Understanding fertility is important if you are hoping to reproduce or prevent reproduction. It’s a stepping stone to making educated choices about your body and can help you know what to look out for if you’re having a difficult time reproducing.
Every woman and man is different when it comes to their fertility, but there are certain factors that can or do affect everyone’s fertility long term and short term.
Factors Affecting Fertility
It’s important to understand the factors that can affect fertility so that when you do decide to reproduce, you will have a better idea of how your body will respond in that season and which factors may contribute to difficulty getting pregnant.
Genes can strongly influence a woman’s fertility. If the women in your family start their menstrual cycles earlier in life and start menopause later in life, then that’s an indicator that you probably will too. If there is a history of fertility issues in your family or difficulty with conceiving, there’s a good chance that you will also struggle with fertility. If you’re worried that genetics may affect your fertility, you can talk with your doctor about fertility testing.
Hormones play a crucial role in your body getting and staying pregnant. If your hormones are imbalanced, then it can affect how your body handles conception and pregnancy. Hormones are chemical messengers that communicate within your body. When your hormones change, your body functions will also change as a result.
The most common hormones at work relating to ovulation and conception are:
- Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH)
- Luteinizing hormone (LH)
- and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH)
These all must be present and at a certain level in your body to ensure that you conceive and carry a baby to term. It’s when there isn’t the right balance of these that your body will start acting out and you may experience issues like infertility, PCOS, or a miscarriage. An obstetrician can help you balance your hormones before, during, and after pregnancy.
Your anatomy, specifically your reproductive organs, can affect your ability to reproduce. If they are damaged from an injury, a disease, or you have congenital structural abnormalities (differently-shaped uterus or Fallopian tube defects), then you have a higher risk of infertility. Some anatomical issues are obvious, like if you had pelvic inflammatory disease or have been diagnosed with endometriosis. Some anatomical issues, like congenital structural abnormalities, may not be identified until you try to get pregnant. Talk to your doctor about possible solutions if you are worried that your anatomy may affect your ability to conceive.
Unfortunately, some medical procedures that solve one problem can lead to another. For example, having surgery on your ovaries or receiving chemotherapy or radiation can affect your ovarian reserve. Before you undergo such medical treatments, you can ask about freezing your eggs to protect them. Many women have opted to freeze their eggs to preserve their ability to get pregnant later on.
If you’ve had certain STD’s, these can also contribute to infertility issues or cause high-risk pregnancies. It’s recommended that you get tested annually for STDs to ensure you aren’t suffering from them, because some STDs can be symptom-free but produce lasting harm if untreated.
There are certain lifestyle choices that can deplete your ovarian reserve or cause chromosomal damage to your eggs, leading to infertility or issues during pregnancy.
- Weight: Being overweight or underweight can affect your ability to reproduce even if your periods are regular.
- Smoking: Women who smoke 3 or more times a day tend to experience issues conceiving. Smoking also reduces their ovarian reserve and can cause damage to their reproductive organs.
- Alcohol: Drinking more than 5 servings of alcohol in a week can lead to infertility, and drinking while pregnant can lead to birth defects and developmental delays.
- Medication and Drugs: There are some medications that can affect your fertility, including ibuprofen (interferes with ovulation) and aspirin (interferes with implantation). Recreational drugs such as marijuana and cocaine can interfere with ovulation and the function of your fallopian tubes.
The good news is that these lifestyle choices and their effects are temporary and are largely determined by you. Talk to your doctor about the lifestyle choices you should change to prepare for pregnancy.
Aging and Fertility
Aging is the most important factor in a woman’s fertility (and a man’s!). Women are born with all of the eggs they’ll ever have throughout their lifetime, and as they age, they have a decreased chance of getting pregnant and an increased risk of having complications. Menopause typically happens in a woman’s early 50s, but her fertility starts to decline sharply in her mid-30s. We wrote a blog that goes into this in more detail.
Testing Ovarian Reserve and Sperm
There are blood tests that can estimate the amount and quality of your eggs (aka your ovarian reserve). An ultrasound can also sometimes detect the number of follicles. There isn’t, however, a test that can measure your ovarian reserve perfectly.
When it comes to testing a man’s fertility, a semen analysis is done that can examine the number, shape, and movement of his sperm to determine his ability to reproduce.
If you’re worried about your fertility, don’t! You can’t know for sure until you discuss your health with your provider and tests are run. Plus, there are medical strategies available that can help maximize your chances of conceiving. They all focus on getting the sperm and egg together at the best time for you to conceive. These can include in vitro fertilization (IVF), fertility medications, intrauterine insemination (IUI), and “washing” sperm. Many individuals looking to conceive have benefitted from these methods.
Are you ready to talk to a doctor about fertility and start family planning? Contact us to schedule an appointment.