Infertility is a global health concern, and millions of people in the reproductive age suffer from it. According to WHO, one in six people is affected by infertility globally, which is only increasing due to lifestyle choices. High stress, sleep imbalance, food choices and excessive consumption of alcohol and smoking are the prime reasons for this epidemic, and if not addressed timely, it can lead to emotional and physical consequences.
So, if you have been trying to get pregnant for over a year without any success, it is time to take the reins in your hands. Sangeetha Aiyer, Mumbai-based metabolic health practitioner and nutrition coach, provides insights into how to deal with it with small but significant fertility-friendly lifestyle choices.
Healthy eating optimises fertility
What you eat affects the health of your eggs and your partner’s sperm. According to a Harvard study, women can reduce infertility issues caused by ovulation disorders by 80% with healthy food choices. Sangeetha suggests, “Bioavailable protein from animal-based sources including eggs, poultry, seafood, meat and dairy are very beneficial. These can be supported by nuts, seeds and select lentils and legumes like mung and cow peas.” If you are a vegetarian, Aiyer recommends supplementing yourself with some whey protein. “Healthy fat is another essential. Fat from sources like ghee, butter, coconut oil, olive oil and nuts is beneficial. Support this by adding local and seasonal fruits and veggies to your diet,” she says.
It is also important to shun all processed food as it can lead to saturation of the insulin hormone in the body, which is the main cause of PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome). Aiyer adds, “In about 70% of the cases, studies show that insulin resistance of the female reproductive system is at the centre of PCOS in women and ED (erectile dysfunction) in men.”
Insulin resistance occurs when there is saturation of the ‘insulin’ hormone in the body, usually caused by excessive consumption of sweets, sugary beverages, junk food and refined carbohydrates. “Reducing ultra-processed foods, colas and sodas, fructose would be the first elimination step,” Aiyer says. Additionally, it is recommended to have a low-carbohydrate diet, limiting your carb intake to 100-200 grams a day.
Obesity and infertility
Obesity is a major contributing factor for infertility. Excessive body weight can affect hormone levels and cause irregular ovulation in women. Women suffering from PCOS should regularly practice some form of physical activity to regulate their periods and improve the frequency of ovulation. In men, obesity can reduce sperm quality. Additionally, exercise is also a mood elevator and a stress buster.
However, instead of pursuing high intensity exercises, it is recommended to follow moderate exercises such as a 45-minute walk, yoga, any dance form or gardening. For, excessive exercise can harm fertility for both men and women as their sperm quality and ovulation could be compromised due to very low body fat percentage. Aiyer recommends exercise that is age and need appropriate.
Calm those stress hormones
In our fast-paced world, both men and women are highly stressed due to work, financial burdens and home. Increased stress levels affect the chances of getting pregnant as they cause the release of cortisol. This stress hormone can play havoc on ovulation and sperm count. It would help if you tried yoga, breathing techniques, meditation and other mind-body therapies to overcome stress. Off late, mind-body infertility programmes have gained popularity and have proven to have positively impacted women's pregnancy rates. These programmes have stress management techniques, relaxation techniques and coping skills and also offer group support.
Cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, a format of counselling also helps in this situation, removing negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones. It includes breathing techniques and deep relaxation to reduce anxiety, which is common amongst people dealing with infertility.
Make sleep a priority
Research shows that women getting less than 7 hours of sleep have a 15% lower chance of getting pregnant than those sleeping 7-8 hours. Sleep disturbances or lack of sleep disturb the natural testosterone rhythm in men, while in women, a hormone called leptin is affected due to less sleep. The imbalance in this hormone disrupts the menstrual cycle, directly affecting fertility. Thus, it is crucial for both men and women to have a restful sleep of about 8 hours regularly to improve their chances of having a baby.
Say No to alcohol and smoking
Studies show that excessive intake of alcohol can impair male and female fertility, affecting both conception and implantation. It reduces testosterone, a sex hormone that decreases sperm count and quality in men. In contrast, in women, it reduces oestrogen levels, a female reproductive hormone. Smoking, on the other hand, should be completely stopped for couples trying for a baby as it can cause erectile dysfunction in men. The chances of miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, stillbirth, and premature labour are much higher among women who smoke.
The delicate interplay of lifestyle and fertility lies in the choices you make. Living healthy and stress-free is of prime importance for pregnancy. “Fertility in men and women is a multi-variable and multi-factorial issue. Without the diagnosis of a pathological reason for infertility, usually a healthy lifestyle which involves good nutrition, regular exercise, stress management, proper sleep pattern and meaningful social and emotional bonding can improve the chances of getting pregnant,” notes Aiyer.
Shweta Dravid is a self confessed explorer who writes on travel, health, wellness, mindfulness and life truths.