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Fertility 101

MAXIMIZE YOUR FERTILITY NOW

You can't push fertility beyond its natural limits, but you can do things to raise your odds of conceiving. Here's how:

1. Control stress. Stress alone will not make you infertile, says Alice Domar, Ph.D., of the Boston IVF clinic and author of Conquering Infertility. But for women especially sensitive to stress, it can throw off their cycle and may make it more difficult to get pregnant. Given that a new baby will invariably introduce new stresses into your life, Domar recommends that you devise a tranquility plan before you try to conceive.

2. Take folic acid early and often. It's widely known that folic acid (vitamin B9) reduces the risk of birth defects once you're pregnant, but some studies have also shown that women who take folic-acid supplements before becoming pregnant conceive at a higher rate. Jorge Chavarro, an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, hypothesizes that folic acid may increase your body's sensitivity to FSH, the hormone that tells the ovary to kick out an egg in the middle of your cycle. He recommends taking at least 400 micrograms per day.

3. Quit smoking. Smoking is one of the worst things you can do if you're trying to get pregnant, says Shanna Swan, director of the Center for Reproductive Epidemiology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine & Dentistry. You're exposing yourself to tons of chemicals that accumulate in your body — and these chemicals interfere with your estrogen levels and can damage ovaries and your eggs along with them. Furthermore, smokers hit menopause about two to three years sooner than nonsmokers, says Oktay. If you do manage to get pregnant, smoking increases your risk of miscarriage and of delivering an underweight baby.

4. Don't overexercise. Moderate exercise is nothing but healthy. But work out too much or too intensely, and you're at risk for developing menstrual irregularities that make it difficult to get pregnant. If your periods become irregular, you should back off the marathon prep and endurance cross-training sessions.

5. Drink conservatively. There's no question that heavy drinking — the kind that throws your cycles off-kilter and leaves you chronically hungover — impairs your ability to conceive, says Oktay (even if it can enhance libido for a few hours). But what constitutes moderate drinking is an open question, as different studies have yielded conflicting results. Best to play it safe and have no more than one drink every other day.

6. Maintain a healthy weight. About 12 percent of infertility cases result from the woman being over- or underweight. Fat cells secrete hormones, and having too much or too little fat can throw your hormones off balance. A body mass index (BMI) between 20 and 25 seems to be optimal. (Calculate yours at nhlbisupport.com/bmi.) A recent Dutch study found that fertility dropped about 4 percent per BMI unit above 29.

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