Considering the CDC estimates 10 percent of women (roughly 6.1 million) in the United States struggle with fertility—getting (and staying) pregnant has become more of a concern for many couples than ever. In fact, some research suggests 15 percent of couples experience infertility.
For women, fertility not only determines their ability to have children, but also reflects their overall health and well-being. And with fertility issues at an all-time high, it’s more important than ever that women find ways to support their reproductive health every day. Here, top experts share the daily practices that really make a difference.
The War On Fertility
These days, “there are a number of reasons why women looking to conceive have difficulty,” says Yalena Deshko, N.D., founder of Timeless Health Clinic in Toronto.
The main culprit: hormonal imbalances, which an estimated 47 percent of American women have now experienced. Often, these manifest as conditions like:
Why the rampant issues? A number of health issues and environmental and lifestyle factors have an impact, including:
- overuse of drugs and alcohol
- being severely underweight
- poor overall health and diet
- stress and anxiety
How To Support Your Fertility Naturally
Because every woman has individual issues and needs around fertility, working with a doctor or fertility specialist is key. However, there are a number of everyday ways women can set their system up for success.
1. Maintain A Healthy Weight
When it comes to conceiving, a healthy weight is huge.
Being either underweight or overweight can result in hormonal disruptions that impair a woman’s menstrual cycle. “A certain body fat percentage is necessary for healthy ovulation and menstruation,” Deshko explains. If a woman’s body fat percentage is too low, she may lose her menstrual cycle—and ability to conceive—altogether.
On the other end of the spectrum, excess body fat and obesity also adversely affects reproductive function by disrupting hormonal balance, menstruation and ovulation, and egg quality.
Important to note: Rapid weight gain or weight loss can also harm fertility, so women should be extremely wary of crash diets or drastic changes to their eating habits, says board-certified reproductive endocrinologist Sheeva Talebian, M.D., of CCRM Fertility Clinic in New York.
2. Boost Your Sleep Hygiene
Sleep might just be one of the most overlooked lifestyle factors that affects our fertility.
Our sleep cycle has a direct impact on a number of our hormones, explains OB/GYN and reproductive endocrinologist Vitaly Kushnir, M.D. Inconsistent or poor sleep quality can spike our production of the stress hormone, cortisol, which can then influence fertility.
This issue, too, is very much a product of our modern world: “Our natural sleep-wake cycle is easily disturbed by things like electric lights, mobile phones and other electronics,” says Kushnir.
Kushnir advises that patients aim to get seven to eight hours of sleep every night, and follow a consistent sleeping and waking schedule.
3. Quit Smoking…
The chemicals in cigarettes essentially poison our reproductive system, so women who smoke have higher rates of infertility, says OB/GYN Adeeti Gupta, M.D., founder of Walk In GYN Care in New York City.
In fact, smoking has been associated with changes in cervical mucus, which aids egg motility. “Nicotine and other toxins concentrate in this mucus, making it toxic to sperm,” explains OB/GYN Kim Langdon, M.D., with online health source Parenting Pod.
Plus, in addition to negatively impacting hormone production, cigarettes create an all-around hostile environment throughout the body.
Good news: Some of the negative effects of smoking can be reversed within a year of quitting, says Langon. If you are a smoker, give yourself enough time to successfully quit before planning to get pregnant, she suggests.
4. …And Drinking
Another toxin that may need to go if you’re trying to take back your fertility: booze.
“Alcohol is a toxin,” says Carlyn Rosenblum, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., C.L.C., nutritionist with fertility studio Trellis. “With fertility, we need to focus on reducing toxic exposure in the body.” Excessive alcohol consumption (seven or more drinks per week, or more than three drinks in one night) can lead to hormone imbalances that may contribute to irregular ovulation and periods, both of which make conception difficult, she explains.
According to one study published in Fertility Research and Practice, even lighter drinking (five or fewer drinks per week) can delay pregnancy. In fact, the researchers concluded that, “women should be advised against consuming any amount of alcohol, as no ‘safe dose’ has been identified.”
So, you might want to re-think pouring that glass of wine if you’re trying to conceive.
5. Drink Less Coffee
The theory behind the caffeine issue: “Caffeine is a well-known vasoconstrictor, meaning it helps shrink the diameter of arteries,” explains Deshko. “In the early weeks of pregnancy, adequate blood supply to the uterus is critical for establishing a healthy placenta. Excessive caffeine may interfere with healthy blood supply and, by extension, delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the developing placenta and embryo.”
According to Rosenblum, this effect can also interfere with healthy ovulation. Plus, “coffee can also contribute to gut imbalance because it’s so acidic,” she says.
Given this, Rosenblum recommends limiting daily caffeine intake to 200 milligrams (about 12 ounces of coffee) per day if trying to conceive. She also recommends switching from acidic sources of caffeine—like coffee—to more alkaline sources—like green tea or matcha.
6. Practice Safe Sex
If left untreated, sexually transmitted diseases—most notably chlamydia and gonorrhea—can affect a woman’s infertility.
According to Deshko, both infections can lead to a condition called Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) in the upper genital tract, which may cause permanent damage and scarring to the fallopian tubes, uterus, and surrounding tissues. (The fallopian tubes, in particular, are essential for transporting eggs to the uterus.)
Your not-so-surprising move? Until you’re ready to have a baby, always have protected sex. Deshko also recommends getting screened for STIs once a year. (Chlamydia, currently the top-reported STI in the U.S., is often asymptomatic in more than 75 percent of women who have it.)
7. Manage Stress Levels
There’s no doubt about it, having difficulty conceiving can be incredibly stressful; but the relationship between infertility and stress actually goes both ways.
Get this: Research published in Human Reproduction measured cortisol levels in 501 couples throughout the course of 12 months. The result: Women with higher cortisol levels took longer to get pregnant than the women with lower levels. “Stress hormones suppress the release of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which then triggers the release of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH),” says Langon. Why does FSH matter? Without it, your ovaries can’t release eggs.
Related: 5 Ways Stress Can Impact Your Health
Another possible connection between high stress levels and difficulty getting pregnant: “Stress can lower libido, which probably means less sex, which means less chance of conception,” she says.
Your task: Whether it’s yoga, meditation, or finally leaving that stressful job, do whatever you can to reduce your stress levels.
8. Eat Whole Foods, Mostly Plants
Eating a whole-food, plant-based diet is crucial for anyone interested in their health—but it’s especially important for women trying to conceive.
“A balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, protein, and healthy fats is important for ensuring fertility and a healthy pregnancy,” says Talebian.
It’s also important for avoiding nutritional deficiencies, which Rosenblum says is a must for a fertility-friendly diet. (More on how to avoid those soon.)
Focus your diet on a wide variety of fruits and vegetables—and eliminate highly-processed foods as much as possible.
9. Emphasize Antioxidants
As you probably know, antioxidants reduce oxidative stress in our body—which is caused damaging particles called free-radicals and linked to chronic inflammatory diseases.
Just as oxidative stress can damage cells elsewhere in the body, they can also damage the cells that make up a woman’s eggs and reproductive organs. “When someone’s eggs and reproductive organs are not healthy on a cellular level, they can’t function optimally,” says Rosenblum.
To help keep cells in tip-top shape, eat plenty of antioxidant-rich foods like blueberries, green tea, bell peppers, asparagus, and leafy green vegetables. (They also offer a variety of the other nutrients crucial for overall health!)
10. Supplement Smart
To further support your reproductive powers, consider adding a few key supplements to your routine.
- folate (or folic acid), which reduces risk of miscarriage and neural tube defects in developing fetuses
- iron, which has been shown to support fertility (and which we need much more of when pregnant)
Other supplement that support women’s reproductive health and fertility:
While omega-3s support overall (including reproductive) health, choline is critical for fetal brain development and stem cell growth.
Vitamin D, meanwhile, is essential for many aspects of reproductive health, such as, balancing hormone production, and supporting thyroid health. In fact, research suggests that women with vitamin D deficiency have higher rates of infertility, Rosenblum says.
The experts agree that, depending on her individual needs and eating habits, a woman may need other supplements to support fertility and a healthy pregnancy. Rosenblum recommends women trying to conceive have their nutrient levels tested, so that their healthcare provider can determine what additional supplements she might need.