The raw ingredients of conception may seem simple. But in reality, conception requires an intricate fusion of factors to succeed. Menstrual cycle health, sperm viability, environmental factors, what we eat, our age—so much goes into our ability to conceive, and fertility struggles are surprisingly common.
Long story short: It’s a whole lot more complicated than the birds and the bees.
A complex dance
Naturopathic doctor Caroline Meyer calls the science of conception a “complex dance of many factors.”
It all starts when a mid-cycle surge in a woman’s hormones, specifically LH (luteinizing hormone), signals to one of her ovaries to release an egg.
Traveling through the fallopian tube until it enters the uterus, the egg is fertilized by nearby sperm. It then nestles into the wall of the uterus, where other hormones, such as progesterone and hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin), facilitate growth.
Osteopathic manual practitioner Jill Bodak says, “It is literally the least likely series of events to occur successfully when you consider the odds: millions of sperm, one egg, on a particular day, fusing and finding a safe space to attach and multiply.”
Set yourself up for success
To help align the factors in your complex dance and increase your odds of conceiving, start with some basics.
Maintain a healthy weight
A body mass index (BMI) of 20 to 24 appears to be the best range for fertility. High or low weight can change menstrual cycles and disturb—or even stop—ovulation.
Eat a fertility-friendly diet
Include whole grains, healthy fats, plenty of fruits and vegetables, more plant protein, and less red meat, and avoid unhealthy processed foods, including deli meats, pastries, sweets, and sweetened beverages. Prioritize plenty of sustainably sourced seafood that’s low in mercury, including salmon, scallops, and shrimp.
Drink all the water
Staying hydrated is always important, and drinking water is by far the best way to do this while trying to conceive. Sugary drinks, including fruit juices, may have a negative effect on fertility.
Supplement, just in case
Supplementing with vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients can help, especially if you’re having difficulty getting enough in your diet. Start taking a prenatal vitamin before you start trying to conceive. You may benefit from taking vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids too.
Fertility clinicians offer support that might include cycle monitoring and guidance about assisted reproductive technologies (ART) such as intrauterine insemination (IUI)—where sperm is placed into the vagina to improve likelihood of pregnancy in vitro fertilization (IVF)—where extracted eggs and a sperm sample are externally combined and transferred to the uterus
Advice from Andrea, a mom who’s been there
Andrea and her partner were married at age 35, after many years of enjoying travel, food, music, and life together. They tried to conceive naturally for a few months, then focused on cycles and timing. After a year of trying, they sought support at a fertility clinic.
What followed was an 18-month emotional roller coaster of clinic visits, injections, and, ultimately, intrauterine insemination (IUI). Finally, Andrea became pregnant with twins. Her little girl and boy are now toddlers.
Here, Andrea shares her suggestions for those struggling to conceive—and for people who want to be good allies to them.
Be kind and sensitive.
You never know what another is going through. Well-intended questions can be agonizing.
Sometimes, I declined baby showers when they felt too hard emotionally.
The fertility clinic managed the physical aspects well, but for the emotional support, I turned to my amazing partner, family, and trusted friends.
Consider a mindfulness course for fertility.
Mine offered meditation techniques I still use today.
Advocate for your own health.
I became more in tune with my body and mind throughout my fertility journey, and I trusted my gut.
Remember you’re not alone.
So many are going through this, yet it’s still not a commonplace discussion.
When it’s just not happening
“Nobody knows if conceiving will be easy or hard for their body to do until they try,” says Bodak. “In our current culture and understanding of how not to have a baby, it’s often scary and disorienting to struggle with conception when we actually want to be pregnant.”
Plus, adds Bodak, “Trying to ‘not stress’ about having a baby is stressful. People can feel caught in a vicious cycle of sensing that time is running out, all the while wanting to stay relaxed about the fact that the process is taking time.”
Meyer and Bodak say some of the potential challenges to conception include
- lifelong menstrual irregularity
- long-term oral contraceptive use
- cysts, polyps, and fibroids
- fallopian tube malfunction
- low thyroid function
- eating habits that don’t feed eggs and sperm well
- environmental pollutants driving down sperm counts and quality
- older age
“Although many women and men are quite healthy as they age,” says Meyer, “women are born with a limited store of eggs, and this supply diminishes every period. Egg and sperm quality also tend to decrease with age, which can lead to conception challenges and miscarriages.”
And it’s not just about an individual’s health; it’s about how healthy their environment is too. “Recent research indicates that the health of the environment has direct and indirect impacts on human fertility,” notes Meyer. “Chronic exposures to plastics and chemicals, increased toxic loads, and food quality can also contribute to difficulties with fertility.”
Indeed, research abounds about reduced fertility for those working with plastics, as a result of concentrated air pollution, and for people with poor-quality nutrition.
Should you seek help?
Both Bodak and Meyer suggest seeking medical clarification after six to 12 months of unsuccessful trying.
It’s also important to remember that making a family involves much more than fertility. “Literally everyone,” emphasizes Meyer, “has many options to create a family of their own.” The possibilities for what constitutes a family “are vast indeed.”