6 surprising things that affect fertility

Trying to conceive? These culprits might put your fertility at risk. By Tammy Jacks

According to statistics from the Infertility Awareness Association, infertility is now reaching epidemic proportions, with one in six people diagnosed with some form of infertility in South Africa, and one in four couples affected in the USA. “It is now not unusual for a couple with no evident fertility problems to take up to three years to conceive. In fact, when they seek medical assistance, around 30% of couples are told that they have unexplained infertility,” says Sarah Dobbyn, author of The Fertility Diet.

In her book, Sarah highlights that diet and lifestyle habits play a large role in maximising your chances of having a baby – regardless of your age. She believes that while medical procedures and reproductive technologies, such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF) do work on occasion, the rate of success is only between 15 and 20%.

ALSO SEE: 6 things couples trying to conceive should know about infertility

The good news is, there’s a lot of simple diet and lifestyle changes you and your partner can make to increase your chances of having a baby naturally.

Firstly, it’s important to steer clear of these potential fertility inhibitors you may not be aware of…

Foods to avoid while trying to conceive


While this vegetable has loads of health benefits, it’s not great for fertility, says Sarah. This seemingly humble vegetable contains a natural contraceptive called m-xylohydroquinone. It’s been found to interfere with both oestrogen and progesterone. Even though animal studies show that you’d have to eat a lot, it’s still best to avoid peas and opt for other greens while trying to conceive.

Certain herbs

Herbal supplements such as echinacea (for immunity), St John’s-Wort (for depression) and gingko biloba (to enhance circulation and memory) may cause infertility in men and should be avoided, says Sarah. Studies have shown that these herbs could interfere with the sperm’s ability to penetrate the egg and have also been linked to lower sperm viability and damage to sperm DNA.

Various herbs such as raspberry leaf and blue cohosh also cause uterine contractions and should be avoided throughout pregnancy, she adds.


Numerous studies have shown that too much sugar (and white processed foods such as white bread, biscuits and other baked goods) in the diet robs the body of valuable fertility-enhancing minerals, causes insulin spikes – which has been linked to a host of health problems including diabetes – and causes growth hormones to plummet, explains Sarah. The bottom line? Too much sugar in the diet tells your body to age faster and accelerate cell turnover, none of which is good for fertility.


You might have heard that caffeine should be avoided during pregnancy, but did you know that you should drastically reduce, or cut your intake of, caffeine entirely while trying to conceive? A recent study in the US found that caffeine interferes with the muscle contractions that help the eggs travel from the fallopian tubes to the womb. Also, drinking five or more cups of coffee a day has been found to cut a woman’s chances of having successful IVF by a whopping 50%.

In her book, Sarah also points out that caffeine has the following negative effects on fertility:

  • Decreases absorption of key vitamins and minerals
  • Has a diuretic effect (dehydration has been directly linked to cell damage)
  • Elevates the stress hormones such as cortisol, for hours after consumption
  • Lowers the production of key steroid hormones such as DHEA, produced by the adrenal glands.

ALSO SEE: Can a plant-based diet boost your fertility? 

Household chemicals/pollutants

The cleaning agents you use in your home to scrub and clean kitchen counters, toilets and bathrooms could be directly affecting your chances of having a baby, especially if you’re not wearing gloves or are inhaling the fumes, explains Sarah. This is because these toxic compounds penetrate the skin and can interfere with your hormones.

According to a 2015 Washington University study, 15 common chemicals were associated with early menopause. These chemicals include PCBs, pesticides, and certain plastics called phthalates (often found in personal care items and beauty products like perfumes and nail polishes).

Your weight

Maintaining a healthy weight has a direct impact on your. Although you might believe that pounding the treadmill day in and day out, or restricting your daily calorie intake in a bid to lose weight is healthy for conception, it does the opposite. Dieting and over-exercising has been shown to put unnecessary stress on the body and cause numerous hormonal imbalances.

ALSO SEE:  How your weight can affect conception

For absolute peak fertility, you should aim for a body mass index (BMI) of 20-24, says Sarah. Being too skinny can interfere with ovulation and cause irregular or absent periods, which will make it harder to conceive naturally.

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