September 12, 2022
When it comes to female fertility, there are some things – like our age - that we simply cannot control. Luckily, there are a number of other factors that we can control. Lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, sleep, stress, smoking, alcohol, and environmental toxins can all play a role in hormone balance, egg health and our ability to conceive healthy babies. As a fertility nutritionist, I spend a lot of time talking about diet, so today, I want to focus on some of the other factors and 5 key lifestyle changes you can make right away, that will help to improve your fertility potential.
The term “toxic load” refers to the accumulation of heavy metals, pollutants, synthetic chemicals, and processed foods - which can accumulate in our bodies the point that we struggle to remove them. Our bodies are brilliant natural detoxifiers with built-in detox mechanisms like out kidneys and liver. However, when our toxic load is too high, it can overwhelm these organs, affecting hormonal balance and storage of nutrients (including the ones necessary for fertility and reproductive health). Many conventional cleaning and personal care products contain ingredients that contribute to our toxic load, and while no one product will contain unsafe levels of harmful chemicals, it’s the compounding effect, when you add up all of the products in your home, plus the number of times a day you use them, that can impact our fertility potential.
In addition to putting a strain on our detoxification organs, many cleaning and personal care products can affect hormone balance by mimicking our reproductive hormones. These are called endocrine disruptors. In particular, xenoestrogens - foreign chemicals that fall into the endocrine disruptor group – can act like the hormone estrogen. The body regulates the amount of estrogen needed through intricate biochemical pathways. When xenoestrogens enter the body, they can bind to estrogen receptors in the cell and therefore, increase the total amount of estrogen in the body.
Being very intentional about what products you use in your home is one way you support hormone function and fertility. Do a full audit of your home, looking for ingredients which will either increase your toxic load and/or disrupt your hormone balance. Look for anything that contains BHA, DEA, BHS, Formaldehyde, Parabens, Phthalates, fragrance, Petrolatum, Triclosan, or BPA, and throw in the garbage. Replace these with chemical free, biodegradable, and all natural when possible. If cost is a consideration, there are a lot of products you can replace with simple DIY versions (with endless recipes and how-to guides online). If you do have to clean using conventional product from time to time, wear rubber gloves to limit your exposure. For a comprehensive guide on detoxing your life from endocrine disruptors, join us for next weeks post, "Xenoestrogens And How To Avoid Them". For now, let’s move on!
Stress and fertility have an interesting cause and effect relationship. Infertility can be stressful, but stress also adds to infertility. Fun huh? It doesn’t seem fair, but the fact is that the physical, emotional and mental toll that comes with infertility can interfere with ovulation, hormone secretion, implantation, even placental growth and development – all of which negatively affect fertility outcomes.
First it should be clear that not all stress is bad! Acute stress – stress which is short term – is necessary for our survival and can be good for us. It’s chronic stress – the long-term stress that accumulates cortisol in the body – that has a negative affect health and fertility. From an evolutionary standpoint, why chronic stress decreases fertility makes a lot of sense. If you’re constantly being chased by a tiger, that is probably not the best time to be making a baby. However, the body can’t tell the difference between stress from a tiger and stress from a deadline at work – all it knows is that it is in a state of fight-or-flight, so it needs to turn the baby-making factory off.
In this case, the “factory” is something called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a system of glands that work on a negative feedback loop and is partially responsible for controlling reproductive hormones, follicle development, and our menstrual cycle. The hypothalamus releases hormones (chemical messengers) that “tell” the pituitary to release other hormones, which then tells the adrenals to release other hormones that we need to reproduce. Stress can disrupt these pathways and the important fertility hormones release along the way including Follicle Stimulating Hormone (FSH) and Luteinizing Hormone (LH), which in turn can delay ovulation, and prevent successful implantation.
So what is one to do? Well, it’s naive to think that we can avoid stress. Stressful situations are all around us. Work deadlines, crying babies, financial stressors, traffic jams, and of course… the stress of not being able to conceive when we want to are not going to disappear overnight just because we want them to. What's important is finding ways to PROCESS the stress. Think of your body as a bucket and all of the stressors as water that pours into the bucket on a daily basis. If you don’t make time to regularly dump out the water, eventually it will fill and overflow – making a mess all over your floor. Stress management is all about identifying ways to empty your stress bucket and finding the time to engage in those activities on a regular basis.
WHAT those activities are will vary greatly from person to person so you need to find that which works for you. Is it meditation? Yoga? Nature walks? Journaling? Deep breathing? Time with friends? Playing an instrument? Taking a relaxing Epsom salt bath or soak in the hot tub? Whatever it is, the ultimate goal is to process those stress hormones out of your body and engage your parasympathetic nervous system. Try out different methods until you find what works for you, and then actually set time aside in your schedule for emptying your stress bucket.
Stimulants like alcohol, caffeine, and recreational drugs – including marijuana – have all been proven to have a negative impact on female fertility. The negative affects of cigarette smoke on health is well documented, so it is not surprising that infertility rates among female tobacco smokers are about twice that of non-smokers, (with the risk increasing with each added cigarette smoked per day). However, it’s not just tobacco smoke that can be problematic. According to a study by researchers at the National Institutes of Health, women who had used cannabis while trying to conceive for each monthly cycle, were 41% less likely to conceive than non-users.
There are also multiple studies on the negative affect of alcohol on female fertility. Alcohol can block the body’s ability to absorb fertility-boosting nutrients, can interfere with adrenal function, cause irregular periods (more so in heavy drinkers), and can negatively affect the egg that is trying to develop in any given month. If you prefer to pay it completely safe, you should try to avoid alcohol consumption altogether. However, f you still choose to have the occasional drink, then be mindful of the quantity and the timing of alcohol consumption. Recent studies suggest that alcohol intake in the luteal phase (second half of your cycle) can be more troublesome than in the follicular phase (first half of your cycle). Researchers found that moderate intake of alcohol (3-6 drinks a week) and heavy intake (more than 6 per week) during ovulation and the post-ovulation phase of a woman's cycle can disturb the delicate hormonal sequence needed to conceive.
Coffee is another stimulant which should be consumed in low amounts, if at all. Coffee can be hard on adrenals, can block iron absorption, and can have a drying off effect on cervical fluid. One study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology in 2011 also showed that two cups of coffee per day reduced the muscle activity in the fallopian tubes to the point where they couldn’t do their job of transporting the women’s egg from her ovaries to the womb.
Different studies show different percentages of how much caffeine affects female fertility. If you look at the average, drinking more than 200mg of caffeine per day (1-2 cups of coffee) can lower conception outcomes from 25% to as much as 50% (according to this study). If you are a coffee drinker and are trying to conceive, consider decreasing consumption to 0-1 cup per day and/or switch to lower-caffeinated beverages like white or green tea.
How well we sleep also impacts fertility. The quality and quantity of sleep we get each night influences the level or hormones that we produce throughout our cycle, including progesterone, estrogen, Leptin, and Follicle-Stimulating Hormones (FSH) – all of which are crucial to conceiving and carrying a baby to term. That’s largely because the same part of the brain that regulates our sleep-wake hormones (melatonin and cortisol) also triggers the release of our reproductive hormones and ovulation.
In addition to impacting our hormone levels, sleep also has an effect on egg quality. Poor sleep habits (like blue light electronics before bed), can lower our melatonin production, which not only helps us get to sleep and impacts other hormones, but also helps to protect your eggs when they are close to ovulation. In other words, less melatonin means decrease egg quality, which means less likeliness of conception and chances of a live birth.
If you are trying to conceive and are currently getting less than 7-8 hours of quality, restful sleep per night, seriously consider overhauling your sleep habits. This includes no technology before bed, no late-night snacking, no stimulants past 2 or 3pm, a relaxing unwind ritual and regular sleep schedule, and a truly relaxing sleep environment (like a comfy bed and pillow, clean sheets, blackout curtains, etc…). For a comprehensive guide on how to improve your sleep quality and quantity, read our article on Secrets to A Blissful Sleep.
Research shows that exercise impacts fertility in several ways, including improving blood flow and circulation, reducing stress, and improving immune function. Increased blood flow and circulation can ensure that oxygen and nutrient-rich blood flow reaches your reproductive organs. Exercise is a great way to reduce cortisol levels in the body, while promoting the production of endorphins (natural mood boosters). Exercise has shown to help regulate the immune system by releasing cytokines, which help to reduce inflammation in the body (a leading cause of a number of fertility issues, including endometriosis).
While exercise has proven to be beneficial, the type and frequency of exercise is very important. Much like your body cannot distinguish between a work deadline and being chased by a tiger, it also cannot distinguish between a threat (like the tiger) and a high-intensity, high-impact exercise (like sprinting, cross-fit, heavy lifting at the gym, or a game of rugby). Aerobic exercise for seven or more hours per week has been shown to increase the risk of ovulatory infertility in women, and strenuous exercise for four or more hours per week has been shown to reduce IVF success rates. That’s why it is recommended to avoid rigorous and high-intensity exercise while trying to conceive. Instead, opt for low-to moderate intensity movements like yoga, walking, gentle bike rides, light jogging, or swimming (no swim races or triathlons). As for frequency, if you must engage in rigorous activity (for whatever reason), experts recommend limiting such exercise to less than four hours per week.
Finally, humans are creatures of habit and making lifestyle changes can be hard. So remember to be kind and patient with yourself, prioritize small goals, and celebrate the victories along the way. You got this mamma!
Get more tips and tricks on how to sleep your best in Secrets to A Blissful Sleep.
Ewa Reid is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist, certifying Fertility Support Practitioner, nutrition & fertility educator, wife, and mother. You can learn more about Ewa on our About page.
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January 02, 2023
Are you tired of feeling less than perfect? Tired of trying to fit other people’s expectations? Tired of feeling badly about things of the past that you cannot change? The path to unconditional love is paved with acceptance, and this article explores what it takes to really accept your imperfections and truly fall in love with your flaws.
Join me on this journey of compassion and self-love. We’ll explore what it means to be truly free. To shed the shackles of self-doubt. To take bigger, more meaningful risks. To sleep a little more soundly. To be bit more productive. To be better friends, daughters, sisters, lovers. To just be better, happier humans.
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