Can immunity affect fertility? How to spot issues and support your immune system for fertility

Maintaining a strong immune system has been at the forefront of everyone’s minds in 2020. With ongoing uncertainty around the Covid-19 pandemic as we move into the winter months it’s more important than ever to support your body so it can fight off whatever is thrown at you.

While there are certain groups most often associated with needing to keep a healthy immune system – those with long-term health conditions or people who are vulnerable because of their age – it’s just as important for couples who are trying to conceive.

Early pregnancy can be directly impacted by the immune system. It’s a period that can cause reactions, imbalances and immune responses to a ‘foreign’ presence in the woman’s body. A healthy diet and regular exercise are just some of the ways that the immune system can be boosted – and these bring benefits that also extend to the child’s health in the future.

To get the facts on how you can better support your immune system and improve the chances of a successful pregnancy, Fertility Family has spoken to Dr Gillian Lockwood, Fertility Specialist and Medical Director at CARE Fertility Tamworth.

How do the immune and reproductive systems link together?

The immune system is incredibly effective at recognising what is ‘self’ and what is ‘non-self’ invaders like bacteria or viruses, or ‘altered’ cells that can develop into cancer. That’s why organ transplants and blood transfusions require a really good ‘match’ in order to be successful.

For this reason it’s always been a scientific mystery why a woman can ‘tolerate’ a developing baby that’s genetically 50% ‘non-self’ (or 100% in the case of egg donation pregnancies). The best explanation is that the body has special immune mechanisms that ‘shield’ the developing embryo from the mother’s immune system. When this protection fails, complications with pregnancy can arise.

What can be done to help your immune system to support fertility?

Watch what you’re eating

Remember that saying, ‘you are what you eat’? Well there’s scientific evidence to support it. Maintaining a normal body weight (a BMI of 20-25), not smoking and not drinking are obviously helpful when you’re trying to conceive – but a Mediterranean-style diet can help too. Keeping carbs low and eating plenty of protein, leafy vegetables and olive oil has been shown to improve fertility – especially for women having fertility treatment.

20% of women are on the polycystic ovary ‘spectrum’ – and while not all of them will have PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) they do find it more difficult to process carbs, which is why the Mediterranean diet and supplements like Inofolic Alpha can help.

Keep your vitamin levels topped up

Most people aren’t vitamin deficient if they’re eating a healthy, varied diet, but vitamin D is vital to a healthy immune system and is one of the easiest to become deficient in if you’re working indoors all day. Inadequate exposure to sunlight can cause real problems, especially in the winter months, so anyone trying to get pregnant should be taking vitamin D alongside folic acid.

Get plenty of exercise (but not too much)

Everyone knows exercise is crucial – and releasing those feel-good endorphins into the brain is a great way to support your mental health, helping to combat some of the stress caused by fertility worries. But you can have too much of a good thing! Women trying to conceive with a normal BMI shouldn’t exceed four hours of intense exercise per week. This means that walking, swimming and cycling are OK but taking up HIIT, hot yoga and/or spin classes may be worth avoiding.

Stay on top of stress

Healthy eating and exercise are all very well, but invisible external factors like stress can make a real difference to the immune system. It might be difficult to avoid stressful situations altogether (if you work in a high-pressure job, for example), so take time out of your day to do something that clears your mind, whether it’s yoga, reading, knitting or walking the dog. Don’t underestimate the importance of mindfulness.

What common conditions can contribute to fertility problems?

One of the most common and treatable causes of fertility problems is thrombophilias (or blood-clotting abnormalities). Auto-immune antibodies (where the body’s immune system ‘attacks’ its own cells, as in Type 1 diabetes) can cause an increased risk of thrombophilia and inflammatory immune responses. If these antibodies show up on test results, your doctor may recommend heparin to moderate blood clotting and steroid treatment to dampen the inflammatory response.

Where to seek support

Fertility Network UK is the number one charity for anyone experiencing fertility problems in the UK. They run a range of local online support groups.
The British Infertility Counselling Association (BICA) offers a range of specialist counselling services.
Search on Facebook for “fertility support groups” – there are many, and those which have thousands of members are likely to have the best reputations.
HFEA, the government regulator provides free, clear and impartial information on UK fertility clinics, IVF and other types of fertility treatment, and donation.