Not long ago the question of whether the environment had any impact on fertility had no definitive answer. Today, however, more and more research is coming out showing that, yes, the environment seems to affect fertility. While the research does not yet provide us with any definitive answers regarding exactly what harms fertility, how much exposure is dangerous, or when the exposure is dangerous, the research does show us that certain chemicals in our environment most likely have detrimental effects on fertility.
These toxins may have the ability to cause repeat miscarriages, sperm abnormalities, low sperm counts, and to impair the production of eggs. The types of chemicals in the environment which have the ability to affect fertility are called endocrine (or hormone) disrupters. Hormone disrupters have the ability when they enter the body to mimic hormones (masquerading as estrogen), block hormone functions, and even to muddle the hormonal patterns taking place within the body. As a result, these endocrine disrupting chemicals affect the ability of the body’s hormones to control and regulate the function of the reproductive system, hindering or completely halting fertility.
While we still do not know exactly which chemicals are toxic or precisely how they affect the body and its reproductive system, some research does point to a few particular chemicals. These known toxins and hormone disrupters include:
- phthalates – These are used in a wide range of plastics from vinyls to hard containers.
- parabens – These are widely used as preservatives in cosmetics.
- polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) – contained in old products and electrical equipment. They are released into the environment through improper disposal of items containing them. They do not break down quickly, and so PCBs accumulate in the environment around waste sites.
- dioxins – Byproducts of waste, dioxins enter and are stored in the body. We are exposed to dioxins in animal-based foods, such as meat and dairy.
- pesticides – We are most often exposed to pesticides in the produce we eat.
Fertility Problems May Begin in the Uterus
While considerably more research is certainly needed, especially human studies, some research trends have begun to show that a person’s struggles with infertility might begin while he or she is still in the womb. A definitive answer to what chemicals might affect a person’s fertility before he or she is born has yet to be found due to the scientific complexity, inability to isolate research subjects, and the inability to know everything that every person was potentially exposed to before birth, during childhood, and throughout their lifetimes. This research, however, is staggering because it shows that in some cases infertility could potentially affect generations.
Infertility, a Multi-Factorial Problem
Yes, more specific research is needed to find any definitive answers to the question concerning how and what in our environment has the potential to harm fertility. The problem, however, is much more complicated than just environmental concerns. The answer to the question, “what affects fertility?” has a multi-factorial answer, meaning that in addition to environmental toxins, countless things have the potential to harm fertility, such as:
- sleep patterns
- athletic activity
- sexually transmitted diseases
- alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drug use
- hormonal changes
We are exposed to so many different potentially harmful chemicals, stresses, and other factors that finding a definitive cause of infertility in any one patient is next to impossible.
How Can You Improve Fertility?
In spite of so much vagueness, there are steps you can take to safeguard your own fertility. Keep yourself generally healthy by exercising regularly, eating a nutritious diet of organic produce, abstaining from tobacco and alcohol, discussing medication side effects with your doctor, and avoiding chemicals which are known endocrine disrupters.
If you have had trouble achieving pregnancy and suspect that either you or your partner have an infertility problem, we encourage you to schedule a consultation with a fertility specialist. With a consultation and fertility exam, a fertility doctor can help you determine whether or not there is any issue of concern present and also advise you on the best method of action to achieve pregnancy.