Female fertility: Why lifestyle choices count

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Female fertility: Why lifestyle choices count

If you're hoping to get pregnant now or in the future, you might wonder about your fertility and whether you can improve it. Some factors might be beyond your control — such as medical issues that affect female fertility — but that isn't the end of the story. Your lifestyle choices can affect your fertility, too.

Here's what you need to know to promote and protect your fertility.

What is female fertility?

Female fertility is a woman's ability to conceive a biological child. You and your partner might question your fertility if you've been trying to get pregnant with frequent, unprotected sex for at least one year — or at least six months if you're older than 35 — with no success.

What causes female fertility problems?

Various medical issues can contribute to female fertility problems, including:

  • Conditions affecting ovulation
  • Conditions affecting the uterus
  • Blockage of the fallopian tubes, often caused by pelvic inflammatory disease — an infection of the female reproductive organs
  • Endometriosis — a condition in which tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus (endometrium) grows outside the uterus

Age also plays a role in female fertility. Delaying pregnancy can decrease the likelihood that you'll be able to conceive. An older woman's eggs aren't fertilized as easily as a younger woman's eggs — and might not develop normally even after fertilization occurs.

What can I do to promote female fertility?

Healthy lifestyle choices can help you promote fertility. For example:

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or significantly underweight can affect hormone production and inhibit normal ovulation. Maintaining a healthy weight can increase the frequency of ovulation and likelihood of pregnancy.
  • Prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Sexually transmitted infections — such as chlamydia and gonorrhea — are a leading cause of infertility for both men and women. To protect yourself from STIs, practice safe sex. Limit your number of sexual partners, and use a condom each time you have sex — or stay in a mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who isn't infected.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Although there isn't enough research to suggest a specific diet to promote fertility or increase the chances of conception, a healthy diet still counts. Good nutrition — including a daily prenatal vitamin that contains folic acid — is an important part of preconception care and will serve you and your baby well during pregnancy.
  • Schedule regular checkups. Regular visits to your health care provider can help you detect and treat health conditions that might threaten your fertility.
  • Manage stress. Some research suggests that stress can lower the odds of conception. Although more research is needed to show the impact stress might have on female fertility, it's wise to minimize stress and practice healthy coping methods — such as relaxation techniques — when you're trying to conceive.

What's off-limits?

Healthy lifestyle choices count here, too. To protect your fertility:

  • Don't smoke. Smoking ages your ovaries and depletes your eggs prematurely. If you smoke, ask your health care provider to help you quit.
  • Limit the amount of alcohol you drink. Heavy drinking is associated with an increased risk of ovulation disorders — and some research has shown that even light drinking might reduce the likelihood of conceiving. If you'd like to get pregnant, consider avoiding alcohol completely.
  • Curb caffeine. Although the evidence is mixed, some research suggests that too much caffeine might increase estrogen production or decrease estrogen metabolism. To protect your fertility, consider limiting the amount of caffeine in your diet to 200 milligrams a day — about the amount in two 8-ounce (240-milliliter) servings of coffee.
  • Be wary of vigorous physical activity. Physical activity is an important part of a healthy lifestyle — but too much intense aerobic activity can harm female fertility by inhibiting ovulation and reducing production of the hormone progesterone. If you have a healthy weight and you're thinking of becoming pregnant soon, consider limiting your aerobic exercise to no more than seven hours a week. If you're overweight, ask your health care provider how much aerobic activity is OK.
  • Avoid exposure to toxins. Exposure to various chemicals or pollutants can harm your fertility. Agricultural workers, hair stylists and certain other groups might be at risk of menstrual disorders. Others at possible risk of reduced fertility include dental assistants exposed to high levels of nitrous oxide, anyone exposed to elevated levels of organic solvents — such as dry cleaning chemicals — and industrial workers exposed to drugs or chemicals during the manufacturing process. Share any concerns you might have about exposure to toxins with your health care provider.

What's the bottom line?

If you're thinking about becoming pregnant and you're concerned about the impact of your lifestyle choices on your fertility, consult your health care provider. He or she can help you identify ways to improve your fertility and boost your chances of getting pregnant.

Last Updated: 2012-05-05
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