Are you in your late 20s or early 30s, perhaps single, and still thinking that you can start a family whenever you want?
Researchers say you may be mistaken, warning that being young doesn’t mean that you are automatically fertile.
The case of Mrs. Rosaline Akin is instructive. She got married at 25 and was quite optimistic of starting a family with her 33-year-old husband. However, pregnancy eluded them for five years, during which they ran from pillar to post, seeking solution to the numerous questions that bothered them.
So, what are the reasons for infertility among otherwise young couples?
Early menopause through smoking
Physicians say young women are reaching menopause earlier than it used to be, sometimes 18 years earlier than normal. One of the reasons for this is what is medically termed Premature Ovarian Failure, which happens when a woman enters menopause before age 40.
A new study conducted by scientists at the London’s Imperial College suggests that as many as six per cent of women (or one in 16) experience premature menopause.
One of the reasons for it is smoking. Experts say the hydrocarbons in cigarette smoke can trigger egg cell death.
Consultant Gynaecologist, Dr. Dominic Emeka, says men also suffer an equivalent of menopause due to testicular damage.
“Testicular damage can result in the inability of the testicles to produce sperm. Once damaged, the testicles will not usually regain their sperm-making capabilities. This aspect of male infertility is analogous to menopause, though it’s not natural like one experienced by women,” Emeka explains.
Poor diet and infertility
Emeka says apart from smoking, poor diet might also impact anyone’s fertility, whether male or female.
He warns, “If a woman is chronically malnourished, she can’t menstruate, because a minimum of 22 per cent body fat is necessary for normal ovulation and reproductive competence.
“In men, severe malnutrition can affect sperm count, sperm motility and even reduce or stop sperm production altogether.”
Consultant Nutritionist, Dr. Mabel Odunewu, says inadequate vitamin C and Zinc in the diet can cause infertility, alongside other factors. She urges young people to eat nourishing foods that are rich in vegetables and fruit.
Sexually-transmitted infections are other causes of infertility. Emeka notes that two commonest STIs, Chlamydia and gonorrhoea, are preventable causes of Pelvic Inflammatory Disease in women. PID is a known cause of infertility.
“Untreated, about 10-15 per cent of women with Chlamydia will develop PID. Chlamydia can also cause fallopian tube infection without any symptoms. PID and ‘silent’ infection in the upper genital tract may cause permanent damage to the fallopian tubes, uterus, and surrounding tissues, which can lead to infertility,” the gynaecologist avers.
He adds, “In men, gonorrhoea and Chlamydia can cause infertility by blocking the tubes that transport the sperm from the testes to the penis.”
And if you are the type that drinks alcohol, you might as well be laying a foundation for infertility. This is because alcohol causes imbalances in the hormonal system that controls reproduction.
A Professor of Reproductive Endocrinology, Oladapo Ashiru, says, “Even small amounts of alcohol can affect a woman’s menstrual cycle and reduce the chance of conceiving; while long-term heavy drinking can cause women to have irregular periods or stop ovulating. Periods can stop altogether or they can have an early menopause.
“As for men, alcohol can affect the hormonal system that controls testosterone production, leading to infertility and other health issues such as anaemia, bone loss and decreased muscle function.”
Again, physicians say, men and women can become infertile through exposure to perfluorinated chemicals. These are substances used in manufacturing and other industrial processes.
Industrial Chemist, Mr. David Ogundele, says these chemicals are also found in non-stick pans and food packaging. Emeka warns that women who have very high levels of PFCs in their body will have very low levels of oestrogen in their blood.
Again, physicians say, if your thyroid or pituitary glands are not functioning well, you may become infertile if the situation is not diagnosed, treated and normalised. This is because these two glands play a part in hormone production, and any trouble with either or both of them could make a man or woman infertile!
Emeka says one in 10 healthy couples of reproductive age will experience fertility problems. “The causes are variable and equally attributed one-third of the time to the female, one-third of the time to the male, and one-third of the time to unidentifiable reasons or to both partners,” he submits.
He warns that among healthy women, fertility peaks in their mid 20s but begins to decline at age 27. By the time a woman is 37 years old, he says, fertility takes a plunge, naturally.
He advises couples, “If you are in your mid 30s or older and trying to conceive, consult a fertility specialist if you fail to achieve pregnancy after six months of unprotected intercourse.”
Indeed, researchers at Bristol and Brunel Universities evaluated 8,500 couples to determine the impact of age on the length of time it took to conceive. They discovered that while only eight per cent of men younger than 25 fail to impregnate their partners after a year of trying, the number grew to 15 per cent after age 35, suggesting that paternal age may also be a consideration for couples struggling with infertility.
The bottom line: If you are over 35 and have been unable to conceive after six months of unprotected sex, see a competent doctor.