Infertility in the United States is on the rise.
In 2013, nearly 1 in 6 U.S. couples didn’t conceive a child within a year of trying, according to a study published in the journal Fertility and Sterility. That number is up significantly from just one year earlier when 1 in 10 couples couldn’t get pregnant.
Many studies support the idea that fertility rates are significantly lower than in previous decades. The only debate, notes the Pew Research Center, is if fertility rates are very low — or at their all-time lowest.
“We’re at an unprecedented moment in human culture,” says functional nutritionist and women’s hormone expert Alisa Vitti. “Idiopathic infertility – or infertility with an unknown cause – is on the rise.”
As a result, more couples are turning to medical interventions, such as fertility medication, artificial insemination, and in vitro fertilization. For example, in 2013, almost 175,000 rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF) took place — that’s a 65 percent increase since 2003, according to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology.
The hopeful news? Expensive medical procedures aren’t the only route. There are effective drug-free, nutrition-and-lifestyle-based strategies that can significantly increase a couple’s chance of conceiving.
“I help women understand that they can solve their fertility issues with food and lifestyle,” says Vitti, the founder of Flo Living Hormonal Health Center in New York City and author of Womancode: Perfect Your Cycle, Amplify Your Fertility, Supercharge Your Sex Drive, and Become a Power Source. “We’re designed to be optimally fertile for as long as possible, and fertility is something we can improve at any age.”
Women, Vitti says, can begin by understanding their periods. The color, frequency, and symptoms of your period reveal a lot about the current state of your hormones, says Vitti. (Find out what period is telling you about your body’s readiness to conceive by taking her Fifth Vital Sign quiz here.)
As for men, says endocrinologist Bradley Anawalt, MD, who specializes in male reproductive health, one of the key factors is maintaining a healthy weight: “Obesity is associated with decreased male reproductive function, including decreased testosterone and sperm production and erectile dysfunction.”
Here are some of the other top lifestyle and nutrition strategies for couples trying to conceive:
Avoid endocrine disruptors. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals — which are found in an astonishing array of everyday products, from household cleaning supplies to air fresheners to colognes, makeup, and other body care products — contribute to fertility challenges for both women and men. Reduce exposure by opting for all-natural household cleaning products, avoiding body care products with synthetic fragrances, opting out of using air fresheners and odor eliminators entirely, and skipping lawn herbicides and pesticides. One of the first questions Vitti asks men struggling with infertility is if they’re golfers. Why? Golf courses are doused in endocrine-disrupting herbicides.
Eat organic. These same endocrine-disrupting chemicals turn up in the conventional food supply. Eat organic when possible, especially when it comes to the “Dirty Dozen” most pesticide-laden fruits and veggies.
Ditch gluten. New research suggests that undiagnosed celiac disease may account for up to 6 percent of unexplained infertility in women, writes integrative physician Aviva Romm, MD. Another study found that women undergoing fertility treatments improved their chances of conceiving when they gave up gluten. And women don’t have to have full blown celiac disease to experience gluten’s fertility-damaging effects. The disease has a “little cousin” called gluten intolerance, adds Romm, and she sees it regularly in her practice. Women with either condition are more likely to experience chronic inflammation, nutritional deficiencies, gut dysbiosis, and imbalanced vaginal flora — all of which can impede getting pregnant.
Balance blood sugar. Imbalanced blood sugar can wreak havoc on fertility. Research conducted by Jorge Chavarro, MD, found that women who ate a high glycemic-load diet (a diet that causes surges in blood sugar) were 92 percent more likely to experience ovulatory infertility (problems with the development and release of eggs) than women who ate lower-glycemic-load diets. Choosing foods with complex, high-quality carbohydrates helps keep blood sugar in check. Think leafy green vegetables, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, beans, legumes, and peas.
Ditch caffeine. Another major factor in wonky blood sugar? A daily caffeine routine. “One cup of coffee in the morning will disturb your ability to balance blood sugar for 24 hours,” says Vitti, adding that recent research shows that three cups of caffeine per day “can drastically impair fertility.”
Eat avocados. The healthy fat in avocados makes them a great choice for overall hormone balance and well-being — for both men and women. (Interesting, a recent study even suggests that eating avocados may triple a woman’s chance of becoming pregnant while undergoing IVF.) Vitti encourages women who are trying to conceive to eat avocados two to three times per week.
Sleuth out food sensitivities. Food allergens stress the GI tract, contribute to leaky gut syndrome, and tell the immune system — 70 to 80 percent of which is housed in the gut — to go into overdrive. This can lead to the malabsorption of nutrients that play a vital role in fertility. It can also divert the body’s resources away from supporting a pregnancy.
Support your adrenals. Adrenal fatigue is one of the most common hormonal imbalances in women today — and a healthy, well-supported adrenal system is essential for conceiving. Eliminating caffeine and balancing blood sugar both help support the adrenals. So do high-quality sleep, restorative exercise (like yoga), and identifying what functional medicine physician Mark Hyman, MD, calls “pause buttons,” or the activities that relax you. Everyone has different pause buttons (one woman’s restorative interval training session is another woman’s living nightmare). The key is to find your pause buttons — and push them regularly.
Consider acupuncture. When paired with in vitro fertilization, acupuncture has been shown to significantly increase conception rates. It may do this by helping support the endocrine system, reducing stress, and increasing blood flow to the reproductive organs. It’s also been shown to benefit women who are struggling to conceive because they have PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome. Some experts think it may also help men by increasing sperm production.
Laine Bergeson is a longtime health journalist and functional nutrition educator and coach with Healthful Elements. She believes lifestyle medicine is a blockbuster drug.