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Fertile Imagination

Baby, bust those myths


When couples find they are having problems conceiving, the world and his wife become experts. TOI-Crest speaks to doctors to separate fact from fiction.

Some things never change, rue newly married couples. As soon as the suhaag raat is over, friends and relatives jump in with advice on babymaking. Anyone who makes the mistake of admitting they're "stuck" will be inundated with tips and tricks which range from harmless aromatherapy to post-sex shoulder stands to help the swimmers make their way faster. Most people say their pet peeve is when 'wellwishers' say 'Relax, it'll just happen', or the ones who talk in hushed tones about couples who found out they were pregnant as soon as they signed up for adoption. Ad executive Supriya Mehta, who put pregnancy on hold for a while, says the barrage of well-meaning suggestions "can get quite exasperating". But the 34-year-old confesses to sometimes getting a "wee bit apprehensive" about her biological clock ticking away. How late is too late and does stress come in the way of conception? What about diet? Let's examine some common theories.

Fertility slows with age

True. Says Abha Majumdar, director, IVF, at Gangaram Hospital, "Sometime back, even in the urban scenario, the first child was generally conceived when the woman was around 22 to 24 years old. Now, it's as late as 28-29, if not later. This is not good because after 30, reproductive problems become more common. " According to her, 37-and-a-half is the watershed year after which there's a sharp decline in a woman's fertility even if she's otherwise 100 per cent normal. Majumdar has seen a decline in ovarian reserves even in much younger women "which is pretty alarming". This, she says, could be because of factors like smoking, chronic infections, and treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy, etc. Dr Sonu Talwar, incharge of Infertility & IVS at BL Kapur Hospital adds, "Women must remember that after the age of 40, chances of abnormality in children increase manifold. One has seen instances of Down's Syndrome in kids born to older women. They need to become more aware that after a certain age (37), the quality of eggs cannot be reversed. The ovarian reserve pool gets decreased with each menstrual cycle. "

While we know that a woman's fertility drops with age, men actually experience a similar reduction in fertility over the years. For men over 45, there also begin to be problems in the sperm's DNA (fragmentation), which considerably increases the odds of miscarriage. And after 45, there is also five times the risk of autism, and twice the risk of Down's syndrome, schizophrenia, and congenital abnormalities.

Smoking affects women but not men

It's harmful for both. Says Majumdar, "In women, it can cause ovarian failure and in men, sperm reduction. So, both sexes need to curb that urge to light up. Why indulge in an activity that affects the egg as well as the sperm quality?" Also, doctors say that women shouldn't wait to conceive to give up smoking. That will only reduce your chances. Adds Talwar, "It is now a known fact that even passive smoking is harmful. So, it's good to stay away from cigarettes, excessive alcohol and of course, recreational drugs which can affect the menstrual cycle. " Although alcohol "within limits" is fine, binge drinking is harmful, especially for pregnant women. With excessive alcohol intake, sexual performance can get affected so that can cause fertility problems, says Majumdar. Also, alcohol is a gonadotoxin, which means it can seriously reduce the production of healthy sperm.

Laptops: Too hot to handle

Men might want to start leaving the laptops to the ladies. Or at least work while the computers are on a desk, according to recent research on "scrotal hyperthermia. " According to researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, laptops release warmth that can overheat testicles within 15 minutes. The heat finds its way through lap pads, though men rarely feel a temperature increase. Doctors now tell male patients to avoid placing laptop computers on their laps, and even avoid using saunas and hot tubs on a regular basis. Also, don't sit at a desk with your legs crossed for long periods.

Go easy on the caffeine

Not too harmful unless consumed in large quantities. While some studies have shown a link between caffeine consumption and a woman's ability to conceive, some others have not been able to trace any link between the two. To be on the safe side, go easy on the caffeine, says Talwar. Majumdar too advises against excessive coffee consumption as it can "probably cause subtle disorders in ovulation but otherwise nothing is really proven. "

Stress is a factor

To some extent. As Talwar says, "When stressed, all the higher centres of the brain get affected and certain chemicals are produced that could affect the ovaries. Even sperm functions are reduced to some extent. " But, while stress can delay ovulation by suppressing hormones, the actual meeting of sperm and egg isn't really affected by normal stress at all, which means it doesn't come in the way of conception. Stress, as Majumdar adds, causes infertility in a "different way" by causing ovulation disorders in women. "That's because stress affects the hypothalamus, the master organ that dictates the whole ovulation process. " In men, stress could lead to impotency. This happens because there could be a high steroid secretion that in turn could reduce sperm production. "It depends on the levels of stress - if it's the kind that's affecting your work and family life, it could also affect your fertility, " warns Majumdar. She suggests medical help and of course, exercise and meditation.

Kilos have nothing to do with fertility

Being too fat or too thin can affect fertility. So can fad diets. "I've seen young girls follow these diet plans mindlesslessly, and the consequences are sometimes pretty drastic like an irregular menstrual cycle, " says Talwar. Of course, while being too thin is bad, so is being obese as this can affect ovulation. One study that followed 47, 835 couples found that when both partners were obese, their chances of having to wait longer than a year to conceive were nearly three times higher than couples with normal body mass indexes (BMI).

Watch what you eat

"We Indians are obsessed with food. Whenever people come to me for consultations, they check about foods like papaya and dry fruits but I tell them that no food can reduce or increase fertility, " says Talwar.

Avoid lifting weights

Young unmarried girls, till some back, were constantly warned about physical activity. "I was told not to pick up buckets, trunks and other heavy objects around the house by my grandmother. Whether or not this advice followed any logic in that I now tell my daughter the same things. Of course, they're not doing stuff like moving heavy trunks etc any more but they do some tough workout at the gym, " says Priya Sachdev, mother of a 21-year-old. To this, Majumdar says, "Too much exercise can affect ovulation negatively specially if connected with weight loss. " Talwar, meanwhile, says that "exercise is good at any time - it keeps your metabolic rate high and your weight in check. So, there's nothing to worry about on that score. "

Birth control pills reduce fertility

There isn't enough evidence to show that consistent use of birth control pills affects a person's fertility. "Using the pill does not cause any fertility problems, " says Majumdar. A number of young couples who haven't really planned for a baby get the first pregnancy aborted. "This should be avoided. It's better to take precautions than abort the first pregnancy as it could cause problems in conceiving later, " says Talwar.

Have sex everyday when you're trying to get pregnant

You probably think the more sex you have, the greater your chances of getting pregnant. While that may sound like a fun (or exhausting!) theory, it's not true. If a man with a normal sperm count ejaculates multiple times a day, it can actually drive sperm counts down, say doctors.

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