When it comes to women’s health, few topics are as emotionally charged as fertility. So much is misunderstood about women’s reproductive health span and how it can be optimized and extended.
The truth is, fertility is deeply connected to your overall health and well-being. And the factors that affect a woman’s ability to get pregnant — including hormonal balance, cellular function, gut health, mental wellness and more — all play a role in how easily (or not) a child is conceived.
That's why a functional medicine approach to fertility, which seeks to address the root cause of health issues and provide individualized treatment, can help broaden the understanding of fertility health — especially when it comes to elements that traditional medicine doesn’t always take into account.
Below, eye-opening insights from patient advocates and experts in functional medicine and holistic health.
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1 Fertility health is separate from your general health and well-being.
All too often, fertility is only discussed when someone is considering having a baby or if someone has difficulty conceiving.
But according to Chloe Harrouche, CEO and CoFounder of The Lanby, the topic needs to come up much sooner. "Fertility is, in many ways, an outcome of all of the conversations that you should be having with your primary doctor," says Harrouche. "That's why we care about developing that long-term relationship with our patients — to establish trust.”
That trust and on-going care enables you to identify a potential issue before it becomes a problem. "It's not just about fertility health exclusively, it's also about things such as hormone optimization… for both women and men," says Harrouche.
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2 You don't need to think about fertility health until you want to freeze your eggs or have a baby.
Fertility health should be a priority even if you're not sure you ever want to have kids. Why? Fertility is a sign of your overall health and vitality — if your hormone levels, thyroid function and general health are good, your body feels like it's "safe" to reproduce.
Given that, the conversation around fertility shouldn’t be delayed. "We should be talking about it in our early 20s when we have so much more control over our health," says Harrouche.
Although it's not always the case, your 20s are generally a time when you are in better health and you can adjust your lifestyle to form lasting habits that will pay off down the line. There is still time in your late 30s, but the fertility window begins to narrow and it's also harder to make changes because we are a bit more set in our ways.
3 Lifestyle and nutrition don’t make a difference in fertility or embryo/egg quality.
Research now shows what many functional medicine practitioners have believed all along: lifestyle and nutrition do, in fact, impact health outcomes.
"We know that cellular health and mitochondrial function can be improved through healthy lifestyle and diet habits,” says Rebecca Parekh, CEO and CoFounder of THE WELL. "In her book The Egg Quality Diet, Aimee Raupp discusses the relationship between declining cellular health and declining egg health and explains that by addressing inflammation and oxidation, we can positively impact how the eggs in our ovaries age."
Of course the first step toward making improvements is understanding what your current health picture looks like.
“Through the functional medicine team at THE WELL, we offer advanced testing to assess hormone levels, microbiome health and food sensitivities," says Parekh. "Armed with that data, patients can work with one of our health coaches to develop a customized plan, incorporating nutrition, any necessary supplementation and stress management tools such as yoga and meditation. We help people take greater agency for their health by providing personalized support and care throughout this complex journey."
4 Fasting, intense exercise and strict diets can help you get pregnant.
The lack of research on women's health in general also affects the advice we get from experts on topics such as exercise and nutrition because historically, studies have been conducted mostly on men.
"I think a lot of us were following the guidance we got from male-based research in order to optimize mitochondria health, not realizing that women's health is very different from men's health," says Harrouche, who adds: "Many women find themselves 'doing all the right things' — like intermittent fasting or keto diets — not knowing that they are more ideal for male hormonal health or for menopausal women."
It all comes down to an integrative approach, says Harrouche: "You need people who understand science, but who will also be able to tie in other perspectives on the ways you can leverage your lifestyle to increase your odds."
5 Once you turn 35, your chances of having a baby are slim.
The notion that your chances of having a baby after 35 are slim is no longer accept as truth. "I've seen time and time again that women can make better embryos as they age. Unfortunately, we won't hear that from most doctors," says Aimee Raupp, MS, LAc, acupuncturist and Chinese Medicine Advisor for THE WELL.
Much of the discouraging, oft-repeated research is outdated, insists Raupp. The idea that one in three women over the age of 35 will have difficulty is not necessarily true. “Current research shows that women in their 30s have about a 76 to 82 percent chance of conceiving within one year of trying. For women in their 40s, the percentage only drops to about 70 percent, depending on the study you look at. This is really profound because we are all given different information," she says.
It’s important to remember that typically, when it comes to low fertility numbers, there is a bigger issue going on with overall health. But for many women feeling the pressure of their fertility window closing, there’s encouraging news, says Raupp, whose acupuncture practice specializes in helping women get pregnant. "We can definitely heal from declining fertility. I see these numbers clinically shift all the time.”