For many women, the first time we learned about the reproductive system was during a Health Education class. Ovaries? Uterine Lining? Fallopian tubes? The jargon and process was overwhelming to say the least. How much of that did we really retain and how much did we block away from our memories because of how traumatic this experience was?
In between those early years and when we really need to learn about our own bodies, formal education failed to fill the gap. While many of us were able to ask the adult women in our lives the lingering questions, a handful of us were also too embarrassed to inquire further. As a result, some of us learned mis-information and myths about fertility that had been passed down for generations while some of us simply remained oblivious to the facts, or went down a rabbit hole on the internet. That is why we at Ollipsis Fertility want to clear up some of these fertility myths and share with you what we wish our younger selves knew about female health. Along with sharing stories from women in our community, our Medical Advisor, Dr. Maria Arqué has shared her expert guidance to help you navigate these murky waters. Here are 5 things that we wish our younger selves knew about fertility and reproductive health.
1. It is the quality of a woman’s eggs that is most crucial to conceiving
You may recall learning about the ovulation cycle in your health class and probably heard something like, “Women are born with all the eggs they will ever have. Once a month an egg is released. If it isn’t fertilized, regular menstruation will occur.The rest of eggs that have been preselected that month are lost. ” It is well studied that a woman’s fertility health rapidly declines after age 35. We also know that a woman’s peak reproductive years are in her twenties. However, understanding this information alone does not paint the picture of why age has a strong correlation with fertility. It’s not just that women are losing eggs as they age, the quality of eggs are also declining. This is an important point because it is egg quality that is truly crucial to conceiving successfully.
So what is egg quality? Egg quality refers to whether an egg is chromosomally “normal” (euploid) or “abnormal” (aneuploid). A chromosomally normal egg has 23 chromosomes When an egg is fertilized by the sperm, the resulting chromosomally normal embryo will have a total of 46 chromosomes — a set of 23 from the egg and 23 from the sperm. However, as women age, she will have increasing numbers of aneuploid or “abnormal” eggs, which contain either too few or too many chromosomes. As a result, the chances of a chromosomally normal embryo to form will decline.
This is why fertility preservation methods such as egg freezing have become more popular in recent years. By freezing your eggs in your twenties, you can preserve higher quality eggs for when you need them in the future.
2. There is no magical age for successfully conceiving
Despite the research presented above, it does not mean that it is impossible to conceive past the age of 35. Similarly, it is possible that younger women may experience trouble conceiving for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of their eggs, such as underlying health conditions, among other considerations. Thus, the quality of one’s eggs does not paint the whole picture of one’s probability of successfully conceiving naturally. If you think back to your Health Education class, you may recall learning about a woman’s ovulation cycle. The length of one’s cycle, time and frequency of sexual intercourse are also factors that affect one’s ability to conceive. And remember, despite what research tells us, everyone’s body is different. And there is certainly no on or off switch that comes with turning a certain age!
If you are younger than 35, you and your partner are healthy but you have been trying to conceive without success for 12 months or more, it would be recommended to go to see a fertility specialist to do some basic fertility testing for both of you and rule out any possible medical condition that may cause infertility. If you are older than 35, you should see your specialist after 6 months of trying to conceive without success, and if you are over 40 or you have a known medical condition that may impact your fertility (PCOS, endometriosis, etc), you should go to see the fertility specialist for some testing. The results of those tests will help to determine your prognosis of achieving a pregnancy without medical treatment or if it would be recommended to undergo ART. Information is power!
Furthermore, there are so many ways to build a family today. From surrogacy, to adoption, or even using donor eggs in a fertility treatment such as IVF, families of all types have many choices.
3. Your lifestyle and general physical and mental health impacts your fertility
Aside from everything already discussed, what we realized is not often talked about is how your lifestyle and mental health affect your fertility.
Our lifestyle affects so many aspects of our overall health, and fertility is one of those. There is strong scientific evidence that smoking, stress and obesity have a negative impact on the chances to conceive, both naturally and with ART. Having an active lifestyle and exercising moderately also benefits fertility. Whereas evidence related to the intake of alcohol and coffee while trying to conceive is contradictory, the recommendation is that if you consume either, you do it in moderation.
Having a healthy diet, mainly based on the consumption of: fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean good quality protein (lean meat, fish, eggs, tofu, legumes) and healthy fats (nuts, seeds, fish, avocado); along with avoiding fast food, sugary drinks, and processed foods will also have a positive impact on your health and fertility.
Stress management and having good quality and enough sleep are also crucial to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Look for activities or strategies that help you cope with stress, like exercising, yoga or meditation. Prioritizing your resting time and wellbeing will definitely pay-off.
“When we speak about the factors that impact fertility, there are some that are non-modifiable, like age or ovarian reserve. There are others related with our lifestyle, like smoking, alcohol, physical activity, stress, sleep and diet that also play an important role on our overall health and chances to conceive. There is always something that we can proactively do to improve our fertility” – Dr. Maria Arque, Ollipsis Medical Advisor
4. Male fertility is also affected as one ages
“After having two miscarriages back to back, my OB suggested I do fertility testing. It was overwhelming and shocking to me that the focus of fertility testing was primarily on me and almost none at all on my husband. Rather than putting 100% of the burden on the woman, I feel like the responsibility is a third, a third and a third between the woman, man, and jointly.” – Julia, age 31
When we spoke with our community, among women who were trying to conceive or have become new mothers, one thing they found surprising was just how much the infertility topic focuses on women, but the conversation does not include topics of male fertility. And why not? Age does indeed impact male fertility.
Studies agree with our friend, Julia. In addition to the reproductive health of the woman, coital frequency and sexual functioning of both individuals are variables that affect time to conception and pregnancy rates between a female-male couple trying to conceive. Thus, decreased sexual activity can decrease the chances of conception and issues affecting the man’s reproductive health such as erectile dysfunction (ED) and sperm function, increases with age. Male age, although not as much as female age, may have an impact on sperm quality and the embryo aneuploidy rate. In a study published at Fertility and Sterility, it was found that increased aneuploidy rate was associated with males over 40 years old.
“One of the most important considerations when we are treating patients who are trying to conceive is that we cannot take for granted that if we find a cause of infertility on one of them, there cannot be other underlying causes. It is crucial to investigate both members of the couple to have all the relevant information and recommend the best treatment option for them. It is also important to help patients get rid of the blame and guilt that they feel. No one chooses to have fertility issues.” – Dr. Maria Arque, Ollipsis Medical Advisor.
5. You are not alone
“Trying to get pregnant can be very exciting at the beginning, but when it doesn’t happen right away many people get lonely and worried. Important to recognize that you are not alone and that is doesn’t happen right away for most people. Knowing your facts (below) is helpful. Also, building a community to help you on the journey can be very powerful. There are plenty of TTC communities that you can turn to” – Julia, age 31
We found through our conversations with friends and members of the Ollipsis community that fertility and TTC (trying to conceive) was not often a topic discussed among even the closest friends. Everyone assumes that any issues and challenges they are facing are isolated to their own bodies and that it must not be normal. However, that is far from the truth — 1 in 8 women between the ages of 15 and 44 struggle with infertility. Sharing your concerns and worries about fertility with other people going through the same situation can be very helpful to avoid isolation and the feeling of loneliness that most people experience in those circumstances.
“When talking with my friends about fertility, very few of us had thought about the struggles we could encounter when trying to start a family, or knew about all the options that are available for us career-driven women. We all hope to not feel the pressure of having to choose between a family and a career.” — Paula, Ollipsis CFO
At Ollipsis, we want not only to guide you and help you find your best fertility pathway, but also accompany you before, during and after the journey to make it as simple, smooth and straightforward as possible. Schedule a consultation with us today to learn about whether our program is right for you.