Face it, for most 20-somethings, getting pregnant isn't top priority. Not getting pregnant is more like it. But the truth is, it's never too early to protect your fertility for the future. Otherwise, when you are ready to start a family, getting pregnant might not be as easy as you envisioned.
To steer clear of potential roadblocks, you can do myriad things years before you decide to have a child. Here are five strategies to safeguard your fertility:
1. DON'T WAIT TOO LONG. "Many women don't realize that their peak fertility time is in their mid-20s and already starting to fall by their late 20s," says Jamie Grifo, program director of the New York University Fertility Center. Infertility rates about double for women between the early 30s and early 40s.
Male fertility isn't timeless, either. After 50, some men may experience a decline in sperm quality--they produce more misshapen cells and fewer that can swim well--which can make fertilization trickier.
2. PRACTICE SAFE SEX. Sexually-transmitted diseases can drastically reduce one's ability to get pregnant--so abstinence or consistent condom use can simultaneously prevent pregnancy today and preserve fertility for the future. Chlamydia and gonorrhea are two leading causes of infertility; untreated, either can cause pelvic inflammatory disease.
3. EAT RIGHT. While there is no real fertility diet, says NYU's Grifo, good eating habits will help keep your hormone levels on an even keel. Opt for a healthful diet of fruit and vegetables, and choose whole grains instead of refined carbohydrates. Carbs can cause a rapid rise in blood sugar and higher insulin levels, which can hamper ovulation.
4. AVOID ENVIRONMENTAL TOXINS. There's mounting evidence that numerous environmental factors have an effect on fertility. In a recent laboratory study, for instance, researchers at the University of California- San Francisco found that bisphenol A, a chemical used in rigid plastic packaging for many foods and beverages, decreased the division of uterine cells, which could potentially prevent an embryo from attaching to the uterus. To be safe, don't microwave polycarbonate plastic food containers (recycling code No. 7) and avoid canned foods, since cans are often coated on the inside with BPA.
Other, more established environmental threats include lead and lead compounds, which can cause hormonal and menstrual irregularities, and radiation like X-rays, which damage rapidly dividing cells. Benzene--used to make certain rubbers, lubricants, dyes, and detergents and found in some paint, nail polish, and hair dyes--can cause women to stop having periods; exposed men may experience decreased sperm count, according to the American Fertility Association, a New York City-based nonprofit organization. Researchers are also finding that phthalates, a class of chemicals found in many cosmetics, have the potential to cause irregularities in ovulation and decrease sperm quality.
5. MAINTAIN A GOOD WEIGHT AND HEALTHFUL HABITS. Studies have shown that being too thin--or too heavy--can throw off women's hormone levels and suppress ovulation. Overweight men could have hormonal problems associated with low sperm count and quality.
Exercise is, of course, a key to staying on top of your reproductive game. Men, however, might be cautious about working out in tight-fitting pants like biking shorts, which can overheat the testicles. Prolonged and repeated exposure to heat can impair sperm count and movement. Smoking also damages sperm and lowers sperm counts. And, in women, smoking appears to accelerate the loss of eggs, potentially advancing the onset of menopause by several years.
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