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Everywhere you look, an article or book (or even your own
mom!) is there to remind you that your fertility drops with every passing birthday. You
probably know the scary stats: Women reach their reproductive peak in their
twenties, and by age 35, the risk of infertility jumps to 22 percent. But
before you start Googling egg freezing (by the way, that's still experimental,
and only a tiny number of babies have been born from frozen eggs), keep in mind
that every woman's biological clock is different. Some women can get pregnant
easily at 40, while others run into problems as early as their twenties. And
while you can't stop the clock on the most important fertility factor—your
age—there are plenty of lifestyle changes you can make now to up your odds of
getting pregnant again later.
See your doctor. If you want to keep your body baby-ready, staying in
top physical shape is essential. That means getting any fertility-sapping
health issues—like diabetes, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or
endometriosis—under control; diagnosing and treating STDs; and devising a
healthy diet and exercise plan. If you're past 35 and wondering whether you
have the option of waiting a few more years, you can also ask your doc to do a
little detective work on what's known as your ovarian reserve.
"All women are born with a certain number of eggs, and you lose
them over your reproductive life span," explains Michael Soules, M.D.,
medical director of Seattle Reproductive Medicine. "At some point—about
10 years before the onset of menopause—the number drops to a level where your
fertility is compromised." But there are fertility tests that can gauge
how many eggs are still sitting on the bench waiting for their turn at bat. The
best ones are an ultrasound to count the number of follicles in your ovaries
and a blood test to check your hormone levels at certain points in your cycle.
These tests, which Soules says are usually covered by insurance—check with your
plan to make sure—can't guarantee that you're fertile (too many other factors
come into play). But they can tell you how loudly your clock is ticking and
whether you need to consider speeding up your schedule.
Brush and floss.
Could something as simple as flossing your teeth help keep you fertile?
Perhaps. "Several studies have indicated that a woman's oral health may be
related to her reproductive success," says Susan Karabin, D.D.S., a
spokesperson for the American Academy of Periodontology. In one study, women
who needed fertility treatments had higher levels of gum bleeding and
inflammation than those who conceived naturally, the Journal of Periodontology reports. "Brush and floss every day, and get a professional cleaning and exam every six months," advises
Karabin, who adds that not smoking and avoiding sugary foods and drinks are
also key to keeping your teeth and gums healthy.
Practice safe sex.
You wouldn't think condoms would come up in a conversation about
getting pregnant, but safe sex can be a crucial factor in your future ability
to get knocked up. If you contract an STD such as gonorrhea or chlamydia (which
could be in your system without causing symptoms) and it goes untreated, it can
lead to a serious condition called pelvic inflammatory disease, which can scar
the fallopian tubes, causing infertility. So get tested regularly—and make sure
your partners do, too.
Stamp out cigarettes.
If higher rates of lung cancer and breast cancer haven't made you swear
off smoking, consider this: The American Society for Reproductive Medicine
(ASRM) estimates that lighting up is linked to 13 percent of infertility cases.
Tobacco messes with your fertility in all kinds of ways: It makes your eggs
deteriorate faster than they naturally would with age, increases your risk of
early miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy (a dangerous condition in which the egg
implants in your fallopian tubes or ovaries instead of your uterus), and can
bring on early menopause (up to four years earlier, compared with nonsmokers).
Plus, if you wind up needing in vitro fertilization (IVF), smoking will reduce
your chances of success by 34 percent. The encouraging news, though, is that
once you do quit smoking, your fertility level will return to normal in about a
year (considering that it takes the average puffer two to four tries before
quitting for good, you should start trying to kick the habit well before that).
While you're at it, recruit your partner, parents and friends to quit with
you: A recent study in Tobacco Control found that women who were exposed to
secondhand smoke six or more hours a day as adults were 36 percent more likely
to have trouble getting pregnant.
"Every woman of reproductive age—even if you're not
actively trying to get pregnant—should take a multivitamin containing folic
acid," says Jorge Chavarro, M.D., an instructor at Harvard Medical School
and co-author of The Fertility Diet.
According to Chavarro, folic acid appears to improve fertility by stimulating
ovulation and giving an embryo essential proteins needed for survival. His
research also found that women who took iron supplements were 40 percent less
likely to have fertility problems, so look for a vitamin with at least 40
milligrams of iron and 400 micrograms of folic acid, and get in the habit of
downing the pill every morning.
If you want to get pregnant in two years, do all of the above, plus...
Switch up your grocery list.
In Chavarro's groundbreaking study of the dietary habits of more than 18,000 nurses who were trying to get pregnant, he found some striking connections between food and fertility. There are four basic rules of a baby-friendly diet:
1. Choose slowly digested carbohydrates (such as vegetables and whole grains) over highly processed ones (such as white bread and white rice).
2. Eliminate trans fats (aka partially hydrogenated oils).
3. Pick unsaturated fats over saturated fats.
4. Get the majority of your protein from plants rather than animals.
This type of low-glycemic diet, which keeps your blood-sugar level nice and steady, has long been known to fight diabetes and improve cardiovascular health, but it also can have a profound effect on fertility. "When you eat foods that spike your blood sugar, such as simple carbohydrates, your body produces more insulin, and that in turn leads to a higher amount of testosterone circulating throughout your body," Chavarro says. "Over time that can interfere with ovulation." He explains that different types of fats and proteins also affect blood levels of glucose and insulin. So get into the habit of eating lots of fruits and veggies, and trade red meat for fish, nuts, eggs and beans whenever you can.
Maintain a healthy weight.
When it comes to your weight, the "fertility zone" is a body mass index between 20 and 24, Chavarro says. (To calculate your BMI, go to nhlbisupport.com/bmi).
In fact, the ASRM estimates that 12 percent of infertility cases are due to weight problems, divided equally between the underweight and overweight. Weigh too much and you have a greater likelihood of irregular periods and ovulation disorders (though even a moderate loss of 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can help kick-start your ovulation); weigh too little and you may not ovulate at all, since body fat triggers the hormones that tell your ovaries to release an egg.
Move your butt.
"Our research found that 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise each day on most days of the week is related to a lower risk of infertility," says Chavarro. If you need an extra push to get there, he suggests adding a mix of strength training, stretching and aerobic exercise such as biking, hiking or swimming. Too much exercise, though—anything that brings you to less than 17 percent body fat, or a BMI of 19 or lower—can interfere with ovulation. But unless you're doing an Olympic-level training program, you probably need more exercise, not less.
Upgrade your water bottle.
While you're working up a sweat, you'll work up a thirst—but make sure you swig your water from a BPA-free bottle. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, recently looked at the BPA (bisphenol-A) levels in women undergoing IVF and found a correlation between the level of the chemical in the blood and the ability to conceive. The theory is that BPA, which mimics estrogen, can mess with the balance of hormones in your body. The chemical can be found in the linings of canned goods and sports water bottles, but many companies are now marketing bottles made from safer materials such as stainless steel.
If you want to get pregnant in
one year, do all of the above, plus...
Save your calories for ice
Our favorite bit of health news ever. If you add one serving of
full-fat dairy to your diet per day, such as whole milk on your cereal instead
of skim, you can actually increase your chances of getting pregnant, according
to Chavarro's research. There is one caveat, however: "You have to make
adjustments to the rest of your diet so you don't gain weight," Chavarro
says. He also stresses that this should not be a lifetime change—once there's a
bun in your oven, you can go back to drinking skim and eating low-fat fro-yo.
Rethink your birth control.
Now that you're getting closer to wanting a little munchkin, it's time
to think about what's kept you from having one in the past. Barrier methods
(such as condoms or a diaphragm) are easy: Simply stop using them the day
you're ready to get pregnant. If you have an IUD, your fertility will return as
soon as your doctor takes it out. The same goes for Pill users: Whether you've
been taking it for one year or 20, don't believe the rumor that it'll be months
before your ovulation revs back up, says Vanessa Cullins, M.D., vice president
for medical affairs at Planned Parenthood of America. "Women may have a
few irregular cycles at first, but ovulation can happen within two weeks after
you toss your last pack," she says. But, Cullins points out, there is one
form of birth control that takes time to exit your system before you can get
pregnant: If you've had Depo-Provera injections, it can take up to 10 months to
become fertile again.
Cut down on the booze and
Some studies show that having one to five alcoholic drinks per week can
drop your chances of conceiving that month by as much as 50 percent. While
other studies have found little connection between moderate drinking and
fertility, Chavarro points out that sobriety certainly couldn't hurt, and it
might help. And while you're at it, cut back on the triple-shot lattes. While
there is no real consensus, some studies suggest that consuming more than 300
milligrams of caffeine a day (about two eight-ounce cups of regular coffee) may
increase your risk of endometriosis or fallopian tube problems.
"There's nothing a couple that is trying to get pregnant
wants to hear less than 'Relax, you're trying too hard,'" says Janis Fox,
M.D., a fertility specialist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. But
stress can put a damper on fertility by messing with the brain signals that
tell your body to ovulate. A study in Human Reproduction showed that couples
were more likely to conceive during months they considered themselves relaxed.
An effective way to start reducing stress now is to focus on what you
appreciate in your life today, says Leslee Kagan, director of women's health at
the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine in Boston. Every day, write
down three things that you love about your life (No diapers to change! The
chance to spend endless, uninterrupted hours reading a great novel!), and take
at least 15 minutes to meditate, do yoga or listen to relaxing music. Believe
us, a few years from now, when that baby you waited for is finally here, and
you're groggily but happily dealing with colic and diaper rash, these
relaxation skills will come in handy!