In your mid-30s and want a baby – whether that’s now or in a few years? You’re not alone. Figures show one-in-five new mothers is over 35, and record numbers of women in their 40s are having babies. Not that it’s anything new – interestingly, more women had babies over 40 in 1947 than in recent years, and before the era of reliable contraception, the average age to have a last baby was 42. So while your 20s and early 30s are the optimum conception time, it’s certainly not necessarily over after that.
Help Yourself ‘In purely biological terms, trying to start a family before you’re 35 is a good idea,’ says fertility expert and acupuncturist Emma Cannon, author of new book Fertile. ‘But life may not work out that way and there’s a lot you can do to help increase your chances of conceiving at a later age.’ Even if you’re not thinking about having a baby just yet, you can start to protect your fertility now. ‘You can’t change your ovarian reserve – how many eggs you have left – but, says women’s health expert Dr Marilyn Glenville, what you can impact is the quality of those remaining eggs.
Quality First ‘It’s really important to help the egg quality after you’re 35 as you have fewer eggs left, so safeguarding their quality helps make the most of the chances you have.’ We’re all different, and some women can conceive well into their 40s – but there’s no surefire way to know how long you have left on the fertility clock. Fertility clinics offer MOTs that measure follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) to evaluate how hard your ovaries will need to work to produce an egg, while the anti-Mullerian hormone (AMH) test measures ovarian reserve, and an antral follicle count physically counts follicles on an ultrasound. But, says Glenville, these tests don’t tell doctors about egg quality – so your AMH may be normal for your age but you may have few good-quality eggs left. Conversely, you could still conceive with low AMH as long as you’re ovulating. ‘The key is to address diet and lifestyle so you can optimise quality,’ she says.
Follow these tips from Emma Cannon to help your body stay baby-ready.
GET FOOD WISE
‘Nutrition is the cornerstone of fertility. Eat a wide range of foods so you get a good spread of nutrients, and avoid low-fat diet foods – your body needs healthy fats. Eat good-quality fats found in oily fish (the smaller the better as they’re lower in toxins). Anchovies and sardines are good choices. Have a wide range of vegetables and grains – variety is key in order to get micro nutrients. If you’re a meat eater, eat a small amount of good-quality red meat, particularly important after your period to boost iron levels. Research suggests that a Mediterranean diet and full-fat dairy (for those who are not lactose intolerant) supports fertility. Nuts and seeds and good-quality, cold-pressed oils are also beneficial.’
‘This is a tough one, as trying to conceive can be stressful, but it’s important to de-stress as much as possible – at its most extreme, stress can affect ovulation. Try not to embark on ‘project baby’, becoming fixated and ultra vigilant. Baby-making is different from wedding planning and house buying, and if you go at it in the same way it’s bound to create more stress and tension. This can be difficult when you’ve been trying a long time. In this case, make sure you’re doing plenty of de-stressing activities, such as yoga and walking. Mindfulness meditation can help, or try t’ai chi or qi gong – these are essentially moving forms of meditation.’
BEAT BAD HABITS
‘Smoking is a no-no when it comes to fertility and is said to be the cause of 13 per cent of infertility worldwide. You should also avoid caffeine and alcohol – although for those who have been trying for a long time this can become quite joyless and create tension in and of itself, so it can be counterproductive. My advice would be to save alcohol for celebrations and the occasional act of spontaneity. The same with caffeine – once in a while it will not cause a problem, so there’s no need to be super strict.’
CHOOSE THE RIGHT DIETARY ADD-ONS
‘Flaxseeds are the richest dietary source of lignans, a group of phytochemicals that have potential for weak oestrogenic or anti-oestrogenic effects in a woman’s body. We know that at the same dosage, the oestrogenic effects in the body are greater from flaxseed than from soy. Cold-pressed oils (such as hemp seed) can also be helpful. But don’t have all these things daily – again, the best advice is to alternate. Throw some flaxseeds on a salad or in a smoothie but don’t feel you have to have them every day. Eat a variety of seeds, including seasame and chia.’
GET THE NEEDLE
‘Acupuncture is my go-to therapy for all things fertility – it has the longest record of efficacy in the area of fertility – longer than western medicine. It’s useful to help women relax and to optimise fertility so it’s a win-win. When you have acupuncture, the body releases endorphins and this makes the body feel safe and provides optimal conditions for fertility.’
GEN UP ON SUPPLEMENTS
‘Start with a good multivitamin containing folic acid. You should have vitamin D if you’re deficient – which you may be if you’re indoors a lot and always wear SPF when outside. Omega-3 can be helpful if you don’t eat oily fish. Some women take a supplement called DHEA which some studies suggest can improve egg quality, but it can affect your hormone levels, so doing a saliva test to measure your levels in the morning and then prescribing based on that is probably the best approach. Coenzyme Q10 is also helpful in older women – it helps prevent damage to DNA by free radicals.’
WORK IT OUT
‘Modern exercise trends, which include ‘boot-camp’-style workouts, Bikram (‘hot’) yoga and triathlons tend to be extreme and not conducive to conceiving. Many people are running on empty and depleted in vital energy. In some people, the body may not have enough energy to support both intense physical training and pregnancy. For example, more than three hours of aerobic exercise a day has been shown to reduce pregnancy rates in IVF patients. However, regular and moderate exercise has been shown to improve blood flow and reduce oxidative stress, which may improve fertility. Choose gentle exercise you enjoy – but avoid anything that overheats you. I also think running is not the best exercise for women trying to conceive. On an evolutionary level, running was something we did to survive. So when running, adrenaline sends the message to our brains that we are in danger. This is not the optimal condition for conception. If you love running, it may be a good idea to reduce it while you’re trying to conceive.’
TACKLE ANY WEIGHT ISSUES
‘Increased weight is associated with reduced fertility. In fact, the latest evidence suggests being either extremely over- or underweight may have a negative impact on fertility. Body fat helps convert the male hormone androgen into oestrogen – so having too little fat can affect your cycle. But if you’re overweight, you may develop insulin resistance, which can lead to an overproduction of the hormone leptin. This can contribute to irregular or absent ovulation.’
FOODS FOR FERTILITY
In Chinese medicine terms, the following can all have balancing effects in your body, says Cannon.
Apples, aubergines, bitter salad leaves, cottage cheese, crab, cress and cucumber all have a cooling effect.
Aduki beans, barley, celery, coriander, lemons and horseradish can help resolve damp in the body.
Almonds, beetroot, carrots, cayenne pepper, chicken, ginger, nutmeg, figs, chocolate, cinnamon and cloves are warming foods.
Aduki beans, apricots, eggs, kale, leafy greens, beetroot, bone broth, bone marrow, cherries and dandelion nourish the blood.