Planning for a baby can be incredibly exciting but also somewhat daunting. Wondering how long it will take you and your partner to conceive and worrying about how you can ensure the very best for a healthy pregnancy. It may reassure you to know that there are adjustments you can make to your lifestyle that will not only positively affect your chances to conceive, but which will also help pave the way for a healthier pregnancy and improve the wellbeing of your whole family.
Achieving a healthier weight
Our hormonal balance is influenced by our percentage of body fat. This is why our chances of conceiving are directly affected by how much or how little we weigh. Women who are either underweight or overweight are less likely to release an egg each month, particularly if they also experience irregular cycles.
If you are underweight or very lean (that is, have less than 20% body fat) you can help regulate your hormonal function and improve your chances of getting pregnant by changing the way you eat. The idea is to put weight on slowly, by eating adequate portions of fresh, nutrient-rich foods. Your GP can refer you to a dietitian and will be able to support you further if your weight is related to your emotional health.
If you are overweight and struggling with your health and/or losing weight, a visit to your GP would also be beneficial. They can support you to achieve a healthier weight and, if indicated, may run tests to ensure your excess weight and potential fertility problems are not being caused by conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or hypothyroidism.
Many women successfully lose excess weight by joining a weight loss programme such as Slimming World. Yet, research now shows that exercise programmes that include dietary advice are even more effective at helping women fall pregnant.
Don’t be discouraged, though, if you feel like you may never achieve that ‘healthy weight’ bracket. It is thought that even a loss of 10% of your body weight can considerably improve your fertility.
In either case, nourishing your body with the right foods when you are preparing to get pregnant will enhance your overall wellbeing and your chances to conceive.
Breaking bad habits
You may be aware of the risks that smoking, alcohol and drugs can have on your pregnancy, yet you may not realise that these can all negatively affect your fertility and increase your chances of miscarriage.
When you smoke, the number of eggs in your ovaries (ovarian reserve) is reduced and your fallopian tube (which carries your eggs from your ovaries to your womb) can be damaged. This means that you are over twice as likely to struggle to conceive than a woman who doesn’t smoke. As well as this, smoking is known to damage the eggs and sperm, increasing the rate of miscarriage. The health risks are similar if you are a passive smoker.
Yet, as difficult as quitting can be, evidence shows that your chances of successfully quitting smoking are much greater if you engage the support of a professional or a support group. It is best if you can aim to quit at least 3 months before conception to ensure that your eggs and your partner’s sperm are in good health. It is also worth noting that the risks of pregnancy complications related to smoking continue to decrease the longer you don’t smoke.
Studies have shown that even drinking lightly can reduce fertility and that the heavier a woman drinks, the more her fertility is decreased. Although alcohol is linked to an increase in ovulation disorders, exactly how this happens is still not clearly understood.
Having a drink is often associated with relaxing, socialising and having fun and, understandably, this association can be hard to give up. Altering our social habits (movie and dinner out instead of the pub, for example) and finding replacement drinks (mocktails, ginger beer, etc) can help us to start reducing our alcohol intake with the view to stopping before we start trying to conceive.
Because there is no known safe limit of alcohol in pregnancy, the advice is to become tee-total from when you start trying to conceive.
There is more evidence on the effects on fertility of some medications than there is on the impact of illegal drugs on fertility. This is, partly, because the use of illicit drugs is often related to high alcohol consumption and other unhealthy lifestyle choices.
Long-term or high dose intake of some medications, such as ibuprofen or aspirin, has been linked to ovulation disorders, whereas more concrete evidence on other prescription-drugs points to definite adverse effects. Therefore, if you are on regular medication, it is best to see your GP or specialist before you start trying for a baby. They can help you wean off your medication or find an alternative that does not interfere with your fertility.
Illegal drugs can comprise your fertility and increase risks in pregnancy. Drugs like cannabis or cocaine can disrupt hormonal function and affect the function of your reproductive organs. Although there is no clear evidence on the effects of most illegal drugs on fertility, none have been deemed safe.
Creating a healthier environment, inside out
Environmental pollutants and toxins are everywhere, from the air we breathe to household cleaning products, plastics and pesticides. Because these can all have adverse effects on fertility, opting for organic produce and environmentally friendly or, better still, homemade cleaning products can significantly improve our health and our fertility.
Emotions are directly linked to our endocrine (hormonal) system and several studies confirm that women with high levels of stress have lower rates of conception, whether trying for a baby naturally or via assisted conception.
Engaging in regular exercise, eating a fresh and balanced diet, connecting with your mind and body through meditation and/or yoga, getting enough sleep, or seeking support from a counsellor, support group or mental health professional can all help lower and manage your stress levels.
Our health and lifestyle have an undeniable effect on our fertility and, where there are aspects of these that may not be optimal, evidence shows that changing them can reverse their negative effects and significantly improve our chances of becoming pregnant. For more information on trying to conceive, visit our Trying to Conceive Hub.