National Fertility Awareness Week is an important time of year for the one in six couples in the UK who are coping with fertility issues. We’ve seen many more people speak out about what can be a lonely and painful path, and personal stories of people in the public eye are increasingly appearing in the press. If you’re trying to conceive, it can be helpful to hear those stories, as infertility is a such a personal issue and it can be difficult to expose something so private to friends and family. But you’re not alone. The ability to have a child can often feel central to our identity as men and women. It’s something we take for granted when we’re younger. We assume the ability to have children is a given; a natural trajectory of adulthood and an essential part of life. Facing the possibility that it may not happen affects us in a way that’s hard for those who don’t experience it to understand.
Both Adam Balen and I care deeply about this cause and we see every day the pain and uncertainty infertility can cause for those who find themselves, involuntarily, part of the “trying to conceive (#TTC)” community. One thing that we try to communicate is that often there are things that you can do to gain a little control in the situation and to help improve your chances of a healthy pregnancy. Fertility issues are often a red flag for underlying health issues that can be addressed in order to optimise both male and female fertility. There is a huge amount of evidence now to show that “environmental factors” – in other words diet and lifestyle – can affect both natural fertility and outcomes in fertility treatment. Trying to tease out what you personally should be doing to help yourself can be difficult, though. The reasons for any one couple not conceiving are very individual, though we do see common themes. That’s why we always recommend seeking personalised advice regarding your own health, circumstances, symptoms, diet and lifestyle, not only now, but looking back over recent years to try to understand the possible contribution of cumulative effects of certain habits or health issues to your fertility issues. Understanding your own body is a fundamental life skill, yet it’s not something we’re ever taught. Many patients become experts in all things fertility but miss the vital attention to their own health. This combined knowledge gives the power back to you, rather than relying solely on doctors and healthcare professionals, and it’s something that becomes even more important when you are grappling with your own fertility and the desire to create another human being.
There is so much information about fertility online and it can be hard to discern evidence-based information and to decide what may be able to help you personally conceive and have a healthy baby. That is why we launched the fertility and preconception care course initially at Leeds Fertility and soon to be available online. We wanted to create something that would help as many people as possible have access to evidence-based information on fertility and also guidance as to how to personalise it to them. And we’ve seen wonderful results for patients simply attending the courses, understanding the principles of the best diet and lifestyle programme for fertility, and then applying it to their own individual circumstances. We’ve had many cases of couples conceiving naturally after prolonged periods of infertility including miscarriage and failed IVF cycles. IVF, of course, plays its part, but the starting point for all couples should be to optimise their own health and wellbeing so that, whatever the means of conception, you have the best chance of not just conceiving, but having a healthy baby.
An important goal for us is also to see fair and equitable funding of IVF treatment for all couples, wherever they live, and an end to the postcode lottery that is currently being played out in the UK for fertility treatment. Adam has been a prominent campaigner for this cause and chairs the NHS England IVF Pricing Committee that aims to set a national tariff for the cost of IVF, paving the way for the equitable access that we all wish for. We’re also involved in the Fertility Education Initiative, that aims to educate young people about their fertility. Adam appeared on the Victoria Derbyshire Show recently to highlight and lend his support to this important issue.
So National Fertility Awareness Week has seen us both give talks at The Fertility Show so that couples are able to access reliable, evidence-base information. Adam is a leading expert with an international reputation for research in PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome), which is a common cause of fertility problems. He gave an excellent talk that helps women understand the underlying basis of their condition and how this might affect their fertility. My talk on how the underlying health problems and biological dysfunction that can accompany infertility can be addressed with diet and lifestyle gave just a snap-shot of some of the important considerations for couples trying to conceive. Because, of course, it is the fertility of both the mother- and father-to-be that should be considered and optimised, not just one individual who may feel the “problem” lies with them. There are always things that we can improve in terms of our diet, lifestyle, and general health. That includes emotional wellbeing and the quality of our relationships as we navigate the world of infertility.
For anyone who would like to have a baby, regardless of whether you have fertility problems, I offer two pieces of advice. Firstly, learn to understand your own body and pay attention to how you feel physically and emotionally each day, and anything that you do that either helps or hinders your feeling of wellbeing. Many symptoms that we accept as normal are actually signs of underlying issues and these are clues as to how you may be able to help yourself. Secondly, be kind to yourself and each other. It’s so easy to get into a negative state of mind, be self-critical and blame ourselves or each other for the circumstances we’re in. Particularly as women, if we want to carry and nurture new life within us, we must first learn to nurture and take care of our own minds and bodies. Good self-care care is fundamental to our physical and mental health, and the starting point on the road to fertility and fulfilling the dream of bringing home a healthy baby.