Understanding the Fertility Spectrum (World Infertility Awareness Month)

Understanding the Fertility Spectrum (World Infertility Awareness Month)

Ayla Barmmer

Every year, we aim to increase awareness around the infertility issues that many face on a global level. Knowledge is power; the more you have, the better equipped you are to make informed decisions about your fertility and/or support your loved ones on their fertility journeys.

In this article, we will take a 360° examination of

  1. How fertility and infertility are defined
  2. What those definitions mean regarding our biology
  3. Why fertility issues are so impactful
  4. How to approach jumping any fertility hurdles
  5. Which common myths we need to dispel asap!

By the end of this read, our goal is to have you feeling more knowledgeable, hopeful, and empowered to make progress toward your overall health and fertility goals.

Let’s start with the basics. First of all,

Best to state that one loud, in bold, and upfront! (I recently wrote some articles on men’s fertility for 360 Magazine and Creations Magazine and will elaborate more in-depth on this topic as you read.)

What is the technical definition of “fertility”?

This seems rudimentary, but it is a great question. After all, how many times have you heard or read a word and taken for granted that you knew its true definition based on context? It’s part of human communication.

While mainstream culture often pits the word “fertile” against “infertile,” implying that one is inherently positive while the other is intrinsically negative, that’s not precisely accurate. Instead, think about fertility for men and women in terms of being “optimal” or “suboptimal.” Most of us are born with the capacity to reproduce. It is just a matter of where we fall on a spectrum of fertility depending on genetics, external circumstances, and a handful of factors that we can influence when empowered with the proper tools and knowledge.

Where you fall on that spectrum of optimization can tell you more about your body’s other systems and how well they are functioning.

How does fertility provide information about overall health?

As you may have read in some of our other articles, fertility status can provide deep, diverse insight into your overall health, regardless of whether or not you are looking to reproduce. Fertility reflects balance - or homeostasis - in many different bodily systems. When health factors that play into your fertility are knocked off kilter, it can indicate other imbalances and deficiencies throughout your body. You might notice that something is off in your fertility first, but fertility, in many cases, is not the root cause of the symptom.

You see, biologically, our bodies are designed to survive first and procreate second. When you think about it, this is pretty logical. After all, to raise and rear healthy offspring, you have to, well, be alive and, ideally, thriving (we recently talked about this within the scope of postpartum recovery)! Before your body can turn all its energy and resources to creating an entirely new body, it must ensure its own is doing well. Suppose you or a loved one have found yourselves on the lower end of the fertility optimization spectrum. In that case, a great way to start moving toward the optimal end is by assessing what your body could be prioritizing over fertility.* Are nutrients and antioxidants being diverted to other needs in the body (i.e., are there enough resources to go around)? Physical or mental stress, inflammation, immune dysfunction, toxic burden, and more require many nutrients to address correctly! * Remember: the body is biologically designed to prioritize survival first and procreation second.

Suboptimal fertility, or “infertility” as we have often been conditioned to think, is a symptom with a deeper root cause(s). These can include (but aren’t necessarily limited to):

In the case of nutrient insufficiencies and deficiencies, the root cause(s) often tends to be either environmental or internally located by something happening within your body.

Possible root causes of nutrient deficiency

Many don’t know that certain medications can strip your body of its stores of certain nutrients.

Anti-inflammatories > Magnesium, Folate, vitamin C, vitamins B5, B6, B12

Cardiovascular Drugs > Vitamins B6

Diabetic Drugs > Folate, B12

Antacids > Folate, B12

Oral Contraceptives > Vitamins B6, B2, B3, B12, vitamin C, magnesium, folate

Antibiotics > B Vitamins, magnesium

Source: Drug-Induced Nutrient Depletion Handbook, 2nd Edition
If you are taking any medications, your doctor might regularly monitor your levels of any known affected nutrients and proceed with supplementation as needed on an individual, case-by-case basis.* Always discuss any concerns you have with your healthcare professional.

Since so much epigenetic imprinting happens in preconception and the early stages of pregnancy, addressing fertility in both sexes can serve as the ultimate preventative medicine for both parents and babies as they grow and develop (1).

Why do fertility issues seem more prevalent/impactful now than ever before?

That is a valid question! The answer is multifaceted, but essentially, much more significant additional stressors and toxic burdens are placed on our systems due to the following:

As you now know, when your body must focus on fighting back more toxic burdens to function correctly, your reproductive health will take a hit. Today’s global population - more so than any other in history - is generally consuming fewer essential nutrients and antioxidants from food and suffering more exposure to toxins that leach nutrients from the body and cause deficiency (2). Nutrient depletion leads to a lack of physical resources for everyday function, let alone the highly specialized process of optimal reproductive health. Hormone metabolism and balance become more and more challenging, making protecting egg-containing follicles or building healthy, motile sperm a very tall order.

Let’s return to the idea of “root causes” for a moment.

In my private practice at Boston Functional Nutrition, finding the primary source of a problem defines my entire nutrition-based practice as a Registered Dietitian. Treating symptoms immediately hurting your day-to-day life is essential for your comfort and ability to function, but I (and most functional medicine practitioners) take my job as a sort of biology-based detective very seriously. There’s usually more than what you’re experiencing on the surface.

As a fertility nutrition expert, I prefer a “deep nourishment” approach. This involves working with clients individually to develop dietary strategies to flood the body with nutrient-dense foods, vitamins, minerals, and the antioxidants necessary to affect toxic exposure positively. In popular health culture, we tend to see a lot of emphasis on “detoxing,” but there are a couple of problems with this shallow notion of that term. 

  1. Simply depriving your body of nutrients might eliminate some toxins by omitting ingesting them in the first place. Still, it also dramatically deprives your body of nutrients and antioxidants that can help counteract toxins and oxidative stress

  2. Say you do magically flush toxins from your body through some restrictive process. Most of us, like it or not, are consistently exposed to toxins in our everyday lives. From candles to plastics, pollution to conventionally grown produce, it’s hard not to get hit from every angle. However, if you are filling your body with proper nutrients and antioxidants, you strategically nourish yourself to deal with those external exposures from within! The organs responsible for detoxification (namely, your liver) process and remove toxins not just from food but from external environmental factors, and requires a LOT of nutrients to be the powerhouse protector of your entire body.

detoxification

Both eggs and sperm are highly vulnerable to oxidative stress. Solid nourishment such as antioxidants and other micronutrients protect both sexes’ reproductive cells from DNA damage that can affect their respective abilities to undergo fertilization, implantation, and begin developing an embryo.  

FUN FACT:

A lot of the minerals and vitamins needed by the liver are also required in the cervical fluid and semen. They generate the tremendous amount of energy that the mitochondria in egg and sperm need for fertilization and embryo development. 

How can I be proactive about my or my loved one’s fertility health?

Assessing individual diet and lifestyle factors is the simplest, most direct way to optimize your fertility.

DIET

As mentioned above, consult your healthcare provider about implementing an additive (versus restrictive) structure to your nutrition. This means that, rather than cutting out a swath of foods, you focus on infusing high nutrient-density items into well-balanced meals and snacks to promote blood sugar balance, another critical component regarding reproductive health.

FOODS FOR FOCUS:

LIFESTYLE

There are four big action items you can throw on your to-do list the moment you finish reading this!

  1. Identify and remove (or replace) any apparent sources of environmental toxins. If you’re unsure what those look like, check out this how-to article we wrote a while back. The list of potentially dangerous items in your home might surprise you, but don’t let it alarm you too much. Rather than doing a frantic sweep of your home, think about the plastics, produce (and therefore pesticides), personal care items, and inadvertent air pollution you might be encountering regularly and start there. Just like with diet adjustments, small steps are often the most sustainable.
  2. Regular exercise will help your circulatory system pump fresh, nutrient-rich, oxygenated blood throughout your body (if you’re not exactly a fitness fanatic, don’t panic: I’m talking about movement of any kind!). Circulation and chemical messaging between the brain, reproductive organs, and everything in between is vitally important, so strategizing your movement habits with your healthcare provider is a great idea regardless of whether or not fertility is even on your mind.
  3. Constant fatigue and lack of sleep are perhaps one of the most obvious tells that you need to slow down and take stock of your health. Sleep quality and Circadian Rhythm support are critical to optimal function.* Our hormones (predominantly cortisol and melatonin) are highly intertwined with the cycling of the sun and seasons. An important note for women is that melatonin has been shown to significantly protect egg-containing follicles as they develop (3). The close connection between circadian rhythm and fertility is part of why more fertility issues are seen in night shift workers.
  4. Supplements can help fill the unavoidable gap created by modern diets and lifestyles. Since the reality is that we cannot control our environment any more than we can always consistently execute our healthy diet and lifestyle plans, taking a fertility supplement tailored to your needs (like our women’s prenatal and our men’s multivitamin) can help. Additionally, implementing the aid of natural supplements, such as our organic herbal Nourished Nerves tincture, can holistically support stress management and sleep. Talk to your healthcare provider about what suits you and your lifestyle.

FullWell Fertility products

What are some of the most prevalent myths that you hear surrounding fertility?

In a #throwback to our name of origin Full Circle Prenatal (IYKYK), we’ve come full circle to bring this topic all the way home! As I mentioned right at the top of this article, fertility is often viewed as only a women’s health issue. In reality, optimizing individual fertility is an equal responsibility between both men and women. And when I say equal, I genuinely mean equal. 30% of infertility issues are due primarily to male factors, while another 30% can be attributed to female factors. The remaining 40% is commonly categorized as “unexplained infertility,” which tends to allude to a combination of both male and female factors. Men’s roles in conception go way beyond fertilization: their health and the health of their sperm affect the health of a pregnancy and baby’s long-term well-being.

Final thoughts

As I hold open, honest conversations about fertility with clients, customers, friends, and family throughout this month, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address what I view as a significant limitation of the current model of fertility treatment. 

We are a fast-moving, results-oriented society. I hinted at this earlier, but that mentality can often lead to placing bandaids over symptoms rather than working to identify the root causes of issues. By only educating clients and patients to seek help once symptoms pop up (e.g., out-of-the-ordinary cycles, inability to conceive, etc.), we can end up intervening far too late and missing the window to have the most significant impact on a couple’s fertility as well as the long term health of their potential baby.  

For example, on average, a couple is usually required to try to conceive for 6-12 months or more, or, perhaps even more problematically, after experiencing at least 2-3 pregnancy losses before being considered for medical intervention. Once a couple “qualifies” for medical treatment, it often means harsh medication cycles and expensive assisted reproductive technologies like IUI or IVF, which have low success rates but high emotional, physical, and financial tolls.  

Pregnancy planning that includes preconception care and education should be a standard, period. 

By starting earlier in an individual's life with a preventative mentality, medical professionals can assess and address underlying root issues that may negatively impact fertility or the health of a pregnancy as they develop. 

What early fertility assessment and pregnancy planning should look like for BOTH partners:

  • A physical exam with your qualified medical provider 
  • Comprehensive review of nutrient intake and status with a qualified nutrition professional, ideally one who specializes in fertility and perinatal health
  • Digestive and immune function assessment
  • Lifestyle & Sleep assessment
  • In addition to your medical or naturopathic doctor, nurse practitioner, endocrinologist, and midwife, a Registered Dietitian or Certified Nutrition Consultant who specializes in perinatal health may be able to run additional lab work and offer tailored and comprehensive diet and lifestyle advice with their extensive training in nutritional sciences. This upfront work and investment can pay off in dividends!

    My wish for all of those facing fertility issues is to help you avoid costly medical interventions and positively influence the health of your potential pregnancies. By reducing the risk for complications and increasing the odds of better long-term health, we can have a positive multi-generational impact.

    *The information on this website is provided for educational purposes only and should not be treated as medical advice. FullWell makes no guarantees regarding the information provided or how products may work for any individual. If you suffer from a health condition, you should consult your health care practitioner for medical advice before introducing any new products into your health care regimen. For more information, please read out terms and conditions.

    REFERENCES

    1. Moore, Gudrun E, et al. “The Role and Interaction of Imprinted Genes in Human Fetal Growth.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, The Royal Society, 5 Mar. 2015. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4305174/#:~:text=Identifying%20the%20genetic%20input%20for,allele%2C%20resulting%20in%20monoallelic%20expression
    2. Davis, Donald R, et al. “Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 23 Dec. 2004. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15637215/
    3. Espino, Javier, et al. “Impact of Melatonin Supplementation in Women with Unexplained Infertility Undergoing Fertility Treatment.” Antioxidants (Basel, Switzerland), MDPI, 23 Aug. 2019. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6769719/