Understanding the Basics of Fertility: A Guide
Posted on August 22nd, 2023
In its simplest terms, fertility is broadly defined as the ability to naturally conceive a child. Several factors can impact a person’s fertility, including physiological and environmental influences. To gain a deeper understanding of fertility and empower your family-building choices, it’s crucial to learn about some of the fundamental concepts related to reproductive health and the factors that affect fertility.
Female fertility involves the biological functions that control how the reproductive system conceives and supports the developing embryo. One of the primary factors of female reproductive health is ovulation and menstruation. The ovulation and menstrual cycle typically lasts about 28 days; it is a complex process controlled by female hormones that trigger various actions, including:
- Menstruation – the shedding of the uterine lining
- The Follicular Phase – the preparation of an ovarian follicle that will mature into an egg
- Ovulation – the development and release of an egg from the ovaries
- The Luteal Phase – the thickening of the uterine lining in preparation for pregnancy
Age & Female Fertility
Although fertility in both men and women is affected by aging, age negatively impacts female fertility significantly more. In women, fertility is usually at its peak during their 20s and early 30s, with a steep decline after the age of 35, making conception more difficult.
The ability to conceive is directly linked with the quality and quantity of a person’s eggs – called “ovarian reserve.” Healthy, high-quality eggs have the highest likelihood of developing into an embryo, implanting in the uterus, and leading to a successful pregnancy. Age is a primary cause of low ovarian reserve because the number and quality of eggs decrease as a person ages. Other factors that can influence ovarian reserve include conditions such as:
- Endometriosis – a condition in which the tissue that lines the uterus grows in other places in the pelvic cavity, including the ovaries and fallopian tubes
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) – a hormonal disorder that causes issues with ovulation and insulin resistance
- Damaged or blocked fallopian tubes
- Ovarian cysts
- Certain immune disorders
- Cancer treatment (e.g., chemotherapy)
- Heavy alcohol or drug use
The primary parameter used to determine male fertility is the health and quantity of sperm in a semen sample. Having too few sperm, abnormally-shaped sperm, sperm with poor swimming abilities, or sperm with fragmented DNA can all affect the ability to impregnate.
Low Sperm Count (Oligospermia)
Oligospermia occurs when the number of sperm in semen is lower than average (i.e., less than 15 million sperm in 1 ml of semen), resulting in fewer sperm to fertilize the egg.
Poor Sperm Motility
Sperm motility is the ability of the sperm to travel to the egg for fertilization. Interference with sperm motility may make fertilization difficult. Factors that can negatively impact sperm motility function include:
- Use of illicit substances (e.g., cocaine and cannabis)
- High environment temperature (heat stress damages sperm)
- Medical conditions (e.g., varicocele, swelling of the veins in the testicles)
Abnormal Sperm Morphology
Morphology refers to the shape of the sperm; misshapen sperm can have difficulty penetrating the egg, resulting in infertility. Conditions known to cause abnormal sperm morphology include:
- Certain genetic abnormalities
- Exposure to toxic chemicals
- An increase in testicular temperature
Lifestyle and Fertility
Healthy lifestyle choices can positively impact male and female fertility. Maintaining a healthy body weight, a healthy diet, regular exercise, stress management, managing any underlying conditions (including STIs), and avoiding tobacco, drugs, alcohol, and other toxins can contribute to improved reproductive health for both men and women.
When to Seek Help from a Fertility Specialist
When it comes to scheduling an appointment with a fertility specialist, the general rule of thumb is to seek help after a year of trying to conceive if you’re under the age of 35. If you’re 35 or older, it’s generally recommended to see a fertility specialist after six months of trying to conceive. However, every person is different and there may be reasons to seek out help sooner, including being over the age of 40, having a known reproductive disorder, being about to undergo treatment for cancer, or having a history of recurrent miscarriages.
Fertility is very complex and each person’s experience may vary greatly. A fertility specialist can provide personalized guidance based on your unique situation. For advanced fertility care in Houston, TX, contact Aspire HFI to schedule your personalized fertility consultation today.