Guest blog by Dr. Laurie Terzo, DAOM, L.Ac., FABORM, a functional medicine doctor, specializing in helping women over 35 to get pregnant naturally for almost 20 years.
If you have been told by your doctor that you are running out of time to fall pregnant, or have been given a statistic that makes your heart sink, please put that aside. You are not a statistic.
Just by the fact that you are on the Circle+Bloom website looking for more information says you know that things like stress or what you eat can have an impact on your fertility, either positively or negatively. And this puts you ahead of any statistic. I believe if you are here, you are a woman who knows her body is capable of getting pregnant naturally. I have guided many women, just like you, to take back control of their bodies and have hope that it is possible to be fertile after the age of 35.
Why does age matter so much in conventional medicine with fertility? Do we just turn 35 and our fertility just magically begins to take a nosedive? It’s definitely not that cut and dry, because there is a difference between what’s called your chronological age vs. your biological age. Your chronological age is the number of years you’ve been on this earth, and your biological age is the age of your body physiologically . Our biological age takes into consideration things like what we eat, how much we stress, how much we sleep and exercise, and other lifestyle factors. Our biological age can be either higher than our chronological age, OR it can be lower. The other very cool thing to know is that we can impact our biological age at any point in our lives, either aging our bodies at an increased rate or making them more youthful.
As you can see, there is so much more to fertility than just our age. Age does matter, however, to the extent that it is more time we have been exposed to the negative effects of stress, environmental toxins, poor dietary and lifestyle habits. You can start to slow (and maybe reverse!) your biological aging process by addressing these things at any point.
So, what if you’ve been burning the candle at both ends up until now with a crappy diet and high stress? And maybe your biological age at this point in time is well past your chronological age? Well, there is this other cool thing called the dominant follicle window.
Throughout our lives, our eggs are in a state of suspended animation as immature cells. In the roughly 3-4 months before an egg becomes a dominant follicle and then is ovulated, major growth and transformation happen to it. This is a time when these eggs are especially sensitive to our stress levels, toxic exposure, our diet, and general lifestyle. Numerous clinical studies have shown that by changing lifestyle habits and consuming specific supplements, you may be able to increase the number of eggs which can develop into a good-quality embryo.
This means, even if you’ve had a diet or lifestyle that has exposed you to toxins, high stress or unhealthy foods previously – you kinda get a small pass now as long as you clean your biological health up.
I’ve chosen these five practical and easy ways to help you make profound changes to your biological age and take advantage of your fertile window to help turn back your reproductive clock.
Reduce your use of plastics in the kitchen
Plastics can be a source of reproductive toxins. The worst offenders are plastic food and beverage containers. These include your storage containers, bowls, and cups. Do me a favor and just toss or give those away ASAP.
These plastic containers contain BPA. BPA is known to interfere with our hormones and the way they act within the body. And not in a beneficial way. BPA is known as an endocrine disruptor, and when you’re trying to get pregnant, you don’t want anything disrupting the smooth flow of your hormones! There is even evidence that BPA negatively impacts egg and sperm quality. Increased exposure to BPA has also been linked to PCOS, diabetes, failed IVF cycles, and miscarriage.
What happens with this type of plastic is that when it is exposed to heat – either through a microwave, washing in warm/hot water, or being left in a hot car (like many plastic water bottles are) – the plastic begins to degrade and leach BPA into any food or liquid it touches. Crazy right? I just think about all of those plastic bottles I let sit in my car over the years and still drank the water from!
Action item: Get rid of your plastic food storage containers first. There are many affordable glass food storage container options. If you are super motivated, begin changing over the rest of your plastic kitchen wares: cups, bowls, plates, cutting board, measuring cups, spatula, measuring cuts, etc. Instead use glass, wood, ceramic, silicone or stainless steel.
Begin taking an antioxidant
Antioxidants are a group of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients which help protect our body from the damage of free radicals. A free radical is a molecule with an unpaired electron. Free radicals are very unstable in the body. You can think of them like zillions of little bouncy balls bopping around, and every time they hit a cell structure inside your body, they cause damage to our cellular walls. This crazy bouncy ball action is part of what can age your body biologically. These bouncy ball free radicals can be formed by a poor diet, not enough sleep, too much stress, smoking, environmental exposures, etc.
Antioxidants help to calm these bouncy balls down inside of our bodies, and to neutralize them. By doing this, antioxidants help prevent damage and cellular aging.
Our eggs, sperm, and reproductive organs can especially be susceptible to the damage caused by free radicals. This can be a major factor for both men and women who are having difficulty conceiving. Taking an antioxidant gives you extra protection against the damage free radicals can have on your fertility.
There are many different great types of antioxidants which I recommend to most of my patients. One of my favorite antioxidants is called CoQ10. This is a vitamin like substance found in most cells. It is a very potent antioxidant and thought to help with the number of and health of the mitochondria in an egg. It can help protect eggs from becoming chromosomally abnormal. In a study with mice, those given Coq10 made more follicles and better eggs compared to mice that were not given Co Q10. According to the researchers, the Co Q10 seemed to cause the older mice to produce eggs that functioned more like eggs from younger mice.
Action item: Begin taking CoQ10 – dosage is 100-300 twice daily.
Kick coffee to the curb
I know, I know. Having a coffee every morning is part of your waking routine, it gets you running off to a good start. And all of the headlines talk about the benefits of coffee, right? Well, there definitely are benefits to drinking coffee, but the side effects unfortunately outweigh these benefits for women trying to conceive. I would also argue that most of the time the side effects outweigh the benefits for most women, as it can have a negative impact on our sensitive hormonal balance.
But don’t shoot the messenger! Before you tell me you’re absolutely not giving up your coffee, let me give you some research and an explanation of what effects coffee has inside our body and then you can decide for yourself.
There has been quite a lot of research on how coffee impacts fertility. Even though there seems to be a dose dependent effect, just one cup of coffee can have a pretty big negative impact all by itself. Yale University conducted a study with 1,900 women on the impact coffee had on their ability to fall pregnant. This research found a 55% higher risk of infertility with just one cup of coffee! Further, for those who drank 1½-3 cups of coffee daily, the risk was 100% higher. And for those drinking 3+ cups of coffee a day, the risk of infertility was 176% higher.
Another study published in the Lancet found a very similar conclusion – an increased rate of infertility reported with an increasing number of cups of coffee drunk daily. Additionally, a Kaiser study in 2008 found that 2 cups of coffee (about 200mg) doubled the risk of miscarriage in women. The last study I’ll cite is from the Journal of the American Medical Association. This study found that the risk of miscarriage increased by 2x when women drank 2-3 cups of coffee a day before and during her pregnancy.
So, there is clearly evidence that coffee can not only cause difficulties in falling pregnant, but that it also can increase your risk of miscarriage once you do get pregnant. In contrast, there are some more recent studies which have shown no effect on the ability to conceive during an IVF cycle with drinking coffee. The difference here most likely is that the medications used in an IVF cycle are overriding the possible negative effects of drinking coffee on fertility. Definitely, more studies need to be done all around.
Why does coffee have this effect on our ability to get pregnant? We don’t quite know the definitive answer to that yet, but its high pesticide residues and impact on our hormonal system may be part of the answer. Did you know that coffee is one of the most heavily sprayed crops? Up to 250 pounds of chemical fertilizers are sprayed per acre over non-organic coffee.
How about the impact of coffee on our hormones? Our hormones are intricately linked to our nervous system and our immune system.
For many women, drinking coffee can cause their bodies to be in a perceived fight or flight state. What happens is that when you drink a cup of coffee, your body responds by producing more cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline). This is exactly what happens when you are in a state of acute stress, and drinking coffee in essence creates the same chain of reactions. This is a really important point because when the body is tasked with making more cortisol in response to a stressful event, it makes less progesterone. This is especially important for women over 35, where levels of progesterone are possibly starting to decrease on their own. Making less progesterone can cause big hormonal imbalances in our body. And even more important, it can cause big issues for fertility!
Action item: Ditch the coffee. Find an herbal tea replacement and use that instead in your morning ritual.
Avoid electronic use an hour before bed
This one may be one of the hardest things to do in our modern technology age. We are so used to being on our computers, watching t.v. in bed, or scrolling through our social media apps at night. These things can have a big impact on our ability to fall asleep, get good quality sleep, and affect if we wake up feeling refreshed or not.
What happens is that the artificial blue-light that’s emitted from our devices can suppress the sleep hormone melatonin. A rise in melatonin at night is what makes us sleepy and ready for bed. When we use electronics before bed, this inhibits melatonin and so reduces the onset and amount of REM sleep. Lack of REM sleep can affect your mood, focus, and cell regeneration, to name a few. And lack of overall sleep can lead to a slower metabolism, weight gain, inflammation, and hormonal imbalance. So, we don’t want anything messing with our sleep!
Besides cutting out electronics before bed, other things which can improve your ability to sleep better are making sure your bedroom is free from light sources, being in bed and ready for lights out by 11pm, and adjusting your room temperature to be on the cooler side.
Action item: Switch to reading old-fashioned paper books or using an e-reader without light (like the Kindle Paperwhite, as opposed to the Kindle Fire) for that hour before bed. If you must use an electronic device, use the built in software to reduce the brightness and adjust the blue light levels the warmer orange/red at night.
Have sex every other day for 5-7 days before you ovulate
I know, this may be easier said than done. And of course, this is relevant if only if you have a male partner.
First things first, nail down when you ovulate. Use an ovulation predictor kit (OPK), cervical mucus monitoring (CMM), or basal body temperature (BBT) charting to help you really pinpoint when you ovulate. Don’t assume that you ovulate on day 14 of your cycle. Once you confirm when you actually ovulate, you can then determine your most fertile days, also known as your fertile window.
Also, don’t follow what the fertile window days recommendation is from the period-tracking app you are using, as many times this recommendation is wrong. Many OB/gyn’s tell patients that the fertile window of a woman’s cycle is between days 10-17, which is not applicable to most women. The reality is that only 30% of women are actually in their fertile window during this time. Once you figure out definitively which day you ovulate, just count back 5-7 days from there. This will be your fertile window. For example, if you find you are ovulating on day 15 of your cycle, count back 7 days & days 9-15 are your fertile window. This will help you know when the most beneficial days for babymaking are.
The reason for having sex multiple times during this window is that your eggs only live about 12-24 hours after they are released. If you wait to have sex until you get that positive OPK, you may be too late. And, many times the day you ovulate may shift between around by 1-2 days in your cycle, either earlier or later. So, we want to make sure there are plenty of strong sperm already swimming in your body before you ovulate. Sperm live for about three to five days in general. This means that if the sperm enters your body five days before you ovulate, they may still be capable of fertilizing an egg.
Action item: Determine when your fertile window is and aim for having sex every other day during this time.
Dr. Laurie Terzo, DAOM, L.Ac., FABORM is a functional medicine doctor, specializing in helping women over 35 to get pregnant naturally for almost 20 years. She has a background in Chinese medicine, nutrition, and is board certified in reproductive medicine. Currently, she works virtually one-on-one with women around the world and also leads a 12-week online course for women over 35 looking to get pregnant naturally. In her downtime, you will usually find her with her head in a book, playing Legos with her son, hiking with her dog, or galivanting off to exotic and not-so-exotic locations.