Fertility experts debunk the most common myths around conceiving

Photo taken in Madrid, Spain
In the UK alone, around one in seven couples struggle to conceive. [Photo: Getty]

Infertility is a common problem that causes distress for thousands of couples.

In the UK alone, around one in seven struggle to conceive, NHS statistics show.

And in the US, up to 15% of couples are unable to get pregnant after a year of trying, according to the American Pregnancy Association.

READ MORE: UK birth rate in England and Wales hits an all time low

Old wives’ tales can make infertility even harder to handle, with many women blaming themselves for their lack of success.

Others may also beat themselves up for delaying motherhood in order to focus on their careers.

This Fertility Week, Yahoo UK asks experts to debunk the most common myths when it comes to conceiving.

A woman’s fertility “drops off” at 35

While it’s a fact a woman’s fertility declines with age, it’s inaccurate to say it “suddenly drops off a cliff at 35”, Professor Geeta Nargund, medical director of CREATE Fertility, told Yahoo UK.

The quality and quantity of a woman’s eggs fall significantly at around 37, she added.

But even then, many still go on to become pregnant.

In any given month, a woman under 30 has around a 25% chance of conceiving naturally, according to American Society for Reproductive Medicine statistics via Extend Fertility.

When over 30, the odds of getting pregnant during any one cycle reduce to around 20%.

By 40, it has declined again to 5%.

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“If a woman is ready physically, financially, socially and emotionally to start a family in her early thirties, she should consider that,” Professor Nargund said.

“You shouldn’t panic if you’re not ready for a child at 35 but be aware it may take longer for you to conceive than when you are younger.

“We’re seeing more and more women in their forties seeking help to get pregnant, and in some cases women get pregnant naturally in their early forties.”

If a woman over 44 has IVF with a younger donor’s eggs, her chance of becoming pregnant is around 50% - similar to that of an under 35-year-old in the same position, Extend Fertility reported.

“More women now have babies after 30 than before 30,” Dr James Nicopoullos, clinical director and consultant gynaecologist at The Lister Fertility Clinic - part of HCA UK, told Yahoo UK.

“It’s always possible, it just takes a bit longer”.

Men can father children at any age

Much like women are choosing to delay motherhood, men are also becoming fathers later in life.

A study by the University of Colorardo suggests that since 1980, nearly 30% more men in the US are having children in their forties or over.

While it may sound promising, experts warn hopeful fathers shouldn’t leave it too late, with both sperm quantity and quality declining.

Scientists from the University of Paris-Sud analysed sperm samples collected from more than 1,500 men over 19 years.

They found sperm concentration declined by 2.1% every year, while the number of “mobile” swimmers also fell by 0.6% every 12 months.

“You shouldn’t think ‘it’s alright age doesn’t matter in men’, because it does,” Professor Nargund said.

“A woman’s fertility stops whereas a man’s declines.

“But this decline can be significant when they reach the age of 50, which may make it difficult for them to have a baby naturally.”

A study by the University of Bristol found that compared to men under 25, those aged 30-to-34 were 38% less likely to father a child within a year of trying.

And men aged 35-to-39 were half as likely, the results suggest.

These findings remained true after the scientists took the men’s partner’s age into account.

3d illustration of sperm cells moving to the right
Sperm count and speed may reduce with age. [Stock: Getty]

Being on the pill too long reduces a woman’s fertility

The pill is the most commonly prescribed contraceptive in England, with more than 3.1 million women taking it between 2017 and 2018, The Guardian reported.

While many rely on the drug to ward off unwanted pregnancies, up to 91% want “a quick return of fertility upon discontinuation”, according to a paper in the journal Clinical Drug Investigation.

Rumours that the pill reduces a woman’s fertility could therefore cause anxiety.

READ MORE: Woman battling early menopause goes on to have two miracle babies

But, Dr Nicopoullos insists it is a “myth”.

Scientists from the New Zealand Planning Association second that, saying “return to fertility after use has not been a problem” for the combined oral contraceptive.

A team from Newcastle Sexual Health Services also looked at 17 studies on the subject, only to find between 79% and 96% of the participants conceived within a year of coming off the pill.

Infertility is a “woman’s problem”

“This is definitely the biggest myth,” Dr Nicopoullos said.

In around a quarter of infertile couples, a cause cannot be identified, NHS statistics show.

For the remaining 75%, any number of factors could be at play.

The most common cause of infertility in men is poor-quality semen, the ejaculate that contains sperm, according to the NHS.

This can come about due to low sperm count or even none at all.

READ MORE: Men ‘should quit drinking alcohol six months before conception'

Slow-moving swimmers may also struggle to reach the egg.

And abnormally-shaped sperm may find it difficult to fertilise the egg.

Testicular damage - whether from an infection, cancer or surgery - can also leave men unable to father children.

And while many believe vasectomies are reversible, the success rate is only around 55% if done within 10 years, falling to 25% beyond that, NHS statistics show.

For those whose surgery cannot be undone, they cannot father children.

Ejaculation problems, low testosterone - the hormone involved in making sperm - and certain drugs, like chemotherapy or enhancement steroids, may also be to blame.

Tight trousers kill sperm

Sperm production takes place at a temperature that is around 1°C-to-2°C (33°F-to-35°F) cooler than the 37°C (98°F) body temperature, hence why the testicle hang on the outside.

Rather than the pressure of trendy skinny jeans “killing” sperm, the slight rise in temperature that comes with being “confined” may slow their production.

However, hopeful fathers should not throw out their drainpipes just yet.

“Anything that increases testicular temperature may affect sperm production,” Dr Nicopoullos said.

“But this would be so tiny. There is no evidence it may affect the chances of having a baby.”

Changing your diet could help you conceive

From indulging in oysters to snacking on nuts, the internet is awash with “helpful” dietary advice for hopeful mothers.

But, Professor Nargund insists these so-called recommendations are based on “no evidence”.

“Nutritional deficiencies can have an effect but ‘drink this smoothie or adopt this diet’ has no truth,” she said.

“A healthy balanced diet and folic acid is what women need.

“They don’t need to spend lots of money on supplements that have no evidence.”

Dr Nicopoullos added: “There’s lots and lots of old wives tales out there.

“Nutrition is important but no one diet is proven to improve fertility.”

Dr Nicopoullos also urged women to ignore the gibberish and just maintain a healthy weight.

Evidence suggests overweight and obese women produce higher levels of the hormone leptin, The Conversation reported.

With leptin being made in fatty tissue, too much can disrupt the balance of a woman’s reproductive hormones.

Abdominal fat in particular has been linked to reduced levels of the sex hormone-binding globulin protein, which regulates oestrogen.

A study of more than 5,700 women by the Institute of Child Health in London found the obese 23-year-olds were 31% less likely to conceive within a year than those of a healthy weight.

Research from Harvard also suggests obese women may be three times more likely not to ovulate at all than their slimmer counterparts.

Being underweight may also cause a woman’s periods to become irregular or stop altogether, a sign she is not ovulating, according to the baby charity Tommy’s.

“The follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) is produced by the brain to stimulate the ovaries to ‘make’ an egg,” Dr Nicopoullos said.

“Levels can become low if a woman is thin.

“This is because FSH is ‘switched off’ because the body doesn’t have the fat stores to have a baby.”