After years of avoiding pregnancy, when it comes time to actually try to conceive (TTC), you may be among the countless women who quickly realize that conception isn’t a slam dunk the instant you actively try to get pregnant.
It can feel discouraging when you don’t get pregnant right away. But doctors suggest trying for up to 6 months for women over 35 and up to a full year for women under 35 before having a fertility evaluation (1).
Wherever you are in your fertility journey — if you have just started TTC or if you have been trying for some time — you might be curious about what you can do to take charge of your fertility before pursuing in vitro fertilization (IVF). We’ve rounded up 10 easy, noninvasive steps to test-drive before visiting the fertility specialist.
Find your fertile window and have sex during this time for 3-6 months (2). Your fertile window is the 5 days prior to ovulation and ovulation day itself. Mountains of research over the years confirms these 6 days are when nearly all pregnancies occur.
If you’re not already, track your individual fertility cues to identify your fertile window. Traditional approaches include tracking basal body temperature, cervical mucus, cervical position, and luteinizing hormone (LH); however, each comes with limits. (Side note: Read here about potential problems with urine-based ovulation predictor kits.)
The most accurate way to identify your fertile window is by tracking your continuous core body temperature (3, 4). Doing so pinpoints the subtle temperature patterns that occur 2-4 days before ovulation. Before this was basically impossible, but a device (coming soon!) called Priya® can actually do this.
Priya comes with a sensor you put in your vagina where it measures your core body temperature every 6 minutes, and then sends the temp reading to a connected app on your smart device (3, 4). By continuously tracking and analyzing actual data from your body, Priya predicts your fertile window an average of 2.6 days before LH urine tests. The upside? This advance notice may give you and your partner a better shot at having sex on the days when you’re most likely to conceive.
Eating specific foods while skipping others has been scientifically proven to help with fertility. According to a study in Fertility and Sterility, couples undergoing fertility treatment who ate a diet rich in fish, fruit, whole grains, and vegetable oils had a 40% better chance of conceiving than couples who indulged in snacks and meat products (5). (Read here for clinically proven fertility foods.)
Science unfortunately doesn’t always agree on the best foods to eat. For example, some studies say that soymilk will increase the risk of developing uterine fibroids while other studies say the opposite. The same conflicting information can be found regarding fibroids and the hormones found in meat and dairy products (31).
Your weight — whether too high or too low — affects your fertility (6). Doctors calculate weight with a body mass index (BMI). A BMI under 19 is regarded as underweight, while a BMI between 25-29 is labeled overweight, and 30 and above is considered obese.
Being underweight and overweight is associated with irregular menstruation and anovulatory cycles, which are cycles where you don’t ovulate (6). Research has tied obesity to lower pregnancy rates, higher miscarriage rates, and an increased risk of complications in pregnancy.
Losing a few pounds may help regulate your cycle or restore ovulation (7). In one limited study of 13 women with obesity and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), losing 13.2 pounds was enough to restore ovulation in 12 of the women within a few weeks. Eleven women in the study went on to become pregnant.
Excess weight may also harm male fertility (6). Research found lower sperm counts and less motility (movement) in men who were overweight or obese.
In a small study published by Human Reproduction, 89.5% of women who were both obese and anovulatory resumed ovulation after losing an average of 22.5 pounds through diet and exercise (8, 9). More than 75% also went on to get pregnant. Similarly, a 2017 review linked 30-60 minutes of vigorous exercise daily to a reduced risk of anovulatory infertility.
You’re probably already taking prenatal vitamins, which typically contain at least 400 mg. of folic acid to prevent neural tube defects. Now, research suggests folic acid is also a fertility booster, with the potential to help you to get pregnant and maintain a pregnancy by increasing the level of progesterone in the luteal phase (10, 11, 12). Sufficient progesterone in the luteal phase (read about the Phases of the Menstrual Cycle here) helps make your uterine lining the ideal environment for implantation and pregnancy.
Your partner might want to consider taking fish oil. A 2020 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that fish oil, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, increased sperm volume and sperm count in the men who took the supplement for at least 60 days (18).
Men who took vitamin C plus beta carotene (found in carrots) also had higher fertilization rates than men who didn’t take the supplements, according to a 2019 study in the Journal of Nutrition (19).
Progesterone is the hormone released right after ovulation, and it’s what prepares the uterus to receive a fertilized egg. Without sufficient and sustained levels, there is no chance at conception. Proov is an at home progesterone tracking kit that you can use along with Priya to get a clear picture of your fertility and chances of conception each month. Priya will be available to the public in spring, 2020. Sign up for product updates here, and learn more about Proov here.
If you and your partner use a lubricant, read the label — some well-known brands contain ingredients that may affect sperm motility (20, 21). Do some comparison shopping and choose a lube that specifically states it’s sperm-friendly. When a research team compared 9 different brands of lubricant, they found that Pre-seed® and Conceive Plus® had the “least negative effect” on sperm function.
One of the best tests to check your ovarian reserve is the anti-mullerian hormone (AMH) test (22). AMH is secreted by ovarian follicles. An AMH test can tell you about the number of eggs you have left, although not the quality. Even though AMH tests are now readily available online, think twice before making major family-planning decisions based on your results without chatting first with your OB/GYN.
Stress is taxing on your body, triggering a primal fight-or-flight response that may affect fertility (23, 24, 25, 26, 27). Stress may lower the sperm count of your partner and reduce your likelihood of conceiving during the fertile window. According to a large prospective study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, women with higher levels of stress had slightly lower rates of conception (but stress didn’t affect their partners’ fertility).
These 10 steps are by no means an exhaustive list — but they're a good start if you’re curious about fertility-boosting alternatives to try before IVF.
There are medical options as well, such as the oral drug clomiphene, which stimulates ovulation (32). One study of clomiphene demonstrated ovulation stimulation in 71% of participants within 2 years of use. (34) Gonadotropins, which are injectable ovulatory stimulants, contain follicle-stimulating hormone alone or in combination with LH (33). Check with your doctor for the best approach for you, as all medications come with potential side effects.
If you do consider IVF down the line, contact your insurance provider first to see if you have fertility coverage. If you do, they may require you and your partner to first undergo a few cycles of intrauterine insemination (IUI) before they’ll authorize IVF.
Part II: What should I try before IVF? (you are here)
Priya® is a registered trademark of Prima-Temp, Inc.
Proov® is a registered trademark of MFB Fertility, Inc.
Pre-seed® is a registered trademark of Elkem-ASA
Conceive Plus® is a registered trademark of Mancini-Holdings Pty Limited
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