Health 101: Infertility in Women

What increases my risk of infertility?

More than anything else, age has the biggest impact on your ability to get or stay pregnant. Regardless of how healthy or fit you are, the quality of your eggs and your ability to ovulate normally decreases over time.

For example, less than 10 percent of 20-something couples have fertility problems, but nearly 30 percent of those in their early 40s do, and more than 50 percent of those older than 45 do, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Of course, women over 40 get pregnant all the time, but it may take longer or require help from a fertility specialist.

Although you can't control your age, the following factors also increase your risk of infertility. Making a lifestyle change may boost your ability to conceive -- and your all-around health.

  • Smoking cigarettes. Volumes of research have shown that smoking cigarettes may interfere with ovulation and damages eggs, making them more prone to genetic defects that can lead to miscarriage. One recent study found that couples who smoked were more than three times as likely to take more than six months to get pregnant compared to couples who didn't smoke.
  • Excess alcohol and caffeine intake. According to the most recent research on these somewhat controversial areas, an occasional cocktail or daily cup of coffee does not increase your risk of infertility. While heavy drinking is definitely harmful for conception and pregnancy, most well-designed studies have found no solid evidence that moderate drinking (say, a glass of wine a day) has an impact on your ability to get pregnant. The evidence on caffeine is mixed too, although most research shows that having less than two cups of coffee a day won't affect your fertility or a healthy pregnancy.

Bottom line: If you're actively trying to get pregnant, avoid alcohol (most women don't know they're expecting in the earliest stages of pregnancy, so it's better to play it safe anyway) and limit caffeine intake.

  • Being significantly overweight or underweight. Women with a body mass index (BMI) below 20 or above 27 are less likely to conceive than woman with BMIs that fall within that range. The main reason: Weighing too little (from excessive exercise or not eating enough) or too much may throw your hormones off-balance and interfere with ovulation.

 

  • Sexually transmitted diseases. STDs like chlamydia and gonorrhea (both easily treatable with antibiotics) may lead to pelvic infections that interfere with conception.
  • Extreme stress. While getting regular massages or taking yoga is unlikely to speed up conception, some research shows that extreme stress may impact fertility indirectly. Major life changes -- like a death in the family, job loss, etc. -- may cause hormonal swings that make ovulation less regular. And if you're totally burned out or anxious all the time, you're probably less likely to be in the mood for babymaking.

 

When should I see a doctor for infertility?

That answer depends on your age and certain known health conditions. The following guidelines offer some general rules, but of course it can't hurt to bring up any concerns with your doctor at any time.

Women under 35 who've been unsuccessfully trying to get pregnant for more than one year. If you're still seeing the minus sign on the stick after a few months of trying, you may simply need to give it more time before calling for medical help. For women who spend much of their young-adult lives deliberately trying not to get pregnant, it may come as a surprise to learn how difficult getting in the family way actually is.

In any given month, your babymaking odds are slim -- only about 20 percent during your 20s and 30s -- which is why it sometimes takes completely healthy, fertile couples many months to conceive.

Women 35 and older who've been trying to conceive for more than 6 months.

Women of any age with the following symptoms:

  • Irregular periods (a sign you may not be ovulating normally)
  • Very painful periods (a sign you may have pelvic inflammatory disease, an infection of the fallopian tubes, or endometriosis, which occurs when uterine lining grows in organs outside the uterus, like the fallopian tubes, making it hard for eggs to become fertilized or make their way to the uterus)
  • A history of polycystic ovarian syndrome (a hormonal imbalance where your body makes too many male hormones, which thwarts ovulation)
  • A history of miscarriage

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