If you’re like many women, you spend years trying to avoid getting pregnant through various contraceptive methods. But, when the time comes when you actually want to conceive a baby, some of you may find that it’s not as easy as you thought it was going to be. In fact, about ten percent of couples in the U.S. suffer from infertility. But even for healthy couples not experiencing infertility, the odds are only about 20 percent that a woman will become pregnant during any one menstrual cycle.
But don’t stress about this statistic. There are a number of ways you can help your body along — one of them being to reduce stress (which is sometimes easier said than done when you want a baby right away). Here are five natural ways to enhance fertility without the worry of ingesting, or injecting, costly fertility drugs and treatments:
The number one thing both women and men can do (especially women) to enhance fertility is to maintain, or achieve, a healthy body weight, says Jorge Chavarro, M.D., research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health and co-author of The Fertility Diet. Remember, though, it’s not about getting a bikini body, but about maintaining a healthy weight that allows your hormones and body to function smoothly.
Why is a healthy weight so important? Extremely lean or very obese women, and men, can both have trouble conceiving. In men, both unhealthy body types can lead to poor-quality semen. For ultra-lean women, the body is set into starvation mode and basically sends a signal to the reproductive system that it’s not a good time reproduce. Obesity in women can mess with insulin levels, which affects reproductive hormones and subsequently has a negative impact on ovulation.
You should aim for a body mass index, the standardized measure of the ratio of height to weight, of between 24 and 30. Learn how to calculate your BMI.
“Traditional Chinese medicine has been used for millennia to treat issues of fertility,” says Naomi Rabinowitz, M.D., founder and medical director of Turning Point Acupuncture in New York, who advocates acupuncture to treat energy (chi) imbalances in the body and herbs to nourish and strengthen vital fluids and internal organs.
Women often have depleted or constrained energy that causes blockages, says Rabinowitz, particularly in the pelvis. Bringing the chi into balance optimizes the possibility of conception. Additionally, regular acupuncture sessions can help facilitate blood flow to the reproductive region, regulate hormones and reduce stress, which can impact a woman’s ability to conceive. (See #5 below for the importance of stress reduction in fertility.)
Women might want to "needle" their male partners into trying acupuncture as well: Research indicates that the practice can increase sperm motility and reduce the number of abnormal sperm, upping the chances of conception.
Chavarro stresses the importance of a diet that is similar to one that prevents heart disease and diabetes, especially for women with ovulatory issues. He recommends eating complex carbohydrates like whole grain cereals and breads, protein from plant-based foods such as beans and peanuts, and sticking to monounsaturated fats like those found in olive oil and avocados.
Opting for complex carbs and healthy fats and limiting your intake of processed foods helps regulate your insulin levels, he says, which in turn helps regulate your hormones.
Foods to avoid? Limit your intake of chicken and beef and all trans fats. And, he stresses, just say “no” to sodas — both regular and diet varieties.
Although full-fat dairy products might not sound like part of any healthy diet, they have been found to help fertility. A Harvard study found that women who consume these foods (as opposed to low-fat or no-fat dairy) have fewer problems with ovulation. So indulge in full-fat milk, yogurt and even ice cream, but only in moderation (about once a day, advises researchers).
Most of these lifestyle changes are things you should be doing to improve your overall health anyway. So if you haven’t been able to make the shift in the past, try to focus on the fact that these unhealthy habits are proven fertility barriers.
For starters, if you haven’t quit smoking for (the numerous) general health benefits, then do it NOW. Smoking adds ten years to a woman’s fertile age, says Alice Domar, Ph.D., executive Director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. “A 25-year-old smoker will have the fertile age of a 35-year-old non-smoker,” she explains. “Quitting smoking is the number one thing you should do, and try to eliminate all secondhand smoke as well.”
Additionally, she recommends limiting, or eliminating, your intake of alcohol and caffeine to improve the odds of getting pregnant faster. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends no more than 200 mg of caffeine (note: a 12-oz. Starbucks has 260 mg!) a day, and eliminating alcohol from your diet altogether (more because of the effect alcohol can have on the fetus in the earliest weeks of pregnancy, even before a woman knows that she is pregnant, than in order to prevent fertility issues).
And recreational drugs? Just say “no” to all of them.
Men need to take care of their private parts and make sure they’re not too constricted (e.g. by bike shorts, tighty whiteys, etc.), overheated or exposed to an excess of pesticides. There have even been studies showing that men who often sit with their legs together with laptop computers perched on top can have impaired sperm production. “You don’t want to cook the little guys,” says Domar. And, keep in mind, she says, that it takes two to three months for the sperm to be formed, so any lifestyle changes your guy makes will take about three months to make a difference.
Although we all know stressful people who function or reproduce just swimmingly, there are those who are more susceptible to stress (think of those who suffer from stress headaches, insomnia, digestive problems, etc.). If you are more susceptible to stress in general, there’s a good chance that stress will impact your ability to conceive. And that in itself, unfortunately, can stress you out.
In fact, a recent study reported in the Journal of Fertility and Sterility found that women with higher levels of amylases (a stress hormone) had a significantly reduced chance of conceiving and men with stress issues tend to have low sperm production.
So, what can you do to relax? First, Domar recommends, if possible, pinpoint the source of your stress. Is it from work, a relationship, a needy friend? “It’s much easier to tackle the problem if you know what it is than if you’re just generally overwhelmed,” she says.
Top stress-reduction techniques include yoga, meditation and, especially, exercise. “Exercise is not only the best stress reducer we know,” says Domar, “it also helps with staying fit and healthy, which increases your chances of getting pregnant.”
If the stress stems from your efforts to get pregnant, meditate on this fact: The odds are overwhelmingly in your favor that you’ll get pregnant on your own. “Couples need to understand that about 85 percent of them are going to conceive within a year of trying,” Domar counsels. “It’s highly unusual for someone not to be able to have a biological child.” Even if you do need to see a fertility specialist for a specific issue, according to Domar, 90 percent of those issues are treatable.
In other words — it’s going to happen. So sit back, relax and have fun trying!