by Tania Tod in Health + Nutrition, image by Thomas Hawk

Too Fit to get Pregnant?

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Are you thinking about how to get pregnant?The advice to get in shape before you set out on your baby-making adventure is everywhere. Being in great physical condition, and having a healthy weight, certainly helps when it comes to both conceiving more quickly, and an easier pregnancy.
But is there such thing as being too fit to get pregnant?

Too fit to get pregnant

For most people, being “too fit” is no concern at all. But there is some evidence that professional athletes and bodybuilders could have some trouble getting pregnant. These women can indeed be “too fit to get pregnant”. A study conducted by researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston found that up to a quarter of all female High School athletes were not menstruating. In comparison, only two to five percent of the general population had the same problem. Amenorrhea, the medical term for a lack of menstruation, can be the result of both intense physical training and restricted calorie intake.

The researchers from the Boston study found a strong link between high levels of the hormone ghrelin – which regulates the release of other hormones that control menstruation and ovulation – and amenorrhea in female athletes. The athletes who were found to have higher levels of gherlin were also, unsurprisingly, the ones with lower levels of both estrogen and testosterone.

Former competitive distance runner Sarah Joyce from Indianapolis was in top condition – for her, running 60 miles a week was a piece of cake, and she had no body fat at all. She did, however, have trouble getting pregnant. The former athlete, who is now a psychologist, had been trying to conceive for two years when she finally got pregnant. Genesis Fertility and Reproduction in New York City diagnosed her with hypothalamic amenorrhea. A lack of estrogen meant that her body had stopped releasing eggs, which is an obvious requirement for anyone hoping to get pregnant naturally.

A Florida reproductive endocrinologist, Dr David Hoffman, explained that this problem is not uncommon in top sports women: “A lot of them are professional runners and ballet dancers because they starve themselves, and gymnasts with no body fat – anyone who takes anything to the extreme.”

Sarah Joyce agrees, and said that she “may have been too intense” and will do things differently if she decides to try for another baby.

Tennis player Gigi Fernandez is another top athlete who was unable to conceive a baby – something that was totally unexpected to her. “As an athlete, you have this attitude, ‘I can do anything with my body. That’s how you think. So your biological clock is ticking, but you’re in denial,” she confessed.

Fernandez won 17 Grand Slam titles before retiring at age 33, but had seven failed cycles of fertility treatment before finally becoming pregnant. She and her partner turned to donor eggs and sperm to have their twins.
Dr Hoffman said that stories like Joyce’s and Fernandez’ are becoming more common. “Most of the problems we see are low body fat or overexercising and getting infrequent periods or they lose them altogether. In the brain, the hypothalamus just goes ice cold. It’s like a stress reaction – fight or flight.”

What can you do about it?

What can you do if you are a female athlete or bodybuilder who would like to have a baby?

It’s clear that not every woman who is in top condition suffers from absence of menstrual cycles. Some women will be able to conceive with no problems at all, while others will join the ladies from our examples in having fertility problems. Before you turn your exercise regimen down a notch or decide to stop working our altogether, monitoring your menstrual cycles will give you a lot of information.

Irregular periods or a total lack of them can be important indications that you are too fit to get pregnant. With the help of an ovulation calendar and ovulation tests – which rely on the presence of luteinizing hormone (LH) in the urine to determine whether a women is ovulating – you will be able to find out if you are regularly releasing eggs, and are therefore likely to be able to conceive naturally.

If it turns out that you are not ovulating, making a plan with a fertility doctor may be the answer for you. Some women will find that their ovulation returns if they alter their exercise regimens, while others will need a little extra help in the form of fertility treatments.

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