After years of struggling to figure out what was wrong with her body, Dr. Kyle Willets ditched birth control and completely changed her diet. By eliminating foods such as sugar, Dr. Willets healed her body from PCOS and no longer needed to be on medication to regulate her cycles (see her blog post her on her personal journey here). As hard as it may be to believe, it’s been scientifically shown that by making changes, such as adding 30 minutes of walking a day, to losing 10 pounds, hormonal imbalances can be fixed and therefore, lead to regular cycles in some women.
There are of course certain situations that can’t be changed, such as age and genetic disorders (i.e. perimenopause or late-onset congenital adrenal hyperplasia). Here we address 5 common causes of irregular cycles in which lifestyle changes may help to regulate your period.
Studies reveal that there is a 'fertility zone' for healthy weight, which is a BMI range of 20-24. If you fall under or over the BMI 'fertility zone' your weight could be affecting your ability conceive. To find out if you in the fertility zone for healthy weight, you can calculate your BMI here. Please note that this can be misleading because even if you do fall in the BMI range of 20-24, eating a poor diet and having lack of physical activity, can still be impact your fertility, hormones, pregnancy and future health of your baby.
The National Infertility Association reports that 30 percent of infertility cases are due to weight extremes, which can alter hormone levels and throw ovulation off schedule. It's also important to know that about 75 percent of overweight women who struggle with fertility have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) (source). If you have irregular cycles and/or are under or overweight, consult with your doctor about a plan that may be needed to balance your hormones.
By taking charge of your weight, you may have a higher chance of getting pregnant and staying pregnant. In a review of 11 studies, 8 of them showed that weight loss translated into significantly increased pregnancy rates and/or live birth weights in both overweight and obese women (source). For women with extremely low body fat, this can be associated with low estrogen levels, which can cause cycle irregularity and even amenorrhea which is absence of a period.
Click below to learn more about how to safely lose weight when trying to get conceive
While research shows that too much exercise can harm fertility, with only 31.8% of Americans getting the recommended amount of exercise per week, the problem for the majority of us isn’t doing too much exercise, but not getting enough (source). When done right, exercise has been found to help with fertility by 1) increasing insulin sensitivity, which improves ovarian function and the chance of conception (source), 2) improving rates of implantation and pregnancy as well as reduce the risk of miscarriage (source), and 3) as a key component to managing weight, which is essential for getting pregnant due to hormonal imbalances that can occur with excessive weight.
The current recommendation to exercise ‘right’ for women trying to conceive is to do moderate physical activity. Moderate physical activity has been associated with a small increase in fertility regardless of your body mass index (BMI) (source).
We simply are not made to consume the amount of sugar we put into our bodies each day. We aren’t just talking about cookies and cake here, refined carbohydrates such as white bread and pasta, juices and sugary drinks, and even sauces such as ketchup and salad dressing, all contain sugar. Studies find that on average we eat 22.2 teaspoons of sugar per day when we should be consuming 6 or less teaspoons per day (source). Too much sugar can cause a whole host of problems including insulin resistance, unhealthy weight gain, yeast infections, lowered immunity and hormone disruption. None of which is good for trying to get pregnant.
The landmark Nurses' Health Study found that women who ate a specific diet were indeed more fertile. It’s not some secret diet, but simply reveals that women who ate a diet high in whole grains, vegetables and fruit, were more fertile than women who ate more processed food and trans fat. The study also suggests that eating more plant protein than animal protein has positive effects on fertility (source).
Recreational Substances and Medication
Several years ago, in 2008, a study released by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that women who consume 200mg or more of caffeine daily are twice as likely to have a miscarriage as those who do not consume any caffeine. Yet, in another study published in the journal Epidemiology, no increased risk in women who drank a minimal amount of coffee daily (between 200-350 mg per day) was found (source).
If you are a coffee drinker, don’t stress, you most likely can still have coffee. Just don’t over do it and stick to having no more than one - two cups a day. ACOG, March of Dimes, EFSA all recommend and state that consuming fewer than 200 mg of caffeine (one 12-oz cup of coffee) a day during pregnancy is safe.
According to National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NAFA), if you are trying to conceive you should have a total of zero sips of alcohol. The American Academy of Pediatrics state: “Evidence based research states that even drinking small amounts of alcohol while pregnant can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, prematurity, or sudden infant death syndrome.” (source).
Dr. Howard LeWine M.D., Chief Medical Editor for Harvard Health, says that this may be way too extreme (haha- Dr. LeWine!). He points out that the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology reports having minimal alcohol use during the first trimester doesn’t appear to increase the risk for high blood pressure complications, or premature birth or low birth weights (source). Studies do show that having two or more glasses a day can significantly reduce your fertility. Overall, it's recommended to avoid alcohol during the time of your cycle that you may be pregnant since it's not clear exactly how much alcohol it takes to harm the fetus.
Smoking, on the other hand, is known to have a major impact on fertility. Men that smoke may have reduced sperm count and damaged DNA. Women that smoke reduce how receptive their uterus is to the egg. Not to mention that women who smoke also have increased probability of having a miscarriage (source). Smoking can be highly addictive and difficult to quit with out help. If you and/or your partner smoke, you may want to ask your doctor about smoking cessation programs to help.
When it comes to medications, such as those to treat epilepsy or mental health problems, you should consult with your doctor on not only the impact on your fertility, but also your unborn baby. You should also talk to your doctor and/or read labels carefully for over-the-counter drugs and herbal supplements. Many are not considered safe for pregnancy.
A recent study that researched 120,000 women who perform shift work lends insight into the extent of how much sleep impacts fertility. The study revealed that women who work night shifts had an 80% higher rate of fertility issues, including a significantly more difficult time conceiving and a higher risk of having a miscarriage (source). Why does this happen? Researchers have not yet pinpointed the exact cause, but experts believe that circadian rhythm is involved. Your internal clocks tell your body when to start and stop numerous biochemical functions at specific times. Among the many things that these clocks control such as hair growth, appetite, and sleep, is hormone production. When your circadian rhythm is disrupted, it upsets these internal clocks and your body’s clock genes may cause biological changes that alter your hormone production (source).
Ok, so if you don’t sleep well, you might be thinking, ‘Thanks a lot! Now I’ll be even more stressed if I can’t sleep!” Don't worry, following sleep hygiene tips can make a world of a difference. Check them out here.
Yes, it’s true, that no matter what you do, you can’t turn back the clock or make more eggs than you were born with, but even if you end up needing medical assistance, making positive lifestyle changes will help your fertility journey by making a healthier version of yourself.