Social media is full of advice on fertility but not all of it is reliable and evidence-based. Reproductive Biologist, Grace Dugdale, gives us the low-down and dispels some popular myths.
Men don’t have to worry about their age, weight or general health
Most fertility advice is aimed at women, but male fertility also declines with age, and sperm health has a significant impact on the health of the pregnancy and the health of the baby. Sperm health is affected by age, body mass index (BMI – a measure of how heavy you are for your height), diet, exercise and sleep, among other things. A younger woman’s eggs can correct defects in older sperm after fertilisation, so the combined age of the couple, not just the woman, is the main factor in your chance of conceiving. Paternal age is also independently associated with things like reduced IVF success rates, and increased risk of preterm birth and poorer health outcomes in the child.
If I have regular periods, I’m fertile
A healthy menstrual cycle is the foundation for good fertility, so having regular periods is a good sign and means you are likely to be ovulating. However, there are various factors that can impact fertility that won’t necessarily cause irregular periods, including poor egg quality (due to age, high or very low BMI, poor diet, smoking or other environmental toxins) and blocked fallopian tubes. Cycles shorter than 25 days can also lead to problems conceiving and may indicate low levels of progesterone, the hormone needed to maintain a pregnancy. Spotting before your period can also be a sign of low progesterone. Don’t delay seeking professional advice if you think you may have a problem.
‘Seed Cycling’ can balance hormones
This is one that comes up all the time but there is no evidence whatsoever that seed cycling – where you eat different types of seeds at particular phases of the menstrual cycle – can improve hormone balance. Some women report improvements in menstrual symptoms when they try this but it’s most likely due to improvement in diet quality when you eat more seeds, which are indeed healthy. We simply don’t know enough about how different foods may impact hormone metabolism to be able to give this kind of advice and there are no studies that prove seed cycling works.
Gluten is bad for fertility
There is growing evidence that “one-size fits all” dietary advice is flawed – and that includes gluten. Despite what you may read, there aren’t any well-conducted studies that show gluten is universally bad for fertility and it’s easy to allow restrictive diets to dominate your life without good reason. Not only is this stressful, there’s a risk of falling into disordered eating. Following this kind of generic advice can also prevent you from getting to the bottom of what may be causing your individual difficulties conceiving. Listening to your body is vital, so seek medical advice if you experience symptoms such as bloating or diarrhoea. Not everyone has a noticeable reaction to wheat or even digestive symptoms with coeliac disease (an autoimmune condition triggered by eating wheat), however, so if you’re having fertility issues and especially if you’ve experienced a miscarriage or low iron levels, it’s worth having a simple blood test to check for this disease, as it can contribute to fertility problems in both men and women. See your GP if you have been trying to conceive for more than 12 months without success, or sooner if you are over 35 or have any reproductive health problems such as endometriosis or Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).
IVF is always an option if I can’t conceive naturally
Although IVF has revolutionised fertility treatment since the first IVF baby was born in 1978, it doesn’t work for everyone and your chances of having a baby with treatment decline significantly with age. So although fertility treatment may buy you an extra year or two, it can’t solve an age-related decline in fertility that women experience naturally, unless you use donor eggs from a younger woman. Learning to understand your body, noticing any symptoms or changes in your cycle, and seeking medical advice early are all key.
The Fertility Book: Your Definitive Guide to Achieving a Healthy Pregnancy by Adam Balen and Grace Dugdale is published by Penguin Random House and is out now. Their free Fertility Guide is available here