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Fertility myths: Dispelling misconceptions

By: Jackie Middleton

iStockphoto.com/CandyBoxImages Author: Canadian Living Credits: iStockphoto.com/CandyBoxImages

Relationships

Fertility myths: Dispelling misconceptions

By: Jackie Middleton

Feeling young and full of life, Meredith Frye of Toronto figured that her healthy diet and active lifestyle would allow her to delay baby making until her mid-30s. ''I thought 35 was the optimum age to start trying,'' she says.

Like many Canadian women, Meredith didn't know that waiting to start a family could have huge health repercussions for herself and her baby. According to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, the prime window for women to have children is between the ages of 20 and 35. Getting pregnant after 35 opens the door to an increased risk of complications, including miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies, stillbirths, caesarean sections, fetal chromosomal abnormalities and serious long-term disabilities for both mother and baby. Women over 35 also experience more difficulties conceiving.

Despite her plans, Meredith serendipitously became pregnant with her first child at 28. In the glow of new motherhood, she was surprised to discover that a woman's fertility is well into its natural decline by age 35. ''I didn't know that age as a huge disadvantage in terms of conceiving,'' says Meredith, now a stay-at-home mom to three children.

Meredith isn't alone. While gossip magazines celebrate the latest bundles of joy born to 42-year-old Hollywood stars, Canadian women are receiving the wrong fertility message. In the 2011 Fertility Awareness Survey, 73 percent of Canadian women said they believed that a 30-something's health and fitness levels had more bearing on her fertility than her age. It's only when they try to become pregnant that many women realize the harsh reality that fertility naturally begins to decline by your early 30s, regardless of how healthy you are.

Your ovaries' reserve of eggs steadily declines throughout your lifetime. Eggs drastically decrease not only in number but also in quality, so the chances of complications escalate.

So how do those celebrity moms over 40 deliver healthy babies? In many cases, they're failing to disclose that their offspring weren't conceived naturally, but through egg donation or expensive reproductive technology such as in vitro fertilization. Their silence perpetuates the age-related fertility fallacy that we can fight Mother Nature.

With the help of experts in the field of reproductive health, we've shattered several common conception misconceptions and found ways 
for you to be more proactive about 
your fertility.

Misconception: 
My weight won't prevent me from becoming pregnant.
Why this myth exists: We regularly see women of all shapes and sizes with baby bumps. If weight were such an issue, wouldn't we see fewer pregnant women?
The reality: Weight does affect fertility. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine reports that approximately 12 percent of infertility cases are a result of a woman weighing too little or too much. 
A thin woman might not have enough body fat to support normal menstruation, a healthy hormone balance or monthly ovulation. ''If you're not ovulating consistently, you'll have less chance of becoming pregnant,'' says Sarah Remmer, a Calgary-based registered dietitian and author of the nutrition website From Stork to Fork (sarahremmer.com).

Tipping the scale in the other direction can negatively influence fertility too. ''Someone carrying excess body fat is more likely to have insulin resistance, which can negatively affect ovulation,'' says Remmer. ''Being overweight or obese also puts women at a higher risk of polycystic ovary syndrome, which can result in menstrual abnormalities and hinder ovulation.'' To increase your chances of becoming pregnant, consult your doctor or a registered dietitian about ways to healthfully gain or lose weight.Misconception
: I can only conceive during the act of intercourse.
Why this myth exists: Organs used for transplants only survive for a 
few hours, so reproductive tissues and fluids couldn't possibly have 
a lengthier life span.
The reality: Ejaculated sperm and ovulated eggs exist longer than you might think. ''Sperm can survive about 48 hours on average within 
a woman's body. Some sperm will live even longer,'' says Dr. Cliff Librach, director of the Create Fertility Centre and an associate professor 
of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Toronto. ''The egg will survive for 36 hours on average after ovulation, so there's a window [for conception].''

Want to take advantage of this extended mingling between egg and sperm? ''The best time to have sex 
is four or five days before ovulation or on your ovulation date,'' says Dr. Anthony Cheung, founder and medical director of the Grace Fertility Centre in Vancouver. Over-the-counter ovulation predictor kits can help you determine your window for conceiving.

Misconception
: I exercise vigorously and am in tip-top shape, so I should conceive easily.
Why this myth exists: Our society equates being extremely fit with being healthy and fertile.
The reality: The Mayo Clinic reports that too much strenuous exercise can actually impede fertility by hindering ovulation and decreasing the production of progesterone, a hormone required to sustain pregnancy. ''My first baby was the hardest to conceive and yet my body was at its fittest,'' says Sunny Horvath, a stay-at-home mom of three in Toronto who routinely spent 10-hour days dancing and teaching Pilates when trying to conceive. ''I was surprised. I didn't think that being in great shape had anything to do with [the difficulty].'' To give your fertility a boost, Librach recommends replacing lengthy, vigorous workouts such as marathon running with less demanding physical activities such as jogging. You can still be active on a daily basis: Just don't be excessive.

Misconception: 
A special diet will help me become pregnant faster.
Why this myth exists: Food scientists are continually discovering ways to boost health through diet.
The reality: Diet books promising to hold the secrets to improved or prolonged fertility are a waste of money. Dr. Kimberly Liu, a reproductive specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, says there is no strong evidence linking specific foods or diets to fertility or easy conception. It may sound boring, but the best way to nutritionally prepare your body for pregnancy is by eating sensibly. ''It's important that women consume a balanced diet of fruits and veggies, whole grains, meats and alternatives, and dairy foods,'' says Remmer. She also says women who are thinking of becoming pregnant should take supplements tailored specifically to their needs. ''Take a prenatal vitamin that contains 
0.4 to 1 milligram of folic acid to prevent neural-tube defects in the baby,'' she says. ''Prenatal multivitamins also have added iron and calcium, both of which are important during pregnancy.''

What about the birth control pill?

Many women believe that once you quit taking the birth control pill, it will take months to conceive. Quite the opposite. According to Dr. Kimberly Liu, a reproductive specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, your body metabolizes the Pill quickly, so it doesn't leave long-lasting effects. If you're under 35 and had regular menstrual cycles before you took the Pill, your body will most likely return to its regular pattern. ''Once you go off the Pill, you can have an ovulatory menstrual cycle right away and get pregnant within the next month,'' she says. Other birth control methods (such as Depo-Provera, an injection given every three months) typically have a contraceptive effect that lingers for 12 to 14 weeks after you stop using them, but it can take up to 10 months for fertility to return.

Menopause affecting fertility

A 2012 study from Denmark reported that your mom's age at menopause could possibly predict when your fertility will begin to dip. ''We find that women whose mothers went through an earlier menopause have a higher chance of going through an earlier menopause themselves,'' says Dr. Kimberly Liu, a reproductive specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. ''With an earlier menopause, fertility will start to decline earlier because the timeline has shifted.'' On average, Canadian women reach menopause at age 51. But remember that you have your father's genes too. ''It's not a guarantee that if your mom went through menopause at 42 that you're going to as well,'' says Dr. Cliff Librach, 
an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Toronto. And keep in mind that smoking can spark premature menopause, 
so it's smart to quit now.

Click here for more great articles about women's health.

This story was originally titled "Fertility myths: Dispelling misconceptions" in the April 2013 issue.

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