Guest Post by Sarah Wright
We are the healthiest generation that ever lived! At least that is what we would assume.
We are lead to believe that our lives and the lives of the average American (or any other nationality) is getting better as each year passes. Each generation seems to live longer, have more material possessions and overall stay healthier and more active for longer.
It’s nearly every week that the news is reporting that scientists have made a discovery - a new way to beat cancer, heart disease, etc. Nowadays you can hardly access social media without finding lists of "5 clean eating recipes", "10 ways to rev up your sex life", or "6 ways to live forever". So wouldn't it stand to reason, then that we should be healthier, more vibrant, and ultimately have better lives than our grandparents?
For the most part this would be correct. However, for certain areas of human life this isn’t actually true. One such area is fertility.
There have been huge advancements in the medical community over the past 50 years which have been instrumental in allowing more couples to have healthy babies. Because of our improved understanding of a pregnant woman’s dietary needs and improvement in medical treatments the rate of infant mortality has been slashed from 55.7 per 1,000 live births in 1935 (1) to 5.87 in 2000, according to the latest research by the CIA (2). With the invention of fertility treatments such as IVF, couples who before had no hope of ever conceiving now had a realistic chance. It has even been found that the rate of infertility has decreased
However, while these are the headline facts you probably have a nagging feeling that this isn’t the whole truth. Anyone in their late 20’s and beyond will be familiar with a least someone close to them that has had trouble conceiving.
So what is causing this disconnect?
Yes, less people are being diagnosed as “infertile” but this is largely because more and more couples are seeking help from fertility clinics earlier before they can be classified as infertile. Which helps explain the fact that the number of couples seeking IVF treatment has steadily increased over the past two decades. (3)
Whereas for the couples who are still trying to conceive naturally without artificial treatment they on average have lower fertility than their grandparents because of the social, dietary and environmental factors that have changed in the intervening years.
So the question is, why, with better nutrition available and more access to health care are we still facing a higher instance of fertility challenges?
We don't eat the way our grandparents did. Do you remember eating breakfast at your grandparents' house? Oatmeal, bacon, eggs, toast, juice, every morning for 60 years. All naturally raised/grown and if you lived in the country you probably even knew who grew it! Maybe they even raised the chickens themselves. How times have changed…
Today we live in a world where a lot of our food comes wrapped in plastic (more on why that's bad here), processed and shipped half way across the world so we can eat it out of season. While the trend toward organic, free-range, grass-fed, non-GMO food products are promising, nutrition in the United States in general is still contributing to an increase in impaired fecundity (Impaired fecundity is is a term used for couple who have trouble conceiving or carrying a baby once conception occurs. These couples are not necessarily dealing with infertility as much as they are dealing with conception or pregnancy problems). Women who are experiencing problems conceiving are generally not getting enough vital nutrients such as Magnesium, Vitamins C and B6, and Zinc.
We are substituting on low-nutrient, overly-processed convenience foods rather than vitamin and mineral-rich whole foods (read here for 8 Simple Tips to Getting Started With Real Food) that are easily processed by the body's metabolism. Our consumption of fruits, vegetables and saturated fats has plummeted over the last thirty years leaving us with insufficient essential vitamins, minerals and fatty acids such as Vitamins A, D, E, and K12. These deficiencies compound to create fertility problems, hormone imbalances, and low progesterone levels.
Great-Grandma and Grandpa likely raised, grew, cured, and preserved the majority of their own foods, meaning everything was "free-range", "organic", "grass fed", and "unpasteurized". Today we get surrounded with xenoestrogens, chemicals that mimic estrogen in the body, that are literally everywhere.
From artificial sweeteners to Genetically Modified Organisms, from soy products to hormone-enhanced dairy and meat, even our skin care products, consuming estrogen compounds can lead to a medical condition called "estrogen dominance". Which, can severely impact your chances of conceiving. Even if your body is producing normal amounts of progesterone, xenoestrogens have the ability to overwhelm the body's ability to process them.
And it's not just the foods that you are eating that can be problematic, it is what you are storing them in. Every plastic container, from your child's plastic sippy cup to your PBA-free plastic water bottle, can leach xenoestrogens into whatever you are consuming, creating measurable changes to your health.
While "The Greatest Generation" certainly had stress in their lives, it was different than what the typical American experiences today. In a study published in 2012, Carnegie Mellon University researchers discovered that people's self-reported stress has increased 10-30% in the last 30 years (4). With advances in technology that have made our jobs easier, we have also become more susceptible to work-related stress in other aspects of our lives. Think of it this way. Grandpa put in his time at his 9-5, came home, and effectively left work at work. Chances are, if you actually left the office at 5, you were back on your laptop checking emails at 9:30 to arrange the next day's agenda.
In addition to all of the negative psychological effects stress has on the mind, it also directly affects a person's fertility. Stress triggers a person's "fight or flight" response causing the body to produce the stress hormone cortisol. Which diverts resources away from producing progesterone in what is called the “pregnenolone steal”. Having low levels of progesterone (see the symptoms here) can make it more difficult to get pregnant and stay pregnant.
Did you know that the average person is 24 pounds heavier today than the average person in 1960 (5)? We have a much more sedentary lifestyle than our grandparents had. We tend to rely less on physical labour for our livelihood and are far more likely to drive to work and the shops. While everyone wasn’t as “fit as a fiddle” in our grandparents time they had a much a much more active lifestyle and didn’t eat nearly as much high calorie and sugary processed foods. This made them more fertile as weight matters a lot when it comes to fertility.
Think of your body fat as an estrogen producing organ. Some fat is necessary in order to have adequate amounts of estrogen for ovulation. Too much body fat means the body is overwhelmed by estrogen leading to estrogen dominance which further leads to cessation in ovulation. There is hope. One study of moderately obese women (BMI of 30- 35) between 18 and 35, who were not ovulating, found that a 10 percent reduction in weight correlated with an 87 percent resumption in ovulation (6). The same study concluded that even small amounts of weight loss in women can assist in balancing hormone levels.
No article on the rise of fertility issues is complete without a mention of age. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that women are increasingly having children later in life and with an increase in age comes a decrease in fertility.
The CDC studied three generations of mothers and found that those born in 1910 and 1935, three-fourths had their first child when they were under the age of 25 (7). By 1960 only half of mothers had their first child when they were under the age of 25 (7). That trend continues today where many women in the US are waiting until they are in their 30's and 40's to have children in order to establish their careers before trying to juggle a family. The average age of women having their first child was at a record high 26 years old in 2013, 3.3 years higher than it was in 1980 (8).
While "40 is the new 20" in many circles, doctors have been saying for years that 35 is the magic number when it comes to fertility. Between ages of 35 and 50, a woman's estrogen levels decrease by as much as 30% while her progesterone levels decrease by as much as 70%. With declining progesterone levels comes a greater likelihood of difficulty conceiving as well as miscarriage. But aging not only decreases the likelihood of conceiving without medical intervention, it increases the chances of having a child with a genetic abnormality (9).
Great. Now What?
Now, before you bury your head in your hands, there is hope. Even though fertility challenges are more common, our capacity to solve them is also on the rise. Thanks to medical advancements such as IVF, science has obliterated many of the physiological obstacles that our grandparents simply accepted. Still, before jumping to the extensive and expensive conclusion, let's suffice it to say that our diets and lifestyle has a tremendous impact on our fertility. Perhaps if we mimicked more of our forefather's ways of life we would not find ourselves in the clutches of infertility as often.
- Singh GK, van Dyck PC. Infant Mortality in the United States, 1935-2007: Over Seven Decades of Progress and Disparities.A 75th Anniversary Publication. Health Resources and Services Administration, Maternal and Child Health Bureau. Rockville, Maryland: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2010.
- The World Factbook. 2016. The World Factbook. [ONLINE]
- Latest figures show the number of IVF treatments continue to rise - HFEA. 2016. Latest figures show the number of IVF treatments continue to rise - HFEA. [ONLINE]
- S. Cohen and D. Janicki-Deverts, “Who’s stressed? Distribu-tions of psychological stress in the United States in probability samples from 1983, 2006 and 2009,”Journal of Applied Social Psychology. In press.
- Obesity Rates & Trends Overview: The State of Obesity. 2016. Obesity Rates & Trends Overview: The State of Obesity. [ONLINE]
- Effect of weight reduction on the clinical and hormonal condition of obese anovulatory women. – PubMed – NCBI . 2016. Effect of weight reduction on the clinical and hormonal condition of obese anovulatory women.
- Kirmeyer SE, Hamilton BE. Childbearing differences among three generations of U.S. women. NCHS data brief, no 68. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2011.
- CDC.gov. 2016. Infertility | Reproductive Health | CDC. [ONLINE]