Culture Trip: Women spend most of their lives trying not to get pregnant—many of them using the pill for a decade or more. What should their self-care plan of action be when coming off hormonal contraceptives?
Emma Cannon: The digestive system is a surprising yet important place to start. Many women suffer with poor gut health; chronic constipation or IBS. Addressing digestive irregularities can benefit the hormonal system. Reduce alcohol and sugar. Eliminate processed food and eat a diet with lots of fresh vegetables. Some oily fish and good quality meat can also help, assuming you’re not vegetarian.
CT: Your new book, Fertile, contains loads of yummy-looking healthy recipes. How much does diet affect fertility, and what main adjustments should women be making?
EC: Diet is important but digestion is everything, as I always say. Often it’s how, when, and why you eat that can make the difference. This book is not saying “if you eat x, y and z then you will get pregnant”, it’s about helping you make healthy fertility-focused choices. Mediterranean style diets, oily fish and full fat dairy (surprisingly) have all been shown through research to improve fertility. I combine the research with the principles of Chinese dietary therapy and my years of experience to give couples the tools to make healthy choices around food.
CT: Many women are used to battling with their weight, gaining and losing in cycles over the years. Is there an optimal calorie count or BMI to increase the chances of pregnancy?
EC: I don’t believe in counting calories and have never counted a calorie in my life. BMI is a somewhat inaccurate measure of fertility. However, women who are overweight or very underweight can experience issues, so as with most things in life it is best to be somewhere in the middle. That does not mean that overweight women or underweight women are infertile—just that there are issues associated with both ends of the spectrum.
CT: What is the most surprising cause of infertility you encounter on a regular basis?
EC: It’s not surprising to me anymore but the biggest cause of infertility is ovulation problems. These problems don’t get much of a look-in in the press, who prefer to focus on headline grabbers like “she left it too late”.
CT: Do you have any top tips for regulating periods?
EC: Acupuncture is the best treatment I know, hands down. Everyday in the clinic I witness mini miracles in women’s menstrual cycles achieved through acupuncture. In my experience acupuncture is more effective than Clomid (a drug commonly used to help women ovulate) for regulating women’s cycles. Clomid works well for some women but for others it just causes more problems. Acupuncture is safe and effective. I also suggest appropriate dietary adjustments, like cutting out sugar and alcohol. Apart from that it’s usually individual, which is what we work out in the initial consultation.
CT: Some research suggests that exercise can actually hinder conception. What is you advice for women who wish to remain active while trying to get pregnant?
EC: Depends on the individual but I do agree that excessive exercise can cause problems for some women. If they have no periods I absolutely tell them to stop, especially if they are underweight. If they are overweight with no periods it is important to include some exercise to help them lose weight, supported by dietary changes. Many modern exercise regimes are far too intense for optimizing fertility.
CT: There’s a lot of hype in the media about women “waiting too long” to conceive and missing their fertility window. How concerned should we be and are there any lifestyle changes we can make to extend our fertility?
EC: The older you are the more important lifestyle changes are. Fertility is very individual, we are not all born with the same reproductive capacity. Some women will remain fertile into their late thirties and a few will be able to conceive in their forties. Medically it is said that the biggest dip happens at 38, but again in my experience this is an average and we all differ.
Taking care of ourselves may offer some protection. Avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, dealing with gynecological conditions, not smoking and living moderately may well preserve our fertility. However there are no guarantees and some people will suffer despite living well.
Having an awareness earlier in life—placing value on our fertility and our bodies—will reduce some issues. We need to encourage more knowledge regarding the declining nature of fertility and the impact of alcohol, environment and lifestyle choices on our hormonal system. It’s also important to remember that it takes two and men have their part to play, also.