Environmental Factors May Have a Bigger Impact on Fertility than You Think
Breaking Down the Science and Ways to Limit Harmful Exposures
Trying to get pregnant should be an exciting time of planning for the next stage of your life, not one full of doctors visits, constant testing, and worrying about body temperatures. But, if you and your partner are struggling with infertility, you are not alone. According to the CDC about 12% of women have impaired fecundity, which is another way of saying that they are having difficulty getting or staying pregnant (1) [there are no statistics on infertility in men, but there is science showing that overall sperm count is decreasing(14)]. And, the science is clear, environmental factors definitely impact reproductive health – for both men and women. Some of the biggest impacts come from air pollution, pesticides, and endocrine disrupting chemicals (2), which are in all sorts of products and affect the way hormones interact with your body.
Pollution has been linked to a couple of different reasons that couples might experience infertility (3). One of the big ones is that men who are exposed to high levels of air pollution have decreased sperm motility two to three months later (4). That means if there is poor air quality now, for the next two to three months, men’s sperm could have a tough time moving around, meaning it is less likely to find the egg, and the couple is less likely to get pregnant. Additionally, for women who are exposed to air pollution, there is evidence that they have lower rates of fertility and higher rates of miscarriage (5). The same is true for both women who are able to get pregnant conventionally and those using IVF to get pregnant.
Exposure to pollution is hard to control, but there are a couple of ways you can try to limit your exposure besides voting for and supporting regulations that control air pollution. One way is to purchase an air purifier that targets indoor air pollution. Another is to watch air quality alerts (you can do that right in your standard weather app) and stay inside on particularly bad days.
This is another one that affects both men and women. Many studies have looked at people who regularly come into contact with pesticides because they are applying them, most often for their jobs. These studies have found that pesticides change hormone levels causing lower sperm rates and lessened sperm quality in men (6) and adding oxidative stress for women. This could mean they experience implantation difficulties and spontaneous abortions to name a just a few issues (7). But this doesn’t mean that those who don’t work with pesticides are completely in the clear. Research has also found that for women who are undergoing IVF, eating fruits and veggies that are known to have high levels of pesticides can reduce their chances of getting pregnant and having a healthy baby (8).
We have some tips to help you prioritize which produce to buy organic, which can help you avoid high levels of pesticides on the food you eat. There are even organic wine and cereal options for those nights when you’re too tired to throw together a meal.
Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
Now, this is kind of a catch-all category. It includes any substances that impact the way your endocrine system works. This typically means that the substances impact the levels of different hormones because these chemicals interfere with how your cells normally deal with hormones (9). For example, some chemicals like BPA and phthalates are known to mimic estrogen and can screw up your natural estrogen levels. If you are trying to get pregnant, and have low levels of (naturally occurring) estrogen but high levels of imitation estrogen (like BPA and phthalates), then your body won’t have the true estrogen it needs to support processes like ovulation or the thickening of the lining of the uterus for implantation (10).
There are many other hormones beside estrogen associated with your endocrine system that can be affected by these substances. This means that both men and women are likely to have altered hormone levels that can affect fertility because of EDCs. While BPA and phthalates (both found in plastics) are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) (11), pesticides and pollution are also considered EDCs. Perfluorinated chemicals, also referred to as PFAS chemicals, also act as EDCs and can impact fertility (12, 13). One other compound to consider is flame retardants. They are added to many everyday items like couches, carpet pads, and electronics, but because of how they are added they easily escape into household dust and into our bodies, where they can cause low rates of fertilization, implantation, and interfere with a successful pregnancy (15).
A couple of easy ways to limit the amount of EDCs you come into contact with every day are to invest in glass or stainless steel food storage containers and water bottles, look for personal care products that are “fragrance-free,” ditch the non-stick cookware, and take your shoes off at the door.
While it may feel like these things are everywhere, small changes to your daily routine can make a big difference. Even if you just try to make one change, it could affect your fertility and the health of your future child.
- https://www.fertstert.org/article/S0015-0282(18)30440-0/fulltext#sec6.3 Environment and Infertility: Its Role in Assisted Reproductive Technologies, Linda C. Giudice, M.D., Ph.D.