A dystopian future showing widespread infertility, like that portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale, seems like over-the-top fiction that could never happen in real life. However, a future filled with couples struggling to get pregnant may not be as far fetched as you think.
Infertility is on the rise. Over the past few decades, the western world has seen plummeting sperm counts and rising miscarriage rates. This decline in fertility is only predicted to get worse over the next few years.
So, what is behind this rise in infertility?
There are three big things. As you may expect, changes in the way we live our lives and couples delaying parenthood are two major contributors to the rise in infertility. However, the third is not so obvious. Hiding in everyday items, endocrine disrupting chemicals invade your body and play havoc with your reproductive system.
Read on to learn how modern living could lead us into a future filled with infertility.
1. Changing Lifestyles
Over the past few generations, the average person’s lifestyle has changed dramatically. The amount of exercise we’re doing is at an all-time low, our calorie intake has increased, and our exposure to pollution has skyrocketed. But how are these changes in lifestyle influencing our fertility?
Obesity. Sitting at a computer desk all day and eating too many calorie-dense foods can increase your chances of becoming obese. Obesity is a rising problem in the U.S., with nearly 70% of all American adults weighing more than they should.
The result of this? Changes to the body’s hormones. In men, obesity decreases testosterone levels which leads to lower sperm numbers and quality. In women, obesity can cause issues with ovulation and trigger PCOS. The rising obesity levels in the U.S. are not likely to stop anytime soon, meaning obesity-related infertility will probably become more widespread in the future.
Not getting enough exercise is common in America today. We drive instead of walking, sit in front of the TV for hours, and few of us make time for daily exercise. Being inactive can make you more likely to be overweight, which hurts fertility. However, not getting enough exercise hurts fertility even for people at a healthy weight.
Men who do regular exercise have healthier sperm than those who don’t, and frequent exercise is thought to help improve a woman’s chances of getting pregnant, especially if she is overweight. Although some exercise can boost your fertility, too much can be harmful, and over-exercising can cause issues with ovulation in women and decrease sperm quality in men. Try going for a 20–30 minute walk every day to improve your fitness level without overdoing it.
Pollution. Since the industrial revolution, pollution levels have been steadily increasing. Factories, cars, and construction work are all major causes of this spike in poorer air quality. High pollution levels have been linked to lower sperm quality in men. It does this by increasing the number of molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS) in the body. ROS aren’t always bad news, and you need some for your body to function normally. However, high levels of ROS can damage the DNA in your sperm and make you less fertile. The more pollution you breathe in, the more damaged your sperm will become, so try and avoid areas with heavy traffic and exercise in open spaces instead of urban neighborhoods.
Diet is important to think about when you’re trying to conceive. The average American is only eating half the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables every day. Fruit and vegetables are packed-full of fertility boosting vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that can improve your sperm quality and support your chances of getting pregnant.
Most people in the U.S. are eating over double the amount of saturated fat recommended by the American Heart Association. Eating a lot of saturated fat reduces sperm numbers in men, and women who are having fertility treatment are likely to have fewer mature eggs collected if they have a diet high in saturated fats. Try switching out saturated fats for monounsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids like those found in nuts, fish, avocados, and olive oil, as those fats have been shown to improve sperm quality and even increase your chances of having a baby with IVF treatment.
2. Delaying Parenthood
In our modern world, it’s becoming more and more common for couples to wait until they are well into their 30s before starting a family. This allows men and women to have successful careers and become highly educated, but what does it mean for our fertility?
Women are born with all the eggs they will ever have. At birth, women have around 1 million eggs in their ovaries. By the time they turn 30 they will have just 10% left. As women age it’s not just the egg number that decreases, but the egg quality too. Older women are more likely to have eggs that contain the wrong amount of chromosomes inside them. These eggs are called ‘aneuploid’. If an aneuploid eggs is fertilized, it will create an embryo that also has the wrong number of chromosomes. These embryos are less likely to implant in the womb and are more likely to result in a miscarriage than embryos that have the normal amount of genetic information.
Male age may play more of a role in the recent rise in infertility than you think. Unlike women, men are constantly making sperm, and will do so until they die. However, as with all systems in the body, sperm-producing mechanisms start working less well with age. This means that the number of healthy sperm falls and the number of sperm with genetic mutations rises. This can increase the chances of a miscarriage or having a child with a neurological condition, such as autism. Older men tend to produce a lower semen volume and their sperm is likely to be less motile too, making it more difficult to achieve a pregnancy in the first place.
3. Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
Whether we like it or not, chemicals are a part of our everyday lives. From the bottled water we drink, to the air that we breathe, chemicals are everywhere and they’re becoming increasingly difficult to avoid. Many of these chemicals are called Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs).
EDCs are chemicals that affect your endocrine system. The endocrine system is an essential part of your body. It controls your mood, your development, your metabolism and your reproductive hormones. Endocrine disrupting chemicals throw off the natural balance in your body and undermine female and especially male fertility.
Unfortunately, EDCs don’t stay in the products they’re put into. They ‘off-gas’ into the environment and into anything they meet, including your body. Once inside your body, EDCs can have some quite nasty effects on your fertility.
Phthalates are EDCs found in many household items. They help to make plastics flexible so are often put into the tubing used for making processed foods. They also help products keep their color and fragrance and are therefore found in many popular cosmetic products and perfumes.
Once inside the body, phthalates play havoc with our hormones. In men, these EDCs decrease testosterone levels and limit the body’s ability to produce high quality sperm. In women, phthalates interfere with ovulation and are thought to be a potential cause of PCOS. Exposure to phthalates in the womb negatively affects male development by reducing testosterone levels. This can have lifelong effects on their fertility.
BPA is a man-made chemical that is used to make hard, clear plastics, like water bottles and food containers. BPA mimics the role of estrogen in the body, which means it can upset the balance of reproductive hormones. Men with high levels of BPA show reduced sperm counts, poorer sperm motility, and are more likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction than men with undetectable levels. Women with high levels of BPA find it harder to get pregnant and are at a much higher risk of miscarriage during early pregnancy.
PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that are resistant to heat, water, and oil. As a result, PFAS are used in lots of products like water resistant clothing, cleaning products, and non-stick cookware. PFAS can cause reduced sperm quality and smaller penis sizes in men, issues with fetal development, and a variety of different cancers. PFAS are particular concerning as they are ‘forever chemicals’, with some types taking well over 1000 years to break down. This means that once you’ve come into contact with PFAS, they could stay in your body and impact your fertility for a long time.
EDCs may increase your risk of obesity. Want to know something interesting? If you eat the exact same diet and exercise the exact same amount as someone did back in the 1970s, chances are you will still weigh more than them.
That may sound crazy, but an American study looking at over 35,000 people found it to be true. People weighed 10% more than people decades ago, even after taking exercise and diet into account. One suspect for that strange change? Endocrine disrupting chemicals. The study’s authors believe that not only can EDCs directly impact your fertility, but these nasty chemicals may be having indirect effects too. As well as regulating your fertility, your endocrine system also plays a key role in maintaining your weight. When EDCs mess with your endocrine hormones, they’re making you more likely to pack on the pounds and as we know, being overweight can negatively impact your fertility.
Unfortunately, regulation of EDCs (and chemicals in general) in the U.S. are poor compared to the rest of the western world. A good example of this is the chemicals used in cosmetic products. The European Union has banned over 1300 chemicals that are thought to cause harm from being used in cosmetic products. In comparison, the U.S. has banned just 11. That means that companies operating in the U.S. can put almost anything in their products without facing consequences. The result of this? A deterioration in our fertility and to our health in general.
So, why is infertility on the rise? Modern life is making it harder to have kids. Whether it’s your lifestyle choices, your age, or your environment, there are many factors that can influence your ability to have a child.
Luckily, small changes can make a difference. By maintaining a healthy weight, ditching the plastic, and making sure you’re eating plenty of antioxidant-rich foods, you can give yourself the best chance of becoming a parent.