Federal Treasurer Peter Costello has urged every couple, in the nicest possible way, to go forth and procreate. He has suggested couples should have one baby for the mother, one for the father and another for the country. Mr Costello’s comments are driven by an ageing population and declining birth rates and he’s not alone in his concern.
In Singapore, the government’s Social Development Unit was set up to address declining fertility rates. It offers young people free two-year subscriptions to the government-run matchmaking agency in the hope of prompting marriage and reproduction. In Japan, fertility rates have fallen to an all-time low as of 2005. A new mobile phone service has been made available in Japan to let would-be mothers know when they reach the most fertile part of their monthly reproductive cycles. By punching in data on menstruation dates, the user can program the phone to alert her three days before ovulation and again on the day of ovulation. Of course, ring tones vary widely, but one imagines something like “Baby I Need Your Lovin’” by the Four Tops would be appropriate.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there has been a slight bounce in fertility rates in this country. They are currently at 1.77 (children per woman) and have possibly been lifted via the government’s baby-bonus payments, but as recently as 1976, the rate was 2.1. Today, the median age of mothers giving birth is 30.6 years, while in the early 1970s it was 25.4 years. In the 21st century, social and economic considerations mean women are waiting till later in life to have children and that impacts on fertility.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that 75 per cent of women trying to conceive before the age of 30 will fall pregnant within one year. After age 35, only 66 per cent will conceive in one year of trying and after 40, only 44 per cent. Currently, 10 per cent of women have their first child after the age of 35. So being in your best reproductive condition is becoming a priority and in the modern world that’s not easy.
Send in the clowns
Unfortunately, some of the commonplace features of modern life actually work against fertility. It is well established that stress reduces fertility. New research though (Nature June 2006) has shown that if stress is combined with a calorie restricted diet and exercise, then the effect is magnified.
In this study, monkeys were divided into three groups. One group were subjected to the mild stress of being put into a different room each day. The other two groups were put onto a calorie-restricted diet and an exercise regime respectively. In each of the three groups, about 10 per cent of monkeys stopped ovulating. However, when a group of monkeys were subjected to all three factors (stress, dieting and exercise), the number that stopped ovulating increased exponentially to 75 per cent. A mix of stress, dieting and exercise describes many modern women’s lives and it’s a recipe that’s doing a woman’s fertility no favours. But fear not — the clowns have arrived.
At the Assaf Horofeh Medical Centre in Israel, they decided to employ a clown to entertain patients as they recovered from IVF treatment. Patients were treated to a clown’s performance for 10-15 minutes shortly after their embryo transfer. Some 36 per cent of them conceived, compared with just 19 per cent in a group who didn’t see a clown. This doesn’t mean your partner needs to juggle and do some pratfalls immediately after attempted conception, but using humour to lighten stress levels may be a good start to your fertility program.
Reasonable exercise is a good thing, but don’t be excessive and do be careful not to go on extreme diets. There’s evidence, for example, that low-carb dieting reduces fertility. The Colorado Centre for Reproductive Medicine found that high-protein diets given to mice reduced successful pregnancies by 16 per cent. This is possibly because a growth-related gene called H-19 was adversely affected.
If you’re thinking modern life is putting all the fertility pressure on women, think again.
Tick, tock, tick, tock
Women do have a definite biological clock that counts down their fertile time, but wipe that smug smile from your dial gentlemen — so do you. A man’s fertility declines after the age of 40 in much the same way a woman’s ability to conceive fades after 35, according to French researchers (Fertility and Sterility May 2006). Their study of nearly 2000 couples undergoing fertility treatment found that pregnancy attempts were 70 per cent more likely to fail when the man was aged 40 or older than if he were younger than 30. This held true regardless of his wife’s age.
Then there’s the small matter of being overweight. Obesity and overweight are at epidemic proportions in Australia. The 2004-5 National Health Survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that 62 per cent of men and 45 per cent of women had a body mass index (BMI) that put them in the overweight or obese categories. This is bad news because being overweight significantly reduces a man’s fertility.
In one study (Epidemiology Sept 2006), researchers compared men’s BMI to pregnancy success. A BMI of over 25 is considered overweight. Infertility was defined as failure to become pregnant after 12 months of unprotected intercourse. Fertility was lower among men with BMIs of 26 or greater, and decreased as BMI rose. For every three-point increase in BMI, the risk of infertility rose by 12 per cent.
There’s a number of mechanisms by which being overweight could affect fertility in males. For example, excess weight may reduce sperm count, alter hormonal balance, increase scrotal temperature and reduce libido, leading to less sex.
If you want to have an optimal conception the key of course is to eat a balanced diet full of fruits and vegetables, with omega-3 rich fish once or twice a week and lean meat occasionally. A multivitamin supplement is a good idea for both men and women. Beyond that, here are a few specific measures that you can employ to maximise your fertility.
Vitamin E: Vitamin E deficiency in animals can lead to infertility. In humans, around 200iu per day can improve fertility.
Iron: Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston analysed diet information for 18,555 premenopausal women who became or attempted to become pregnant from 1991 to 1999 (Obstetrics and Gynecology November 2006). During the eight years of follow-up, women who reported using iron supplements were 40 per cent less likely to have ovulation-related infertility than non-users.
Calcium and magnesium: These two minerals are important for general health, but they also support the rhythmic contractions of the fallopian tubes that help sperm on their journey.
Vitex: This herb (botanical name Vitex agnus-castus) has been shown in clinical trials to help some women who were previously unable to conceive to fall pregnant. It helps elevate levels of the hormone progesterone.
Propolis: This resinous substance collected by bees is available as a supplement and in one trial (Fertility and Sterility Dec 2003) it helped women become pregnant who had been unable to conceive due to endometriosis.
Zinc deficiency leads to reduced numbers of sperm. Oral zinc supplementation improves both sperm count and motility in some groups of infertile men. Zinc is involved in the manufacture of sperm. (J Coll Physicians Surg Pak Nov 2005).
This amino acid is necessary for sperm function and movement. In one trial, after supplementing with carnitine for six months, men had increased sperm concentration and improved movement of sperm. (Fertility and Sterility June 2004)
Another amino acid required for sperm production, and supplementing will increase sperm counts in infertile men.
While its exact role in the formation of sperm is unknown, there is evidence that as little as 10mg per day (over a two-week period) will increase sperm count and motility.
Researchers assessed the benefits of acupuncture therapy in 28 men with unexplained sperm abnormalities, including malformed and motionless sperm, and low numbers of sperm. Acupuncture led to a significant increase in the percentage and number of sperm without structural defects. The results suggest acupuncture could be a useful treatment for infertility in men, but further research is needed to confirm the findings. (Fertility and Sterility, July 2005)
This might not be the most popular advice, but if your sperm count is low, abstaining from sexual activity for one to two days leads to peak sperm motility and concentration.