Fertility and Reproductive Health
Until you think about becoming pregnant you probably didn’t spend much time thinking about your fertility health. Many people spend their early adult lives more concerned about an unplanned pregnancy than trying to conceive. Like all aspects of health, it’s something we take for granted without understanding. Beyond an awkward conversation about “the birds and the bees” with your parents as a child, or a class on reproduction in your school days, you may not have had much reason to think about your reproductive health before now.
When you start to try to become pregnant fertility and reproductive health take on a much greater significance in your life. You and your partner may need to learn more about how fertility health works and how to keep your reproductive systems healthy. Your microbiome plays an important role in your fertility health, so keeping your microbiome in good health will benefit your fertility health as well.
Fertility and Your Microbiome
The gut microbiota is considered to be a full-fledged endocrine organ, an organ that produces and secretes hormones. The human microbiome affects every stage and level of female reproduction, including follicle and oocyte maturation in the ovary, fertilization and embryo migration, implantation, and the whole duration of pregnancy. Alterations in the microbiome, particularly the gut microbiome, have specific impacts on the reproductive endocrine system. Correcting imbalances could lead to improved pregnancy outcomes. 1
The microbiota plays a major role in the reproductive endocrine (hormonal) system throughout a woman’s lifetime by interacting with estrogen, androgens, insulin, and other hormones. An imbalance of the gut microbiota composition can lead to several diseases and conditions, such as pregnancy complications, adverse pregnancy outcomes, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, and cancer.1
For men, semen has microbiota and can be a factor in male health. There is a correlation between semen quality and its microbiota. Prebiotics supplementation has shown the ability to better some semen parameters in humans.2
Sex hormone levels have a potential relationship with the gut microbiota, and this concept has been named the “microgenderome”. Many bacteria present in the digestive tract are also present in the female reproductive tract, including the vagina, endometrium, and placenta. The composition of the gut microbiota shifts among the different stages of pregnancy.1
Female Reproductive System
Understanding how the female reproductive system works is important to plan for success. The activity of the female reproductive system is controlled by hormones released both by the brain and by the ovaries. The combination of all these hormones gives women their reproductive cycle. There are several reproductive hormones to be familiar with.3
- Gonadotrophin-releasing hormone (GnRH): Controls the release of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH).
- FSH: Carried by the bloodstream to the ovaries where it stimulates the immature eggs (ova) to start growing.
- LH: Travels to the ovaries. LH triggers ovulation and encourages the formation of a special group of cells called the corpus luteum.
- Oestrogen: In moderate amounts, oestrogen helps to control the levels of GnRH, FSH and LH. This helps to prevent the development of too many ova. Oestrogen also helps to develop and maintain many of the female reproductive structures.
- Progesterone: Works with oestrogen to thicken the lining of the uterus ready for the implantation of a fertilized ovum. It also helps to prepare the breasts for releasing milk. High levels of progesterone control the levels of GnRH, FSH and LH.3
Male Reproductive System
Understanding the male reproductive system is just as vital. For males during puberty, the level of a hormone called gonadotrophin-releasing hormone (GnRH) increases. GnRH is produced in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. In turn, this causes an increase in the production of two hormones from another part of the brain, called the pituitary gland. These hormones are called luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). LH in the bloodstream causes cells in the testicles to make and release testosterone, the main male hormone. GnRH, LH, and FSH are the same hormones that are part of the female reproductive system.4
Age and Your Fertility
Your age impacts changes in your fertility. Young women without fertility problems have about a one-in-four chance per month of having a baby naturally if they try at the right time of the month. There’s only a 12% chance per month at age 37 and one in twenty chance per month at age 42.
It is becoming more common to wait longer to have children; more and more women are starting to have children in their 40s. While this is possible, it may require some help since the percentage is low. You can use tools such as a biological clock to help determine when you should seek help.
The Anti-Mullerian Hormone (AMH) is a fertility test to estimate Ovarian Reserve. This fertility test can help predict how many eggs you are likely to obtain during an IVF cycle and can help identify if you may experience early menopause. You can take this test on your own, but you may need to consult with a specialist to interpret your results.5
Timing is key in trying to become pregnant. Get to know your cycle so you can get the timing right. If you have a 28-day cycle; the best days to conceive are days 11, 12 and 13 in your cycle. Commonly, conception occurs when intercourse happens the day before ovulation followed by the day of ovulation. You can also plan to have sex when you notice slippery and clear mucus as this is an indication of ovulation.5
It is important to understand infertility and its signs. Generally, infertility is defined as not being able to get pregnant or conceive after at least one year of unprotected sex.6
For a woman to conceive, a few different steps must happen. A woman’s body must release an egg from one of her ovaries, a man’s sperm must fertilize the egg along the way, the fertilized egg must go through a fallopian tube towards the uterus, and the embryo must attach to the inside of the uterus. If any of these steps fail for any number of reasons, it can conclude to infertility.6
Fertility Issues for Women
There are several reasons that a woman may be struggling with infertility including, age, smoking, excessive alcohol use, extreme weight gain or weight loss and, excessive physical or emotional stress that results in missed periods. However, many factors that contribute to infertility in women are out of our control such as a disruption of ovarian function, fallopian tube obstruction, and abnormal uterine contour.6
Fertility Issues for Men
Of course, infertility is not just a woman’s issue. Disruption of testicular or ejaculatory function, hormonal disorders, and genetic disorders are causes of male fertility. Numerous factors can contribute to infertility in men. These include age, being overweight/obese, smoking, excessive alcohol use, marijuana use, exposure to testosterone such as injections, exposure to radiation, frequent exposure of the testes to high temperatures such as that which may occur in men confined to a wheelchair, or through frequent sauna or hot tub use, exposure to certain medications, and exposure to environmental toxins.6
How to Look After Your Fertility and Reproductive Health
The odds may seem stacked against you, but that is not the case. There are many things that you can do to take control of your fertility and reproductive health.
- Track your cycle to determine the best time for conception.
- Download an app to your smartphone to make tracking your cycle easier.
- Keep a journal to document any changes in your body during your 28-day cycle.
- Seek information about fertility health or set up an appointment with a fertility doctor.
- If you have other health conditions that can impact fertility such as endometriosis, it is best to seek fertility advice early.
- Know your family’s history. Ask your parents if they know of any health issues in your family that may correlate to infertility before you visit your doctor.
- Take NuaBiome for women or men to strengthen your microbiome and fertility health.
Taking care of your fertility and reproductive health is as important as taking care of other aspects of your health. It is the foundation on which your chance for fertility lies. Learning and understanding your fertility health will help you to prepare for conception and to ask the right questions at your next doctor’s appointment.
There are lots of areas that have an impact on your fertility and reproductive health, you can read about some of the other areas on our fertility health jigsaw page.