They met at an ultimate Frisbee tournament and married in 1999. Since then, Jenn Brauner and her ultra-healthy husband, Steve, have known they want children, but they're not sure when. "If I became pregnant tomorrow, I'd be happy about it and make the family thing happen, but I'm not trying to get pregnant right now because I'm just getting settled in my job as a teacher," says 33-year-old Jenn, who recently completed her master's degree. "If I wait too long to have babies, I'm afraid of what I'll miss or risk in terms of my health and that of my potential children."
Jenn and Steve aren't alone. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the delayed childbirth trend is happening nationwide, among all populations. Over the past two decades, birthrates for mothers in their 30s and 40s have more than doubled. "For many reasons, a lot of couples are waiting to start a family," says Jacqueline Germain, a naturopathic doctor and practitioner at the Connecticut Center for Health in Middletown and West Hartford. Despite dips in fertility rates as they age, she says, the Brauners can do a few simple things to minimize risks and maximize success rates when they are ready to start a family.
Dietary dos and don'ts
One of the first steps to boosting fertility is eating balanced meals, says Germain (see "More Ways to Improve Fertility," below). And whenever possible, avoid foods and packaging that increase exposure to environmental estrogens or endocrine disruptors. "These create hormonal imbalances, so do all you can to avoid them," Germain emphasizes. "Eat only organic or hormone-free meat, eggs, and dairy products. Also, never microwave in plastic, and avoid plastic in general because the xenoestrogens easily transfer from a container to food when heated or cooled." Endocrine disruptors, such as the banned pesticide DDT, have also been linked to infertility, as well as to breast and cervical cancers.
Germain also recommends that both partners stop drinking alcohol, which "can reduce fertility by half. And the more you drink, the less likely you are to conceive," she says. Alcohol decreases sperm counts, increases the level of abnormally shaped sperm, and lowers the number of motile sperm; it also inhibits the absorption of zinc, one of the most important minerals for male fertility, says Germain. "I suggest eliminating alcohol a minimum of three months prior to embarking on the road to conception."
Mind your supplements
To aid in conception and help maintain a healthy pregnancy, women should start taking a prenatal vitamin at least three months before trying to conceive, says Germain. Folic acid is an especially important nutrient to take before conception because it decreases the risk of spina bifida, a condition that occurs in early pregnancy and results in spinal cord damage to the unborn child. Plus, says Germain, B6 has been shown to increase fertility, and other B vitamins are needed to produce the DNA and RNA (ribonucleic acid) necessary for fetal development.
But women aren't the only ones who should be taking their vitamins and minerals every day. Male fertility can get a boost from supplements, too. "Vitamin C actually enhances sperm quality, perhaps protecting sperm and its DNA from free radical damage," Germain says. And vitamin C may keep sperm from clumping together, giving them better motility. Vitamin B12 has been found to improve low sperm counts. Men may also benefit from taking L-carnitine, an amino acid that affects sperm count and motility and is essential for the normal functioning of sperm cells.
To promote healthy hormone function, Germain recommends that both men and women consider supplementing with essential fatty acids, such as evening primrose oil, flaxseed oil, or fish oil. In fact, "semen is rich in certain prostaglandins that fatty acids produce," she explains. Herbal treatments also can help restore hormonal balance and increase fertility, she says. "Chaste tree berry (Vitex agnus-castus), helps women who have a shortened second half of their menstrual cycle. Vitex can reduce prolactin levels and may positively affect progesterone levels, aiding in fertility."
Reasons for optimism
Whenever Jenn and Steve decide to start their family, Germain is optimistic. "Delaying childbearing may reduce the chances of getting pregnant, but it also just might make the parents better able to be good parents, having more life experience behind them," says Germain.
Denver-based writer Anne Burnett is a frequent contributor to Delicious Living.