Most people are aware of the impact of maternal lifestyle on a developing embryo and fetus during pregnancy. Gradually, more are becoming aware of the importance of lifestyle issues for both men and women when conception is a goal. This is often referred to as preconception planning. What follows is an overview of what to avoid, what to do differently, and what to know before trying to conceive, in an effort to provide as clear a path as possible toward conception.
Practice Healthful Nutrition and Maintain Optimum Weight
“Eating for two” begins well before conception for women and men. While there is no scientific evidence that eating any certain foods will enhance your fertility, it is important to maintain a good balance of nutrients in order to keep your organs and hormonal system healthy and ready to conceive.
Vitamin supplementation should include the oversight of a qualified professional, as overkill of even the most “natural” and seemingly innocuous foods can counteract your fertile intentions. For example, scientists at Norwich Laboratory and at the University of Birmingham (in the UK) discovered that fertile males have significantly more selenium (which has also been shown to be a prostate cancer preventative) in their sperm than infertile men. However, selenium (a trace mineral found in seafoods, meats, grains, and Brazil nuts) can also be harmful in large doses.
Some things for males to do: increase your intake of vitamins C & D, zinc, and calcium; lighten up on physical exercise; ask your practitioner about special nutritional supplements.
Some things for females to avoid: excessive caffeine intake, anemia, B vitamin deficiencies, and extremely low body fat levels.
A female’s body fat percentage can greatly impact her hormone levels, and thus her reproductive capacity. Too little body fat, such as that of athletes, can severely disrupt the menstrual cycle. Too high a percentage of body fat may be linked to polycystic ovarian syndrome, an insidious cause of infertility and related to other health problems. If you’re not sure what the optimal weight for your body is, talk to your practitioner.
Avoid Ingesting or Inhaling Toxins
The use of tobacco can affect fertility levels in men and women, and there is some evidence that chemicals in tobacco can lead to early miscarriage.
Similarly, it may be the case that even moderate alcohol consumption by women can decrease conception chances, even when her fertility is assumed to be in the normal range. If you’re able to conceive, alcohol use (prior to conception) by dad may be a factor in low birth weight.
Excessive caffeine can lead to inappropriately low prolactin levels in women.
Men and women should make sure that their fertility specialist is aware of all drugs (prescribed or otherwise) that are being ingested–even some necessary medications may work against you.
There are concerns about the possibility of phytoestrogens and other chemicals (like steroids) disrupting the reproductive systems of both men and women. The United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is studying the combined reproductive effects of a number of agents. Phytoestrogens can be found synthetically in a multitude of household, beauty, and “health” products, or naturally occurring in soy products, legumes, apples, carrots, onions and other vegetables.
Phytoestrogens may inadvertently lengthen the follicular phase of the ovulation cycle, leading to fewer cycles overall, and may possibly have a negative impact on sperm production. At present, it appears that it is at the level of toxicity in which phytoestrogens become hormone disruptors, but more studies are needed. While some of the studied exposures have inevitably occurred very early in life (such as in-utero), people with multiple risks for infertility are nonetheless encouraged to avoid excessive consumption of foods high in phytoestrogens.
Avoid or Treat Sexually Transmitted Diseases
In a 1998 report by The Alan Guttmacher Institute entitled Into A New World: Young Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Lives, the tremendous impact of the overall lack of sexual health education is noted. The report states “Infections of the reproductive tract also have a major impact on a woman’s health and fertility. Many such infections develop when women give birth or have an abortion under non-sterile conditions, and others are contracted through sexual intercourse with an infected partner. Each year, a sizable proportion of women and men aged 15 to 49 contract an STD; less than 10% in developed and some developing countries, but from 11% to 25% in most developing regions.”
Sadly, most sexually transmitted diseases render few, if any, symptoms that would be noticed by females, and sometimes the same can be said for male infections. For men and women, even a mild bacterial infection (not necessarily the usual VD’s) can inhibit conception. It is not uncommon for an infertile couple to first learn of any former or current infections during their initial diagnostic workup for infertility.
Reduce Stress As Much As Possible
No, this isn’t your “Fertile Myrtle” friend telling you to “just take a vacation” and you’ll get pregnant. The fact is that all hormones, male and female, are highly sensitive to perceived stress. While there is little scientific evidence to directly correlate stress levels with fertility levels, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, “Some studies have shown that high stress levels may also cause fallopian tube spasm in women and decreased sperm production in men.” Unfortunately, infertility itself is a great stress-producer, so this can be a circle of cause and effect. Do the best you can to simplify your life and adhere to healthy habits to combat the effects of stress on your system.