Humans are closely tuned to their surroundings - especially when it comes to making babies. Just as bears and elk wait for the right season to sire offspring, our bodies reach the peak of fertility only when conditions seem right for raising babies. If there's any sign of illness, malnourishment, or an unhealthy environment, our bodies may decide to put parenthood on hold.
That said, you may feel ready to start a family, but is your body getting the right signals? Many men and women are putting their fertility at risk without realizing it. If you hope to have children in the future, now's the time to start protecting your fertility. If you and your partner are already struggling to conceive and there's no medical explanation for your problem, a few lifestyle changes may help put you on the road to parenthood.
Here are some tips for a fertility-friendly lifestyle:
- Maintain a healthy weight. The sex hormones of both men and women are closely tied to weight. According to the Mayo Clinic, heavier men may face fertility problems. Part of the reason is that an increase in abdominal fat is associated with insulin resistance and a rise in insulin production, which wreaks havoc on sex hormones. It's a problem for women, too: According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, a weight loss of 5 to 10 percent may dramatically improve a woman's chances of getting pregnant. When obese women do become pregnant, they are more likely to have miscarriages than lean women of the same age.
- Get your exercise -- but don't overdo it. Regular exercise is a great way to stay trim and healthy. But if you push yourself too hard for too long, you might throw your hormones out of balance. How much exercise is too much? There are no hard-and-fast rules. But as a general guide, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine says men and women trying to conceive probably shouldn't run more than 10 miles a week. In addition, grueling mountain-biking (2 hours a day, 6 days a week) has been associated with lower sperm counts and abnormalities of the scrotum, according to a recent study. If you enjoy hours of biking, consider investing in shock-absorbers and cushioned seats.
- Eat a balanced diet. Shortfalls in nutrients such as Vitamin C, zinc, and folic acid can slow sperm production in men. Women who are trying to conceive should also take a supplement containing at least 400 micrograms daily of folic acid, a nutrient that can prevent birth defects, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
- Don't smoke. Smoking can slightly lower a man's sperm count and may even contribute to impotence. But as reported in the journal Nature Medicine, smoking is especially hard on prospective moms. Smoking can interfere with virtually every aspect of a woman's fertility, from ovulation to early development of the embryo. If you're a female smoker with fertility problems, kicking the addiction should be your top priority.
- If you drink, stop. As reported in Nature Medicine, moderate drinking usually won't lower sperm count in men or harm fertility in women. But large amounts of alcohol (usually defined as more than two drinks per day for men and more than one drink per day for women) may lower your odds for parenthood. Women who are trying to conceive should stop drinking entirely, according to federal health agencies: pregnancy may occur before the woman is aware of it, and alcohol can permanently harm a developing fetus.
- Stay clear of recreational drugs. According to the Mayo Clinic, marijuana, cocaine, and anabolic steroids can all contribute to infertility in men. Women trying to get pregnant, of course, should avoid recreational drugs and alcohol because of the potential danger to the fetus.
- Check your medicine cabinet. Some prescription drugs can impair fertility in both men and women. For men, the list of potential culprits includes the heartburn medication cimetidine (Tagamet), the rheumatoid arthritis drug (Azulfidine), and several chemotherapy drugs. A woman's fertility may be hampered by certain antibiotics, painkillers, antidepressants, and hormonal treatments. Ask your doctor if any of your medications could be causing infertility. A change of prescription just might solve the problem.
- Men, don't take infertility sitting down. Whenever you spend long hours sitting -- whether it's in front of a computer screen or behind a steering wheel -- the temperature of your scrotum and testes may rise a few degrees. As the heat rises, sperm production can plummet. Although there's no hard evidence on this point, Nature Medicine warns that "our increasingly sedentary habits" threaten men's fertility. If you want to increase your sperm count, the theory goes, it's best not to spend all day planted on your backside. You should also avoid saunas or long soaks in hot baths, which can lower sperm count.
- Keep an eye on fertility research. A Stony Brook University Hospital study found that men may be feeling the heat from a new direction -- laptop computers. Researchers found that holding a laptop computer on a man's lap for only an hour raised his testes temperature by 4.9 degrees Fahrenheit, which might be enough to impair fertility; another found an association between men carrying a cell phone in their pocket or clipped to their belts and reduced sperm motility and quality. In both cases, further research is needed to confirm the findings, say researchers.
On the whole, the game plan for protecting fertility looks much like the basic strategy for good health: Watch your weight, exercise, eat well, and avoid smoking and heavy drinking. These habits are good for anyone. With any luck, you can pass them on to your kids.
Raymond, Joan. Is that a phone in your pocket? A new study finds that radiation emitted by cell phones may lower sperm quality. September 18, 2008 (referring to a study by the Cleveland Clinic).
Sharpe RM and S Franks. Environment, lifestyle and infertility-an intergenerational issue. Nature Medicine. 8 (S1), s23-s28
Sandlow, JI. Shattering the myths about male fertility. Postgraduate Medicine. 107(2)
Mayo Clinic. Infertility.
American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Patient fact sheet: Exercise, weight, and fertility.
Scientists say laptops a risk to male fertility. Newsday. December 9, 2004
Mayo Clinic. Infertility: Causes. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/infertility/
American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Weight and Fertility. http://www.asrm.org/Patients/FactSheets/weightfertility.pdf
American Pregnancy Association. Male Infertility. http://www.americanpregnancy.org/infertility/maleinfertility.html