On paper, getting pregnant seems pretty simple, right?
You bring your eggs to the party, your partner brings his sperm, and after a session of hot sex, a cluster of cells begin to multiply, resulting in a bouncing baby some 40 weeks down the track. Yet, for the estimated one in six Australian couples who are experiencing fertility problems*, the road to parenthood can involve months – or sometimes years – of gruelling hormonal treatments, clockwork intercourse and devastating miscarriages.
Happily, in many cases, causes of infertility can be simple, says Louise Johnson, spokesperson for Your Fertility (yourfertility.org.au). “Many Australian women don’t know enough about their menstrual cycles, and getting the timing right can make all the difference,” she says, adding that the optimum time to have sex in order to fall pregnant is in the three days leading up to ovulation as well as on the day itself. “It’s also worth looking at whether lifestyle factors such as smoking and drinking are hindering your ability to get pregnant.”
According to Your Fertility, smokers are 1.5 times more likely than non-smokers to take longer than a year to fall pregnant.
Of course, sometimes the problem can be far more complicated than the effects of our lifestyle choices, and often it’s related to a hormonal imbalance, which means the body is producing too much or too little of a particular hormone to fall pregnant.
The most common conditions that can cause infertility are endometriosis, hypothyroidism (low thyroid function), fallopian tube blockage or damage, premature menopause – and what fertility specialist Dr Devora Lieberman (drdevora.com.au) refers to as “The Biggie” – polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). “The condition causes elevated levels of testosterone and diminished ovulation, and we call it The Biggie because it affects up to one in five of child-bearing age,” she says.
While symptoms of PCOS vary, most imbalances will feature the following: an irregular menstrual cycle; excessive or very little bleeding; excessive weight gain or loss; pelvic or abdominal cramping and bloating; excessive hair growth; acne; painful sex; and, of course, difficulty falling pregnant. While the standard line is to try for six to 12 months to conceive before seeking medical opinion, Dr Lieberman says it’s better to act quickly. “If your period is irregular, don’t wait,” she warns. “Make an appointment with your GP immediately.”
Women experiencing fertility problems can expect to undergo pelvic ultrasounds, give blood and urine samples, have tests to determine ovarian reserve, and in cases where a hormonal imbalance is suspected, undergo tests to check thyroid function, as well as oestrogen, prolactin and progesterone levels. What happens next depends on both the outcome of your results – and how you choose to move forward. Those wishing to head straight down the clinical road can go on fertility-enhancing drugs, such as Clomid, designed to induce ovulation, but often it’s advised to try some small lifestyle changes first.
“Women need to be aware they can exercise and eat their way out of infertility – for example, with PCOS, some women might be overweight and we’ve found something as small as losing about five per cent of your body weight can often result in ovulation,” says Dr Lieberman.
Nat Kringoudis, doctor of Chinese medicine and women’s health expert (natkringoudis.com), agrees, saying that while many look at fertility assistance as a quick fix, it’s not a solution that’s going to work for everyone. “We tend to go to the extreme end of the scale and work backwards, when we should be investing in our bodies and wellbeing and start from the other end.”
Getting a handle on stress levels is the best thing you can do for your fertility, according to all experts, who say it’s one of the biggest factors of infertility (although Dr Lieberman says that the stress needs to be serious enough to affect your periods).
“If we’re looking at women in their mid 30s to early 40s, they’re busy career women who have a lot on their plate and their bodies are exhausted,” says clinical naturopath Emma Sutherland (emmasutherland.com.au), adding it’s essential to treat the adrenal glands through lifestyle changes. “They’re the only organ outside of our ovaries that contain oestrogen, and if our ovaries are shutting down and we lean on our adrenals only to find they’re exhausted from stress, there’s nothing left in the reserves to make a baby.” Sutherland advises getting seven to eight hours sleep a night, returning to a wholefoods diet and steering clear of alcohol, sugar and caffeine. “If you’ve got hormonal problems, such as PCOS, these lifestyle changes may not help them go away by themselves, but with an endocrinologist by your side you’ll see that diet and lifestyle is a huge foundational element.”