Alayne Ronnenberg, ScD
About 10%-20% of couples in the US experience infertility. Although little can be done to prevent physiologic and genetic causes of infertility, it is estimated that 50%-75% of infertility cases can be prevented through changes in lifestyle.
Women who are very thin as well as those who are substantially overweight may have fertility problems. Low body weight disrupts hormonal function and can cause anovulation (no ovulation) and amenorrhea (the absence of a menstrual period). Being overweight can also disrupt hormone levels and can lead to irregular menstrual cycles. Before attempting to change your weight, you should consult with your physician or a registered dietitian. These trained health professionals can help you determine what weight range is right for you and the best way to attain it. If you do become pregnant, eating a healthful, balanced diet in the months before pregnancy can help to ensure that your baby is healthy, too.
Chronic, heavy drinking negatively affects ovarian function and can lead to irregular menstrual cycles, loss of ovulation, and cessation of menstruation. Even moderate drinking (5 or fewer drinks per week) has been associated with reduced rates of conception and increased risk of miscarriage. It is well documented that drinking alcohol during pregnancy increases the risk of birth defects.
The more sexual partners you have, the greater your chances of contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Many STDs produce few or no symptoms in women. They are often left untreated, which can lead to
pelvic inflammatory disease
and scarring of the fallopian tubes. Other STDs, such as
(HPV), can cause cells in the cervix to grow abnormally, necessitating treatments that can make the uterus less able to carry a fetus. Limiting your number of sexual partners and using a condom during intercourse can help to prevent the transmission of many STDs.
Depression and high levels of stress hormones can affect ovarian function. Try to develop a system for managing stress and depression, through regular exercise, yoga, or fulfilling leisure activities. To help reduce mental and emotional stress in your life, consider learning relaxation exercises, yoga or tai chi, or talking to a counselor about problems or stressful relationships in your life. Talk to your healthcare provider about which stress management options may be best for you and request a referral to a stress management program.
Regular physical exams can identify hormonal abnormalities that could reduce your fertility. In addition, gynecological exams, including a pelvic exam and
Pap smear, can help to identify any structural abnormalities that can influence fertility. These exams can also detect reproductive tract infections that, if left untreated, can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease and scarring of reproductive structures.
Contact your healthcare provider if you:
Infertility fact sheet. Office on Women's Health website. Available at: http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/infertility.html. Updated July 16, 2012. Accessed December 16, 2015.
Infertility in women. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116334/Infertility-in-women. Updated July 12, 2016. Accessed October 6, 2016.
Overview of infertility. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/gynecology-and-obstetrics/infertility/overview-of-infertility. August 2015. Accessed December 16, 2015.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists website. Available at:
http://www.acog.org/Patients/FAQs/Treating-Infertility. Updated March 2015. Accessed December 16, 2015.
Last reviewed December 2014 by Andrea Chisholm, MD
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