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Infertility is fast becoming a modern day problem. What can you do to improve your chances of conceiving?

Having children is something most of us take for granted, but it can come as a horrible shock to find out that you may not be able to conceive exactly when you want to. At the moment one in seven couples have trouble conceiving, according to the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Authority.

Dr Rob Hicks, a specialist in fertility, believes that infertility may be on the increase. “One of the main reasons is that people are just too busy to have sex. I see people who say they have had sex once this month and haven’t got pregnant or they are sticking to the rule of just having sex during the fertile period. They should be having sex two or three times a week.”

Infertility is defined as the inability to conceive a child within a year. It can be due to a single cause or a combination of reasons. Both men and women can be infertile for a variety of reasons, from medical to lifestyle factors. Infertility is seldom absolute and should not be confused with being sterile. In many cases couples having trouble conceiving are able to overcome the problem, either with or without treatment.

Conception is a complicated process that relies upon a whole range of factors – the production of healthy sperm and eggs; unblocked fallopian tubes allowing the sperm to reach the egg; the sperm’s ability to fertilise the egg when they meet; the ability of the fertilised egg to become implanted in the woman’s uterus; and sufficient embryo quality. If just one of these factors is impaired, infertility can result.

Contrary to popular belief infertility is not just a woman’s problem; male infertility is just as common. A recent study by Norwich Union Healthcare suggests that men’s infertility may even be on the rise. The report estimates that 2.5 million men in the UK may be at risk of low sperm count. The study questioned GPs, 44 per cent of whom believed smoking was the leading cause of infertility, with alcohol seen as a risk by 11 per cent.

Furthermore, in a recent poll of 2000 of its readers, Pregnancy & Birth magazine found that two-thirds of women trying to conceive continue to drink alcohol and four in ten continue to smoke. Three out of ten couples trying to conceive were reported as taking recreational drugs.

Generally speaking a third of fertility problems are to do with women, a third are to do with men and a third are unexplained. The most common causes for infertility for men are when no or few sperm cells are produced. Sometimes sperm are malformed, or die before they reach the egg. When the sperm count is low IVF methods can be used, in particular the ICSI technique where a single sperm is introduced to the egg using an extremely fine needle.

For women, one of the most common problems is ovulation disorders. This is indicated by absent or infrequent periods. Ovulation failure can occur for a number of reasons. Often it can be due to blocked fallopian tubes, which can result from pelvic inflammatory disease and endometriosis, and sexually transmitted diseases, such as chlamydia, which can also affect men’s infertility. Once the cause is identified, most cases can be successfully treated.

Predictably alcohol is one of the main culprits when it comes to affecting your chances of getting pregnant. Dr Hicks recommends cutting down as much as possible. “As a nation we are drinking more alcohol. My advice is to cut down your intake by half. Though I would also advise women trying to conceive to give up altogether as when pregnant it is best not to drink at all. Since you don’t always find out you are pregnant straight away, you could be drinking while you’ve been pregnant for four weeks. Of course how much to cut out is down to how comfortable the individual is with balancing the risks. Some people may want or need a drink and feel that the risk of having a drink is not outweighed by the small risk to the unborn child.”

Smoking is equally damaging. Research has found that women who smoke are adding ten years to their reproductive age and that the quality and number of sperm are affected for men. Diet also plays a big role. Lack of nutrients, such as Vitamin C, selenium, zinc and folate can cause problems. Selenium works with Vitamin E to promote cell growth and Vitamins A, C and E ensure there is a lot of good quality sperm able to fight their way through to the egg.

Obesity can be a problem. Fat cells produce the hormone oestrogen. For women, too much oestrogen in the body can cause it to react as if it is on birth control, reducing ovulation. Being underweight is also thought to affect ovulation.

Dr Hicks believes delaying motherhood is another factor to take into consideration:
“I think we might also see an increase in infertility as couples are having families much later when it is more difficult to get pregnant.” With more and more women choosing to have a family in their 30s and 40s to allow time for their careers they will more than likely face problems conceiving. Unfortunately our bodies have not yet evolved with changes in the ways we choose to work. Once a woman is in her 30s her fertility potential starts to decline. The ideal age for women to have a family is 26, according to Professor Ledger from Sheffield University. For men, a gradual decline in fertility over 35 is natural.

As with most health issues, stress is also a concern. “Although we don’t understand the link between stress and infertility, stress does seem to play a big part. And sex is usually low down people’s list of priorities. Often when people go on holiday and take a break, they come back pregnant. Or sometimes it happens immediately after they’ve made an appointment to see a doctor about it,” says Dr Hicks.

With so many possible factors involved, what then are the best ways to prime yourself and your partner for pregnancy? Dr Hicks suggests five simple measures:

• Have sex as often as possible
• Cut out the smoking
• Make sure you take time out to relax and de-stress
• Adopt as healthy a diet as you can, making sure you include good doses of Vitamin C, selenium, zinc and folate
• Keep alcohol consumption to as little as possible