BUN IN THE OVEN

07.25.14

The Biggest Myths and Truths About Baby Making

Get acupuncture! Cut out fatty food! Just relax! If you’re trying to get pregnant, you’ve heard all of these. But what’s true and what’s not?

“No thanks,” I said when my mother offered me dessert after dinner. My husband’s head whipped around: Who was this person purporting to be his wife who had just turned down dessert?

When we were trying to get pregnant with our third child, I gave up sweets for about three months. Like many women, I hoped improving my diet would help me get pregnant faster. It might have: I got pregnant within a few months.

I also used several other strategies to increase my chances of a quick conception—but not those most frequently mentioned online. Earlier that year when I was researching my book, The Impatient Woman’s Guide to Getting Pregnant, I quickly found that much of what’s online (and even in many books) about upping your chances for pregnancy just isn’t true.

So what’s fact, and what’s fiction, about getting pregnant quickly?

1. Eat a low-fat diet for fertility: False.

A researcher attending a fertility conference in Michigan this week discussed her research linking obesity to lower fertility. When the interview was posted online, though, the headline stated something she didn’t say: “Eating a high-fat diet affects fertility

The problem here: Eating fat doesn’t make you fat—simple carbs do. Journalist Gary Taubes amassed evidence for this in his books Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat. That means that getting to a healthy weight—which does improve fertility—involves cutting back not on fatty foods but on sugar, bread, and pasta.

2. Eat a vegan diet for fertility: Probably false, but unknown.

What if you’re already a healthy weight—is your fertility affected by what you eat? No one really knows. The best-known study, drawing from the Nurses’ Health survey and popularized in the book The Fertility Diet, found effects for diet only for women with ovulatory dysfunction—primarily women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). So it’s unclear if the results apply to women who do not have this disorder. The researchers found that diets low in red meat and poultry, low in trans fat, and high in high-fat dairy were best for fertility—a somewhat confusing set of results. This seems to point to cutting down on animal protein.

That means that getting to a healthy weight—which does improve fertility—involves cutting back not on fatty foods but on sugar, bread, and pasta.

But if you give up both animal protein and carbs, what are you supposed to eat? Green vegetables only? Remember that the Nurses’ Health studies found effects only for a small subset of women. That means diet didn’t make any difference for fertility for most women.

Perhaps future research will find out more, but right now the evidence linking diet and fertility is weak. A sugar-laden, white flour diet is still likely not good for fertility, as it leads to blood sugar spikes and adds unnecessary weight, but beyond that the jury is still very much out on diet and fertility.

3. Acupuncture increases fertility: Probably false, but unknown.

Stories abound online of women who tried acupuncture and finally got pregnant. Many IVF clinics partner with acupuncturists so they can perform the procedure on patients immediately before their egg retrieval.

Unfortunately, the available studies suggest it doesn’t work. A few early studies found promising results, but they haven’t been replicated by most of the studies that followed. For example, a double-blind experiment randomly assigned women undergoing IVF to receive either real or fake acupuncture, where the needles are replaced with blunt metal that don’t actually penetrate the skin. The result? Women who had the fake acupuncture were actually more likely to get pregnant than those who had real acupuncture (PDF), and the two groups didn’t differ in live birth rates. Two later meta-analyses—studies summarizing lots of other studies—found no effect for acupuncture during IVF.

What about acupuncture and natural conception? As far as I know, there are no studies on this. So if you like the other effects of acupuncture, go ahead, but don’t expect it to get you pregnant.

4. “Trying too hard” decreases fertility: False.

“Just relax and you’ll get pregnant.” Women hate hearing this, but for some reason everyone keeps saying it. Many people are convinced that stress, even minor stress such as wanting to get pregnant, can severely harm fertility. Some doctors will even tell patients not to chart their cycles or use ovulation predictor kits because it will stress them out and they’ll be less likely to get pregnant.

This just isn’t true. Most studies show that minor stress doesn’t harm fertility unless it becomes full-blown depression. Peeing on a few sticks, taking your temperature, and having a little sex-on-demand is unlikely to cause much stress. Timing sex actually improves fertility: A recent study found that women who timed sex around ovulation got pregnant faster. This isn’t surprising: Only two days per cycle are highly fertile. You might have heard that sperm can live up to five days, but the average is only one and a half days. Overall, taking steps to get pregnant quickly is more likely to pay off than it is to backfire.

5. The day of ovulation is the most fertile: False.

The last two times I tried to get pregnant, I used a fertility monitor—a little machine that told me, based on some pee sticks, whether my fertility was low, high, or peak. It was tempting to focus sex on the two peak days.

But when I researched it further, I found out that wasn’t the best idea. The monitor assumes that the day of ovulation is the most fertile when, in actuality, the two days before ovulation are more fertile. If you’re using the fertility monitor, that means you should have sex on the last day of high and/or the morning of the first peak day. The evening of the first peak day might already be too late, and the second peak day almost certainly is. Another strategy is even simpler: Use cheap ovulation-predictor sticks every afternoon between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. starting on Day 9 after your period. Have sex the first night you get a positive and the next night. You’ll be more likely to catch the day before ovulation, and more likely to get pregnant.

Overall, getting pregnant is an annoyingly inexact science, and there’s still so much we don’t know. But knowing the truth about common myths helped me feel more in control, and probably helped in getting pregnant faster.

And I guess now I can eat that dessert.