Are you trying to conceive and finding it hard to get pregnant? Getting pregnant – for many – can be a lot harder than it looks. But why is that? Today I’m delighted to welcome back Dr Larisa Corda, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist and one of the UK’s leading Fertility experts to help us understand why getting pregnant can be so hard and how to increase your chances of pregnancy with The Conception Plan.
One in six couples has trouble conceiving, and this number is only set to get bigger as both men and women chose to postpone childbearing until later in life. This has been led by many societal changes, not least the fact that both men and women are now gaining equal footing on the career ladder. Yet biologically, nothing has changed and doesn’t look likely to change unless we develop new technologies allowing us to beat natural reproductive ageing. But what if you could do something to help maintain the eggs and sperm in their most fertile state for our age and optimise the ability of our body to become pregnant and increase you chance of pregnancy?
Up to a third of people have what we call unexplained infertility, with no obvious clinical cause found despite multiple investigations. Traditionally these have been the people we have treated with assisted reproductive technologies, without being able to explain why they can’t get pregnant. We are not doing enough to answer the bigger question of why, aside from age, is fertility on the decline and what can we do to help counter this worrying trend at all ages.
I believe a lot of the answers to this lie in our environment and habits, related to eating, exercise, stress and exposure to certain chemicals. A growing number of studies is suggesting strong correlations between all of these having an ability to influence not just our own state of wellbeing, but our very DNA, which in turn is passed on to our children. Put simply, if we don’t look after our minds and bodies, the long term consequences are not just on our health and fertility, but also our children’s health too.
The Conception Plan addresses several major areas where almost all of us need to improve. It isn’t a case of radically overhauling everything, as this is more often than not too difficult to achieve and means a lot of people give up at the first hurdle. It’s about first of all understanding that you have the power to control so much of your own health through adjustments made in your direct environment, that will change your behaviour, which in turn will change your long term habits and relationship with your mind and body.
Small steps taken each day are what this is all about, and when sustained, will not only improve your fertility, but also your general sense of wellbeing, leaving you with more energy, better mental clarity, and a fitter body and mind. I have seen this approach help many patients, and most recently a couple affected by both male and female factor infertility for 3 years, whose journey has been aired on This Morning, and who have become pregnant via the help of this very same plan.
So, here are the main pillars of The Conception Plan:
Improving your Diet
Your diet is possibly the most important way you can have an impact not just on your own health and fertility, but your baby’s too. You are literally what you eat. So if you eat food high in unhealthy fat, processed and full of sugar and salt, additives and flavourings, can you imagine the consequences that has on not just your health, but the health of any children that are born?
Recent studies are beginning to show that what we put into our bodies, including food, is a major contributor to influencing the genetic blueprint of your baby and switching certain genes on and off, potentially predisposing your child to health problems later in life. The possibility that our food choices can have transgenerational effects is even more reason to become savvy and conscientious about what you eat.
The first thing to say is that you want to eat as cleanly as you can. This means eating food that isn’t processed or over boiled, or overcooked, but instead is nutritionally dense and as close to its natural state as possible. It also means eating organically where you can, ensuring the food is free from hormones and pesticides, which are essentially toxic.
Seasonal food is far more likely to be chemical-free than food that is out of season and has had to be transported over long distances. A clean diet will also help to reduce inflammation in your body, especially if you have inflammatory conditions such as endometriosis or polycystic ovaries, and will also help regulate hormones such as insulin, leptin, cortisol and the sex hormones, all of which can have profound effects not just on fertility, but general health and weight too.
Refined sugar is an inflammatory agent, as is gluten, dairy for an increasing number of people, as are additives in processed food. All of these need to be removed or significantly reduced in your diet, and replaced by dairy-free versions which are fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
Having a diet that is predominantly plant-based is important, though it’s not to say meat needs to be excluded. In small doses, lean organic meat is beneficial. But focusing on including as many plants as possible also means you’re eating lots of healthy fats, that are important for fertility, and you’re eliminating your exposure to toxins that accumulate the further down the food chain you go.
It’s also important to make sure that when you’ve adjusted your diet, you’re also supporting your body in eliminating any excess toxins, so eating a diet rich in fibre, to encourage daily bowel motions, and supporting your gut and womb’s natural microbiome. You can do this by taking a probiotic daily and eating fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, regularly.
There are now more and more studies looking at the role of the microbiome in the womb and how it may impact on implantation as well as the risk of miscarriage. In fact, the microbiome is being revealed to have an important role in sperm production too within the testicles, as studies are showing. In addition, a probiotic is also beneficial for the baby’s immunity too.
There are so many benefits to exercise when you’re trying to get pregnant, for both men and women. It helps boost your circulation to your reproductive organs and also helps maintain a healthy body and mind. It encourages blood flow to the womb and ovaries, releases feel-good endorphins, and improves libido and motivation. It also increases levels of serotonin that can stave off depression and suppress appetite, allowing us to make healthier food choices. Around 150 minutes spread out over the week is what is recommended as a minimum.
Exercise is a key component to managing weight, which is important for getting pregnant due to hormonal imbalances that occur with being overweight. Studies show that when a woman’s body mass index is above the normal range, losing as little as 5% of body weight can significantly improve the chances of getting pregnant.
Research has also shown that moderate physical activity gives women better insulin function and an improved hormonal profile, and thus better conditions for fertility, especially if you have polycystic ovaries, where blood sugar regulation can be a problem. In men, exercise has been shown to boost both the number and quality of sperm.
Improvements in sleep and psychological stress can be seen too, both of which influence fertility in men and women. However, if too much exercise is done, your body starts perceiving this as a form of stress and this signals to the hypothalamus in the brain it might not be a safe time for reproduction. This can set off a cascade of hormonal changes leading to a problem with menstrual cycle regularity and ovulation. Moderation and balance is essential here. Yoga, in particular, can be very beneficial as it reaps all the rewards of exercise but has the added benefit of specifically addressing stress through mindfulness.
Research has shown that the psychological stress experienced by women with infertility is similar to that of women coping with long term illnesses such as cancer, HIV, and chronic pain. Men are also at risk of anxiety, depression, experiencing physical aches and pains related to emotional distress, sexual dysfunction, and decreased self-esteem.
Intimate relationships can often be put to the test and become strained and then there’s the actual process and pressure of trying to conceive which can put a lot of strain and pressure on sex. Added stress comes from the costs of any treatment and investigations that may be needed, and the pressure to do well in these, as well as facing the frustration of being declined treatment or unable to access it.
If we consider this logically, stress is part of our inbuilt fight or flight response. It’s there to protect us from danger. It leads to an increase in cortisol, the stress hormone, which then triggers a cascade of events that lead to priming the body ready to escape or defend itself.
In this situation, stress is useful. But not if you’re trying to have a baby, where the excess cortisol can end up having negative effects around the body, such as reducing progesterone production and increasing oestrogen dominance, which in itself can increase inflammation and create an unfavourable environment for fertility.
A recent study found that women with high levels of alpha-amylase, an enzyme that correlates with stress, have a harder time getting pregnant. Saliva samples taken from 274 women over six menstrual cycles (or until they got pregnant) revealed that those with the highest enzyme concentrations during the first cycle were 12 percent less likely to conceive than were women with the lowest levels.
I am a big fan of techniques such as yoga, reiki, crystal healing and acupuncture, as well as reflexology, hypnosis and massage, which can all help lower stress by encouraging a person to reconnect with their emotions, something we tend to sweep under the carpet and neglect, until the problem starts manifesting in areas of our health.
In addition, having hobbies and connecting with others, journaling and honouring yourself with time dedicated each day to do something just for you is all really important when it comes to helping to lower stress and manage it long term.
Minimising Toxin Exposure
The same principles about cleaning up your food apply to your general environmental exposure to toxins. And more and more science is beginning to prove associations between our exposure to certain chemicals and effects on sperm and eggs, including a very recent Italian study, that showed an association between increasing pollution and an earlier decline in egg number or earlier menopause.
We may not be able to control our exposure to pollution if we live in bigger cities (though I would recommend wherever possible making sure you have regular time spent outside of the city environment), there are many other chemicals we can control, and we need to get serious about this.
The first thing we need to eliminate is smoking and alcohol. These can not only damage hormone health, but also sperm and eggs, as well as leading to developmental problems in the baby, so removing them altogether, or at least minimising alcohol, is important.
The average women carries more than 120 chemicals every day when she steps outside of the house, due to a combination of food she eats, that may contain herbicides, GMO and pesticides, household cleaning products, pollution and skincare products whilst the average human placenta, so what your baby feeds off, contains more than 200!
Science is showing more evidence that these harmful substances can not only affect the health of the child by absorbing into their bloodstream in the womb, but they can alter the genetic blueprint of the baby. Meaning that the effects could be transgenerational.
The good news is that with a couple of changes made to your lifestyle, these toxins can drain out of our body system and stop having the adverse effects they would otherwise have done. The first step towards detoxing is going organic where possible. Not just with food, but also with beauty products too.
So much of what we use contains plastic that has been shown to leach endocrine disruptors, that adversely affect hormones in both the man and woman, and recent studies also suggest a direct impact on sperm. It may sound tedious, time-consuming and expensive to make switches to clean organic food, and glass-based products, as well as organic skincare, but this is an investment you’ll be making not just for yourself, and also your child and their children.
There are many budget-friendly ways in which you could detox your approach to food and products you use on yourself and around the home. Check out my website for home DIY recipes that are super easy and cheap, as well as ways to plan your meals each week to save money, along with healthy fertility-boosting recipe ideas.
Have you have found this post because you are trying to conceive and looking to increase your chances of getting pregnant? If so, do share your experiences in a comment below.
ABOUT DR LARISA CORDA
Dr Larisa Corda is a Consultant in Reproductive Medicine. Her training to date has seen her gain an understanding and appreciation of womens’ health concerns, that range from medical to surgical. She has been involved in caring for women from pre-conception through to pregnancy and thereafter. She believes in a holistic approach to treating a patient, that addresses a combination of physical, psychological, and lifestyle factors, that include nutrition, exercise and spiritual wellbeing.
With a focus on fertility specifically, her interests include investigating the inequity of access to reproductive healthcare, as well as the impact of emotional wellbeing on IVF. She has presented at major international meetings and won awards for the research she helped to conduct, and has published on older age motherhood. S
She is a passionate believer that every woman deserves to be empowered with the necessary tools and information to be able to make her own decisions and judgements, that will allow her to influence the course of her own life. She continues to promote this message in the care she offers her patients, as well as her media work, such as This Morning’s Fertility Expert and also the Channel Mums Fertility and Pregnancy Expert, with appearances on Lorraine and Loose Women. Larisa is also a Foundation Board Director for Sexplained, which is an international organisation that educates teenagers about reproduction, as well as an ambassador for the international humanitarian organisation, The Circle, and in her various roles, has worked with women of all ages and from all backgrounds, helping them to achieve their goals.
Cover picture credit: Baby photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com