight, as little as a 5% reduction in weight can lead to more regular ovulatory cycles, improved insulin sensitivity and an improved chance of pregnancy. Conversely, sometimes patients are underweight and their hormonal balance can be restored with weight gain. For male partners, weight and general health affects sperm count and the future health of their baby.
There is no getting around this one. Quit smoking — both of you. Whether it’s tobacco, marijuana or another substance, smoking is detrimental to your general health, men’s sperm and to the babies. Smoking decreases fertility in men and women, and it increases the chance of miscarriage.
Exercise is important for maintaining a healthy weight, for circulation and for overall health. In men this can lead to higher sperm counts and hopefully improved male fertility. In women this is essential to maintain a healthy body in preparation for pregnancy. This does not mean that patients need to train for a marathon. In fact, there is evidence that extreme exercise and having low body mass index (BMI) can decrease fertility. This is especially important in women who are underweight and not ovulating regularly.
Exercise can be a great way for couples to improve their health together and also serves a stress relief in our busy lives. Take a walk, go for a hike, get out there and get active.
Difficulty achieving pregnancy is consistently ranked among the most stressful conditions couples can experience. Most of us never thought getting pregnant would be a problem, and when it is, it can be earth-shattering.
There have been numerous studies that have evaluated the impact that stress has on fertility. Most find a strong link between stress and infertility and/or miscarriage, while others minimize the interaction. Further complicating the matter, is whether pre-existing stressors or the stress of infertility is the associated pregnancy challenge.
Whether or not stress is at the root of infertility cannot be decisively stated. However, managing stress can only help. I encourage my patients to make time for themselves, despite hectic schedules, work challenges and demanding personal lives. For some, this includes prayer, medication, yoga or exercise. These can also be good tools to have ready for when a couple starts fertility treatment. Treatment can be stressful, and patients have the best experience when they have a method for releasing or managing stress.
Infertility affects couples. But the emotions vary greatly from person to person. As with all factors in a relationship, communication is important. Be willing to share how you feel about treatment, the results and your dreams of a family. So many of our interactions revolve around family events and when you are having difficulty this can create some uncomfortable moments. It is at this time that you and your partner need to be a team to get through another probing question or uncomfortable event.
Many of my patients find it helpful to speak with a professional counselor when having trouble conceiving; especially when it is time to consider fertility therapy. It can also be helpful to talk to other fertility patients, either as individuals, as a couple, or in support groups.
I find that my patients who stay positive are able to focus on the possibilities and make the best decisions. Please understand that this is not the same as saying, “Relax,” which can be incredibly frustrating advice for someone experiencing infertility.
In fact, fertility treatment works for most couples.
Infertility affects about 7.3 million men and women in the United States, which is about 12% of the reproductive-age population. While this may be surprising, there is comfort in numbers. Couples struggling to get pregnant should understand that they are not alone. And perhaps because of the prevalence of infertility, there have been tremendous strides made in understanding the causes of infertility and the steps necessary to overcome it. Simple changes such as the ones above can improve a couple’s fertility, and when it is necessary, fertility medicine and treatments are extremely effective.
Dr. Mark P. Leondires, medical director and lead physician with Reproductive Medicine Associates of Connecticut (RMACT), is board certified in both Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility.
Reproductive Medicine Associates of Connecticut and has a new office in Trumbull, as well as offices in Danbury, Norwalk and Stamford. For more information, call 800-865-5431 or visit rmact.com.