When trying to become pregnant, there are many factors that can influence the success of healthy reproduction. Specifically, mothers must ensure that they are consuming healthy nutrients, and also avoiding toxins.
Unfortunately, there are many toxins and chemicals in our food environment that can have larger impacts on fertility rates than we initially thought. These toxins can go unnoticed and can have adverse impacts on the body’s hormone production during pre and post-pregnancy.
How can chemicals impact fertility?
Environmental contamination and different food additives can impact the body throughout all stages of pregnancy. For the most part, these chemicals impact fertility through their disruption to the endocrine system.
During pregnancy, the endocrine system is very sensitive to these toxins due to the large production of hormones. If this hormone production is disrupted, the body may produce an excess amount of a specific hormone, or possibly not enough. Let’s take a look at a few chemicals that can find their way into our food supply and possibly disrupt fertility.
Which chemicals should you look out for?
The first toxin to look at is genetically modified foods (GMOS). GMO are foods that have had their DNA changed by adding genes from another organism. To put it simply, scientists find a gene they like in one plant, and insert it into another plant to give the new plant some advantage.
GMO crops are meant to benefit society by creating tastier and more nutritious foods, preventing disease, decreasing the need for pesticide use, and increasing the food supply, among many other reasons. But the downside is that GMOs have been hypothesized to impact endocrine metabolism. Checking the labels and researching brands that are not genetically engineered can be a great preventative measure to avoid possible negative consequences of these foods.
While most people generally know to stay away from metals regardless of pregnancy status, these toxins should become a greater concern when trying to conceive:
Even in low concentrations, these metals can be very dangerous, as they become stored in the bones and organs, rather than excreted through urine. In addition, they are very potent endocrine disruptors.
For example, mercury impacts fertility through its disruption of the hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal, and gonadal glands that release fertility-related hormones. As a result, we can see disruptions in sperm production in males, and menstrual disorders, premature menopause, and ovarian dysfunction in females.
Lead is toxic to almost all of our organs, and there are several ways in which lead impacts the reproductive system of both men and women. In women, menstrual disruptions, altered hormone production, and delayed conception time are just a few ways in which lead toxicity affects female fertility and the ability to have a successful pregnancy.
Avoidance of metals is mostly done by checking your drinking water, ensuring there is no exposed old lead paint in your house, and trying not to eat fish that are high in mercury.
Perchlorate is an industrial chemical used mostly in rocket fuel, but can also be found in fireworks, explosives, matches, flare, vehicle airbags, chlorine cleaners, pool chlorination chemicals, and chewing tobacco. It has adverse effects on the uptake of iodine in the thyroid, sometimes leading to hypothyroidism.
In women, it can lead to many issues such as alteration of estrogen metabolism, menstrual irregularities, and disruption in ovulation. It also can impact males through the disruption of sperm and semen production, fluctuations in testosterone levels, and potentially lead to erectile dysfunction. Testing your drinking water is a good way to make sure you are not being exposed to perchlorate.
Bisphenol A is a chemical mostly produced for production of polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. The majority of BPA in our diets comes from food storage containers and plastics.
BPA has been shown to be a strong endocrine disruptor. Specifically, in women, it has been shown to disrupt endocrine function. Also, in men it can have an effect on the efficiency of sperm cells. In order to avoid this exposure, using non-plastic containers and trying not to heat up plastic can help limit the amount of BPA exposure.
PFAs (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a widespread group of chemicals used to make a lot of different everyday products. You can find them in nonstick cookware, stain-resistant clothes and carpets, and in the foam of fire extinguishers.
PFAs can negatively affect a woman’s ability to get pregnant as well as birth weight of a newborn child, fetal growth, and cognitive development. Also, it is unknown how long they may stay in your system but it is possible that they remain for years.
Fast-food containers, microwave popcorn bags, stain-resistant or water-repellant clothing, nonstick cookware, and many other products for personal and commercial use fall into these categories and should be avoided.
Pesticides and herbicides
These chemicals are found in various crops and can lead to adverse effects on the reproductive system. For example, it can increase the time it takes for people to get pregnant, as well as increasing the levels of oxidative stress on the body.
Creating a diet that has less pesticides has been shown to increase the likelihood of getting pregnant. Fresh organic foods are or organic frozen alternatives are the best option when buying groceries. Additionally, try reading about brands to understand where the product is coming from in hopes to understand farming practices of that specific factory.
Parabens are a chemical substance that is added to many cosmetic products as preservatives. Parabens can be endocrine disruptors, affecting hormone metabolism and glucose levels. Fortunately, these chemicals are much easier to spot because companies must note on the label if they are in their products. In order to prevent exposure to parabens, read product labels for cosmetics and avoid eating foods high in paraben-content. These foods are things like beer, processed foods, sodas, and some frozen dairy products.
Where to start when it comes to fertility toxins
If you are exposed to a toxin that is known to impact fertility, don’t be too alarmed. But you do want to be mindful of the fact that over time, these exposures can add up and can have a negative impact on reproductive health. Additionally, taking supplements, eating foods (fruits and vegetables) high in antioxidants, and getting lots of fiber, can help try to flush out the toxins that you may have been exposed to.
Written by Nicole Avena
Dr. Nicole Avena is an Associate Professor of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, and a Visiting Professor of Health Psychology at Princeton University. She has written several books, including What to Eat When You’re Pregnant, What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler and What to Eat When You Want to Get Pregnant.