Fertility struggles are a topic near and dear to my heart. As a woman who has always dreamed of becoming a mother, but waited until her thirties to try to conceive, I knew the quality and quantity of my eggs were on the decline. Throw in a history of miscarriage and an autoimmune disease and all the sudden my odds of conceiving seemed minimal at best. After diving into the research (click here), it became apparent that there are several things that we can do to boost egg quality, which happens to be the largest determinant in whether an egg goes on the be fertilized and develop into a viable pregnancy.
One proven way to boost egg quality is to reduce our exposure to hormone disrupting toxins. Although impossible to avoid every hormone disrupting toxin, higher than average levels are the biggest concern. By making a few simple changes to avoid the worst offenders, we can make the most impact on fertility and reproductive health. (Fett, 2019)
One toxin that has been proven to compromise egg quality and fertility is BPA, or bisphenol A. You can find this chemical in everything from plastic food containers to hygiene products. BPA mimics the hormone estrogen and is thought to bind to estrogen receptors, affecting many bodily functions including egg quality and fertility. Women with high levels of BPA in their bloodstream during IVF cycles end up with fewer embryos to transfer and are less likely to become pregnant. In 2011, a group of leading fertility specialists out of the University of California San Francisco Center for Reproductive Health confirmed that BPA not only affected women undergoing IVF but impacted all women trying to conceive even before the fertilization stage was reached. An additional study by Harvard School of Public Health revealed that women with higher BPA levels had fewer eggs to retrieve and significantly lower estrogen levels, as well as a lower fertilization rate. More recently, BPA was implicated in raising the risk for miscarriage. In the studies mentioned, the women in the top quartile of BPA were at the greatest risk. This suggests that to improve your odds of conceiving, the main goal is to stay out of the top quarter. (Fett, 2019)
There are many ways to reduce your exposure to BPA and the best time to do so is several months before trying to conceive. The first step recommended is to replace plastic items in your kitchen with glass and steel. This will help prevent the transfer through food. Other important action steps include the following:
- Use a stainless-steel water bottle
- Minimize canned and processed foods
- Prepare meals at home
- Wash plastics by hand
- Wash hands after handling paper receipts
Another group of toxins that may impair egg quality are called phthalates. You can find phthalates in items such as plastic, shampoos, fabric softeners, children’s toys, nail polish, processed food, cleaning supplies and perfumes. Like BPA, these chemicals disrupt the hormones that control the fertility process. By reducing exposure, you can create a safer reproductive environment. One of the earliest studies on the effects of phthalates on fertility in laboratory animals showed that high doses of specific phthalates stopped ovulation all together. Many human studies went on to examine the effects of phthalates on male fertility and found that high exposure damaged sperm quality by altering hormone levels and causing oxidative stress. Recent research has found similar effects on the developing egg in the female reproductive system. When an egg is exposed to phthalates, the result is a decreased production of estrogen. Since estrogen is one of the primary drivers of egg development, this compromises their ability to mature and creates excess oxidative stress. Oxidative stress causes ovarian follicles to die off and has been linked to a decline in fertility as well as other reproductive complications such as endometriosis. A study preformed by the National Institute of Health at the University of Utah found that higher phthalate levels were associated with a twofold increase in the rate of endometriosis. (Fett, 2019)
Reducing exposure to phthalates is critical to reproductive health. Since phthalates are found in a wide variety of places, it is difficult to decide where to begin. A good place to start may be to focus on limiting exposure to a specific phthalate found in PVC plastic and vinyl called DEHP due to its proven link to miscarriage. The most common way that DEHP enters our bloodstream is through processed and fast food. One study on this particular phthalate found that people who ate one fast food meal in a 24-hour period had significantly higher phthalate levels, specifically 24% higher levels of DEHP. Thus, eating more home cooked meals could be an easy way to limit DEHP exposure. Other ways that you can reduce phthalate exposure include the following:
- Use olive oil instead of butter
- Buy more organic fruits and vegetables
- Vacuum regularly and dust with a damp cloth
- Drink filtered water
- Use stainless steel or cast-iron cookware
- Avoid cleaning products containing 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME)
- Avoid perfumes, hairspray, nail polish and fabric softener unless labeled phthalate free
- Use plant based, fragrance free or phthalate free cleaning and laundry products
All in all, it is impossible to eliminate our exposure to these toxins. However, we can take steps to limit our exposure to the toxins that produce the most harm, thus giving us the best possible chance of conceiving and having a healthy pregnancy.
Picture of our newborn Brooks Parker born March 23, 2020.
Fett, R. (2019). It Starts with the Egg. New York: Franklin Fox Publishing .
Written by: Dr. Natalie Fredrickson