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Condition - Maximising fertility

By Debbie Paddington DipION

The number of women having children in their 30s and 40s has risen dramatically over the last 30 years, with the number of women having children in their 40s doubling in the last 10 years alone. The image that this is because high-powered, career-orientated women are leaving it too late to start a family is really a myth. The reality is that our high cost of living and relationship breakdowns mean that, for the first time, more babies are born to mothers in their 30s than in their 20s.

Celebrity older mums make it look easy. Although women may be able to cope better financially and emotionally as older mums, there is no denying that our fertility declines as we get older and this also, unfortunately, brings an increased risk of birth defects, miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy and stillbirth.

It’s not all bad news though. There are positive steps both you and your partner can take to help maintain your fertility and give yourselves the best possible chance of creating, or adding to, a family.

It takes at least three months for immature eggs and sperm to mature, so, ideally, you and your partner should be looking at a four-month preconception period, when you are planning to start a family.

Folic acid is very important before conception and during the first trimester of pregnancy. Mothers who lack sufficient folic acid are at increased risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect, such as spina bifida. From the moment you start trying to conceive, the Department of Health recommends that you should take a daily 400mcg supplement of folic acid. Ideally, this would be included in a multivitamin and mineral specially formulated for pregnancy.

Free radical damage may affect the development of sperm and could be linked to chromosome breakage, which may cause birth defects and miscarriages. Antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium help to protect the body from free radical damage and so may help to maintain sperm health, ovulation, hormone balance and blood flow, therefore supporting fertility and pregnancy, particularly in the older woman. Selenium levels are often very low in our soil which, consequently, means that foods grown in these soils contain very little. An antioxidant supplement that contains Selenium is, therefore, often advised for both would-be parents.

Essential fatty acids aid the health of the reproductive system and hormone balance. They break down in the body to produce prostaglandins that are important for reproductive health. Semen is rich in prostaglandins and also in the mineral zinc. Essential fatty acids are also important for female fertility, as they assist healthy hormone balance and blood flow, and so may help support fertility, a blooming pregnancy and a healthy baby. Oily fish, nuts and seeds are a good source of essential fatty acids. Alternatively you could take a supplement. Make sure you choose an essential fatty acid supplement that has been screened for contaminants, PCBs and heavy metals.

The amino acids L-arginine and L-carnitine are essential to help maintain the production, function and health of sperm by supporting motility, quantity and quality. Zinc also helps maintain the health of sperm and assists genetic health, cell division and hormonal health and, therefore, overall fertility maintenance and a healthy pregnancy.

In preliminary research, even a subtle deficiency of iron has been tentatively linked to infertility. If you are having difficulty conceiving, consult a doctor to rule out the possibility of iron deficiency. You should only take an iron supplement if you have been shown to have low iron levels. Some iron tablets can be difficult to absorb causing digestive problems, such as constipation. To avoid this, be sure to choose a food-based iron supplement, that is easily digested and absorbed by the body.

Eating a high level of vitamin A (over 10,000iu) may put a woman at risk of having a baby with birth defects. For these reasons, high levels of vitamin A are not advised while trying to conceive or during pregnancy. The vegetable source of vitamin A known as beta carotene, does not carry the same risks.

Maintaining a healthy body weight is also important, as being excessively overweight or underweight may also contribute to infertility in females. A healthy fertility diet should consist of good quality protein such as quinoa, beans, lentils, organic meat and eggs. Also, be sure to include plenty of colourful fruits and vegetables, pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, almonds, wholewheat grain and oats. Balancing blood sugar levels is important, so try and eat little and often and avoid chocolate, sugary foods, salty snacks and processed foods. Stimulants such as alcohol and coffee are best avoided, as studies have shown that both have a negative effect on fertility levels.

The hardest advice to take with respect to infertility is just to RELAX. Research, published in the journal Human Reproduction, reported that pregnancy was much more likely to occur during months when couples reported feeling “good”, happy and relaxed and was less likely to occur during the months they reported feeling tense or anxious. This finding echoes research published in Fertility and Sterility which reported that stress may play a role in the success of infertility treatments, including invitro fertilisation (IVF). These and other studies have shown that stress may affect blood flow to the uterus, hormone balance, ovulation and fertilisation rates and may cause poor quality sperm and eggs. If you are finding it difficult to relax, try meditation, massage or acupuncture. B vitamins may also be useful, as they help to support adrenal function that can be negatively affected by stress. 


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