Getting pregnant: Things that help (and hinder) your chances of conceiving

Getting pregnant is exciting, wonderful, unpredictable, frustrating, all consuming, emotionally draining, and terrifying all at the same time (We can virtually see all of you shaking your heads yes). Each year, more than 10 million women are trying to get pregnant, nearly 75% will have trouble getting/staying pregnant.  Wow, right? Struggling to conceive is surprisingly common.

For some of you, getting pregnant happens quickly, effortlessly, and without much planning at all. For others, it can be long and exhausting process, plagued by failed attempts and costly intervention.

Women’s fertility issues make headlines on a routine basis, and doctors are constantly talking with female patients about steps they can take to get their bodies ready for trying to conceive and carry a healthy pregnancy. Women bear the medical and psychological burden of trying to get and stay pregnant.

But men are often overlooked until an issue with conceiving arises, despite the fact that sperm health plays a dramatic role in not only creating but also sustaining a successful pregnancy.

But your chances of being able to conceive — both naturally and with the help of IVF — depend on a few things, including your overall health, says Karin Hammarberg, fertility expert and senior research fellow at Monash University. "A lot of it is up to nature, but it's possible to do some things to help yourself have a baby if you want one," she says.

Healthy diet and lifestyle are key

The best predictor for a healthy embryo is a healthy egg and sperm — that goes for both natural conception and IVF. Dr Hammarberg says it's important that both partners optimize their health before trying to conceive. "Studies show if partners do it together, they're twice as likely to succeed," she says. Whatever needs to be done in terms of optimizing health, it should be equally recommended to male and female partners." Beli emphatically agrees!

Research has shown a healthy diet in the year prior to getting pregnant is associated with a lower rate of birth defects. Both women and men are recommended to eat well, exercise regularly, and practice healthy lifestyle habits when trying to get pregnant. Since the environment in which an egg and sperm develops can affect the health of a baby, both parents being a healthy prior to conception boosts the baby's chances of being healthy at birth and into adulthood.

"That means a nutritious diet that contains fresh food and as little processed food as possible; drinking in moderation; not smoking; being in the healthy weight range; and also exercising," Dr. Hammarberg says. “All of these things improve our general health, but they also simultaneously improve our reproductive health."

It is important for the couple (both the woman and the man) to ensure they are getting enough vitamins and minerals in the lead up to pregnancy.

In a 2011 study published in the journal of Reproductive BioMedicine Online, it was found that women who are undergoing fertility treatments are more likely to conceive then they take prenatal multivitamin supplements every day. Not only are you more likely to get pregnant, 60% were still pregnant six months later.

When it comes to lifestyles factors, research shows cigarette smoking causes damage to eggs and sperm which can then go on to affect the health of an unborn baby. To avoid this, it is recommended that people who smoke kick the habit a few months before trying to conceive.

The link between alcohol and fertility is less clear (it is not known what levels of consumption are safe, if any), but research shows that even drinking lightly can reduce the likelihood of conception.

Take A Sperm Check

After a woman's age, male fertility is the second biggest cause of pregnancy delay and affects almost half of all couples having trouble conceiving. Fortunately, most common causes of male infertility are easily diagnosed, and most can be treated or overcome to help a couple conceive.

A 2012 study revealed that just 1 in 4 men have optimal semen quality. It’s important to remember that sperm provide 50 percent of the genetic material for a fetus, and if the sperm isn’t healthy enough to preserve that material or penetrate an egg, that fetus will never occur or properly develop.

While women are born with all the eggs they will ever have, the man's body creates sperm daily. In fact, 1,500 new sperm cells are "born" every second. The process from germline stem cell to sperm cell takes about 74 days. Evidence shows that the most common cause of sperm deficiencies are nutrient shortages. Just like women, men’s bodies need different vitamins and minerals in order to produce healthy sperm.

One study found nutrients like L-carnitine, vitamins C and E, N-acetylcysteine, zinc, and coenzyme Q10 could increase male fertility four-fold.  Another study found that a combined supplementation of folate and zinc for a period of 26 weeks increased total sperm count in fertile and subfertile men. In fact, it increased normal total sperm count by 74 percent. Also interesting in this study, before supplementation was started, seminal folate and zinc levels were not significantly different in the fertile and sub-fertile men. This may indicate that even though low folate wasn’t the cause for lower sperm counts, supplementation still helped.

Taking steps to maintain sperm health, even if no fertility issues are present, can dramatically improve how quickly you and your partner conceive and the viability of that conception.