Have you struggled with fertility at some point? Or perhaps if not you, I’m pretty sure you will know a few people who have. I can think of around ten people in my circle of friends who have. But all across the land, we as a nation are struggling with the challenges that fertility declining brings – frustration, heartbreak, and the pursuit of answers.
With that said, today I have Dr Larisa Corda, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist and one of the UK’s leading Fertility experts to help us understand the conundrum and what we can do about fertility declining seemingly all around us.
Why is infertility becoming so common? What are the main causes?
Infertility is an increasing problem in our society because so much has changed over the last few generations, in that both men and women are leaving it until later in life to start a family, which can often coincide with when natural fertility starts to decline. In addition, lifestyle measures such as nutrition and exercise and regular sex are not high on people’s priority list, as most of us are too busy trying to survive the daily pressure of every day living, and all of this starts to take its toll and impact on fertility in the long run.
Despite it becoming so common place, why is it still so taboo?
We’re becoming a lot better at openly discussing infertility, but there is so much still to do. Stigma and taboo continue to be associated with this subject because we’re brought up to believe that having a child should be the most natural and easy thing in the world. Though this is so often not the case, and when someone finds themselves struggling, they become affected by shame and fear as well as a sense of hopelessness. It’s very difficult for people to discuss these emotions because to be labelled as infertile is really to cut at the very essence of someone’s identity.
It also doesn’t help that our current health system doesn’t necessarily recognise infertility as a disease and therefore feels that offering treatment for this is not vital. This is why it’s so important that we increase the conversation around this and recognise that many people suffer from infertility, as well as ensuring that there is the necessary sensitivity and support out there to help anyone who is struggling.
How can we solve this collective fertility problem? And how does our approach need to change?
To solve the collective fertility problem we first of all need to recognise that this is a major issue that is only set to get bigger. I talk a lot about the lifestyle approach to fertility, which needs to start much earlier than most people think. In fact, the sooner you start focusing on things such as your diet, fitness, stress, relationships and reducing your exposure to toxins, the better, even before you’ve thought about having a baby.
I feel that we as a society and medical profession have become obsessed by the idea of curative medicine: the idea that we can give a pill or treatment to someone and it will fix them. But so often this is not the case and I am advocating for a completely different approach to this which focusses on preventative medicine that is all about lifestyle and empowering people to have the right education and tools to help themselves.
The significance of what may seem like small changes in your lifestyle approach can actually be massive when done in the long term. And could ultimately save people from the stress and financial burden of fertility treatment.
What are some lesser known things you’d like to share about our nation’s fertility crisis and what we can do to address is?
It continues to shock and surprise me that some people still don’t recognise that stress can have a major impact on fertility, and that most people are in complete denial over how much stress they are carrying each day. This is because we’ve developed mechanisms to help us to cope with the pressure and demands of every day living, but it comes at a cost and sometimes because we end up suppressing these emotions so well, we lose our ability to recognise when we’re stressed and that we need to do something about it.
I’d also go further to say that much like stress, toxins and pollutants are everywhere in our society, yet people still don’t feel convinced enough to do something about it. If I told you that the average woman has over 120 toxins she carries around on her body each day, that the human placenta contains over 200 toxins when tested, and that there is a growing body of evidence pointing to the fact that certain substances can affect our ovaries, our testicles and hence our eggs and sperm, and that the damage caused to these can be translated to your baby’s health, you would probably be horrified.
It’s the effect of all of this over time which is creating an environment in our womb that may stop implantation from occurring or be leading to changes in the genetic programming of sperm and eggs. This is why we need to clean up, not just our diets but also our entire approach to what we use around the house, how we prepare our food and what we put on ourselves.
Can you share some of your holistic tips for improving fertility for both women and men?
My holistic tips for improving fertility can be broadly categorised into 5 main areas. First of all, what you eat is vital not just for improving your health but your baby’s too. I advise people to eat as cleanly and organically as possible, which means avoiding any food that has been overprocessed or contaminated by hormones or chemicals. In addition, I advocate people eat as much plant based food as possible, because a whole range of studies has shown the immense benefit of this.
Fitness and exercise is vital and has to be done regularly, ideally at least 150 minutes per week to get the full benefit for your health and your baby too. Keeping stress to a minimum and investing in daily rituals that bring you comfort and joy, such as meditation or yoga or a hobby or reading or spending time with friends is really important.
Also prioritising sex in your relationship and having it often and throughout your cycle is crucial, yet it’s amazing how often this isn’t done. Too many people focus on the fertile window and this inevitably makes sex quite mechanical and unsatisfactory for both the man and woman. We are seeing many studies now suggesting the benefits of regular sex and the improved chances of conception. And lastly what I call toxin free living, which is all about minimising exposure to toxins and pollutants in your home and all around you, where you can.
What coping strategies would you like to share with people struggling with their family building journey?
If you’re struggling with infertility, I would really encourage you to consider opening up to someone you trust about this, because the emotional burden of this condition is tremendous and often underestimated. Whether it’s a good friend or counsellor or a community of people who are also struggling, it’s really necessary to get the support you need and to realise that you are not alone.
There is no doubt that people facing infertility carry a lot of stress engendered by their diagnosis. Multiple studies show this. But what is more difficult to prove is whether the stress itself has an impact on fertility, hence propagating a vicious circle where if you’re stressed, you may struggle to conceive, and by struggling to conceive, you become more stressed. Stress is incredibly subjective and difficult to measure, in addition to which it can often be associated with other unhealthy behaviours, such as drinking too much alcohol or smoking, and these in themselves could therefore be accountable for the difficulty in conceiving.
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.
What can you do to cope
Reconnect with your partner
Research shows that women handle infertility-related stress differently from men. Women more often seek social support whereas men lean towards problem-solving. That disconnect can strain the relationship, and it’s important to be open and honest and communicate what you’re feeling and what your needs are to your partner.
You can try counselling individually or together to help you to deal with these emotions. And then focus on dating again. Set aside time during the week to go to a movie. Take a dance class together. And put a time limit on how long you discuss any fertility related issues, which can leave you both feeling drained and inadequate.
Rethink your thoughts
Recognize when you’re feeling low or pessimistic and instead of allowing yourself to pursue those thoughts, practice a positive affirmation of where you’re at and what you’re doing. This will be difficult at first, but it’s so important to keep your thoughts positive and motivational, as your thoughts become your actions, and your actions become your behaviour, which then becomes your habit. In other words, thoughts have far reaching consequences, so practice mindfulness which is the act of paying attention to the thoughts you have.
Writing down how you feel each day can help you to process and relieve some of the stress you’re experiencing. Sometimes you may not write much, other times you may write pages. You can even shred or burn the pages is that gives you catharsis, as sometimes the physical act of doing this is powerful in itself.
Make sure you still continue to do things which bring you pleasure. So many people I see only focus on what they don’t yet have, and that’s a baby. But they forget that this time spent building up to that is precious and should be full of activities and occasions that give you pleasure, allowing you to grow and invest on what’s inside of you, which you may not get the chance to do again once you have a baby.
Focus on hobbies you enjoy and give you a sense of purpose, reminding you that you have an identity outside of the fertility sector. Buy clothes that make you feel great and go and watch a movie that releases the feel good hormones. It’s all part of nurturing and honouring yourself, that can often get neglected in the whole struggle to have a baby.
Work on relaxation
Spend time once or twice a day slowing down your breathing and coaxing your body into a state of relaxation. Take five minutes or so to close your eyes and transport yourself to a far-off destination, a mini-mental vacation. Allow yourself to experience all the senses of your surroundings and your body will respond as if you are actually there. This will help to reduce stress hormone levels and also give you a little boost. Meditation and yoga are powerful ways to do this too.
This is really important as not only will it help you to keep slim and improve blood flow to your womb and ovaries, but it will also lead to the release of serotonin, which is the feel good hormone, increase libido, motivation and improve concentration. However, too much exercise for women who are already stressed can make matters worse, since exertion triggers the release of cortisol, so be careful not to overdo it, see my blog on Exercise for The Conception Plan.
Get help through counselling or group support
It’s really important to have an outlet for feelings of confusion, sadness, pain and anger and to reduce feelings of isolation. A counsellor or support group can help you to deal with this. Also, find your tribe on social media and forums where there is no judgement, but instead support and help from people who’ve had similar experiences and want to help one another. There is a lot of help out there, please don’t ever suffer in silence but instead reach out and connect with people who love you and will help to guide you.
The fertility struggle can be hard – if you had to give a pep talk to my readers struggling with fertility it would be:
Don’t give up on yourself, your partner or your dream. There is always hope and though sometimes the road to motherhood may not quite be that which you envisaged for yourself, there are multiple different means of getting there, if you’re prepared to be open minded and committed.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Infertility is a growing phenomenon that is not likely to go because of the changing demands of our society. Both men and women are dealing with more pressure to have established themselves in their career by a certain age, leading them to postpone childbearing. Also, people are not settling for anything less than a partner they wish to be with for life, and this often takes time.
But instead of judging people over having children later in life, it’s important we realise that this has its positives too and that is the fact that we are creating a society based on equality amongst the two genders, not to mention that people are more mature when they enter into parenthood having invested in themselves beforehand.
Nowadays we have the means to help women make empowering choices about their fertility and future by offering egg freezing. Education about lifestyle and the options available is the key, because it allows people to make active choices about what they want in life, to invest in their fertility health and to plan accordingly, no matter when they decide to have children.
If you have found this post because you are struggling with fertility, please do leave a comment with any any questions, experiences or feelings you’d like to share and together let’s break the silence around fertility.
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.S
Cover picture credit: Flower photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com