The woman who wants to protect your fertility
Women need to think about health early if they want to have babies later in life
Published 12/11/2013 | 01:00
As first-time mums continue to get older, fertility clinics continue to get busier. That's a poignant consequence of women postponing starting a family until their careers have taken off, or until they've found that elusive Mr Right.
We've come to accept this as an irreversible trend, and fertility specialist Emma Cannon, who's seen it at first-hand in her London clinic, is no different.
But after years of treating older women desperate to get pregnant before they miss the baby boat, Cannon had an epiphany.
If women could not be persuaded to start having babies in their twenties, they could at least begin to think about their health and menstrual cycles earlier. That way, women could identify warning signs which could flag future problems.
This realisation led Cannon to write her latest book, Total Fertility: How to Understand, Optimize and Preserve Your Fertility, a sensible, easy-to-digest guide to taking care of yourself and your reproductive health.
"The message is not to have your babies younger, but to engage with your health younger," says Cannon, speaking from her London clinic. "I see a lot of people in my clinic who have left it quite late and now they want to become pregnant immediately. They are having to play catch-up – and that quickly turns into an obsession with understanding their body. But a lot of the problems that I see in the clinic could have been addressed earlier in life, when they weren't quite so chronic."
Those problems often include irregular periods, or even totally absent periods, which hint at future fertility problems.
But Cannon continues to be taken aback by women who know next to nothing about their own menstrual cycles. They are not even aware of their family's fertility history, which could have a profound effect on their own ability to conceive or their risk of early menopause.
Cannon finds it baffling. "I come from a family of women, where there were always someone having their period or having a baby. So I was quite well-informed.
"But for a lot of women, they've never been talked to about periods or about their bodies. They see menstruation as either painful or inconvenient. But it's a gift to understand your body, because your menstrual cycle is the only outward symptom of your fertility.
"I treated one Spanish girl with terrible periods. When I asked her about her history, she told me her sister got pregnant as a teen, and after that her father became obsessed with her periods. He made her hand over her pants to make sure that she was having her period. Of course, she was petrified – and her periods went away."
Cannon, whose background is in holistic medicine and acupuncture, recommends that women preparing for motherhood follow a healthy diet, keep stress levels to a minimum, exercise – but not too vigorously – and maintain a healthy sex life. Sounds simple, but for today's busy women, the simplest things are often the hardest.
Cannon backs the idea of eating different foods at different times of the month. "This is an idea which is very strong in Chinese medicine. In China, all women after their periods have blood nourishing foods like chicken broth. Herbs help build womb lining. Just by doing that, you are connecting to what is happening in your body."
Obviously, smoking is a big no-no, as it is widely accepted that being a smoker can affect your reproductive health, but what about the demon drink? "It's fine to have a couple of glasses of wine. Not drinking at home is probably a good idea, but allowing for an occasional glass of wine with food is probably the best approach if you want to have a baby," she says. "For every piece of research on this, there's a counter piece. There's a middle road to take though. I am actually a real moderate."
Cannon's interest in health was sparked she lost her dad to a heart attack when she was just 16. "I came to London then, and I smoked, and I got chest infections every autumn," she remembers. "So I went to an acupuncturist who asked, did you have a great grief in your life?
"And that's when I was introduced to the idea that our emotions and our physical bodies aren't separate. I found it just incredibly fascinating, that the emotions I'd buried inside myself since my dad's death were now trying to find an expression outside myself."
Her own experience proved to her that stress plays a huge role in women's health, so she encourages her clients to deal with it, through exercise, yoga, and meditation, before it becomes overwhelming. Those tactics will help you if, later on, you find yourself struggling to conceive, she adds, as the stress of not getting pregnant immediately can play havoc with women's emotions.
'When couples decide they want a baby, they've usually already done project wedding, project career and project decorate your house. So then it's on to project baby, and they approach that in the same way, gathering information and facts.
"But the relationship that you have with your body is unique and intimate, so listening to advice about what this friend or the other did is not going to help. That in itself can create stress and obsession."
Women's sex lives, too, can need close attention – yet it's the one area that Cannon's clients are reluctant to tackle.
"I have people coming to me who are prepared to overhaul every bit of their lives, except for the sex bit," she says. "I understand that particularly when both partners are working, it's really hard to have more sex. But I say to couples, if you want to have a baby, you do need to prioritise sex. And there are lots of fun things we can do to improve our sex lives."
Cannon is passionate about the benefits of acupuncture, particularly during fertility treatment. "There is very good research about the benefits of having acupuncture alongside IVF, and I think it's a perfect complement to it. It doesn't interfere with what the doctors are doing, and it increases the blood flow to the pelvis, and it is relaxing for women."
Of course, no matter how carefully you guard you fertility, and how clean-living you are, for some people getting pregnant will still be a challenge. For those couples, fertility treatments and IVF can be a godsend, but, Cannon warns, we need to be careful that we don't persuade a generation of women that they put off starting a family indefinitely.
"For some conditions IVF is by far the best treatment – and there are so many couples who without it, wouldn't have been able to have a baby. But as a generation, we have been oversold it as a cure-all, and it isn't appropriate for all conditions If you do it quite late, you've only got a small window to try and figure our what's going wrong. And a year goes by very quickly in fertility terms."
Emma Cannon's Total Fertility: How to Understand, Optimize and Preserve Your Fertility is available at www.amazon.co.uk