With declining sperm counts, diminished ovarian reserves, increasing rates of miscarriage, and with the prediction from fertility scientists that all couples will need IVF by the year 2050, protecting our children’s fertility is of paramount importance. Not only so as to shield them from the agony of infertility but also for wider socio-economic reasons. Who will look after the elderly population?
“Some scientists are now suggesting that the detrimental effects on human reproduction, and the underlying factors contributing to them, could threaten the survival of the human race… an argument could be made that Homo sapiens already fit the standard for an endangered species, based on the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) requirements. Of five possible criteria for what makes a species endangered, only one needs to be met; the current state of affairs for humans meets at least three.” (Swan, 2020)
So where does it all begin? The egg of course! But I suppose we’d better not forget the sperm too. Both of which are dictated by the quality of your mother’s and father’s egg and sperm quality, which was dictated by theirs and so on and so forth.
Next there’s what happens in utero. If babies are subjected to phthalates (plastics) and other chemicals it increases infertility in both girl and boy babies. (Please see my article entitled “Can you predict your fertility?” if you’re interested in this subject.)
Then there’s what happens at 38 weeks of pregnancy where a huge transfer of antibodies takes place from mother to baby via the placenta. (Cederqvist et al, 1978) Interestingly this is something that happens specifically to humans.
Then there’s the birth. C-section or vaginal delivery? "Caesarean section use is growing at an “alarming” rate, accounting for 21% of births globally in 2015—up from 12% in 2000—experts have warned.” (Wise, BMJ, 2018) In the UK, one in four babies will be born via c-section according to NHS England.
To be born is also to enter the world of microbes. “At the very time when the baby is getting out of the mother’s body, its digestive tract and all its mucous membranes are germ-free. Some hours later, there will be billions of germs in its nose, in its mouth and in its gut. The main question is which germs will be the first to colonise the baby’s body?” Will it be those of the mother, or will it be those of the staff in the operating theatre? Will they be friendly and familiar to the baby, or will they be foreign? From a bacteriological point of view there is an inherent and fundamental difference between a vaginal birth and a caesarian birth and the growing number of c-sections has been offered as an explanation for the increasing problem of allergies and food intolerances. (Odent, The Caesarian, 2004) “Children born by cesarean section have been shown to be at higher risk for some immune related disorders.” (Schulfer & Blaser, Risks of Antibiotic Exposures Early in Life on the Developing Microbiome, 2015)
Then there’s colostrum and breast milk. We of course need not explain how important colostrum and breast milk are at helping to populate the baby’s gut with maternal antibodies known as IgG. And you might feel that provided a baby get to the breast quickly, despite of how they arrived into the world, that they will have adequate IgG. However, the same hormone that is produced in natural labour - oxytocin, which comes in waves during contractions - is also necessary for the contraction of the breast during the milk ejection reflex, when the baby is sucking. Oxytocin must be released through frequent pulsations in order to be effective. A Swedish study “found that two days after birth, when the baby is at the breast, women who gave birth vaginally released oxytocin in a very pulsatile - and therefore effective - way, compared with women who gave birth by emergency caesarian section.” (Odent, 2004)
Then there’s vaccinations. Some have postulated that the mumps vaccine may be responsible for failing sperm counts. People were vaccinated on mass for mumps virus from the 1970s and so this would correlate with the decline in sperm counts. Of course, this hasn’t been widely researched. No scientist is likely to go near such a controversial hot potato! Not to mention who would fund the research?!
So, taking all these factors into account, it is the immune system that is directly affected. The immune system is in place to protect us from bacterias, viruses, fungus spores and cancer cells but it can make mistakes. It can turn the gun on itself and destroy the very cells it should be protecting. This is what is meant by ‘auto immune disease’. It can also overreact to foreign pathogens who are not really dangerous. This is what is meant by ‘allergy’.
“Immunologists have to be convinced of the truth that life is a struggle and that struggling is a need, The immune system learns how to fight by fighting. But if the immune system does not get the chance to fight off certain viruses which usually attack in childhood, then it is a much more difficult and exhausting battle as an adult.” (Odent, Primal Health, 2002) The rush to give a child Calpol to help them sleep at the first sign of a sniffle equates to not giving the immune system a chance to learn how to fight. This is why doctors are nowadays so reluctant to give children antibiotics. We also know that antibiotic exposure within the first 6 months of life significantly increases the child’s body mass for the first 7 years of life. (Tresande, et al, Infant antibiotic exposures and early-life body mass, 2013) With some researchers suggesting that a child’s DNA is significantly changed if given antibiotics in the first year of life.
The immune system needs to be subjected to the viruses, bacteria and fungi in the early years, so living in a sanitary environment is not conducive to a healthy immune system in adulthood. And there have been many studies showing that children living with dogs or cats have healthier immune systems, simply because of the outdoor bacteria their pet is bringing in.
So why are our immune systems so important in fertility? Let’s list some auto-immune conditions:
PCOS, endometriosis, premature ovarian failure, ovarian cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer, testicular cancer, diabetes, hypothyroidism, lupus, raised natural killer (NK) cells.
So with all this mind I hear you saying, “what can be done?” Well of course some of this is out of your control. You can’t go back in time and knock that drink out of your dad’s hand before he conceived you, or press the stop button when your mum microwaved her TV dinner in plastic at 8 weeks of pregnancy. You can of course try to live healthy lives before you conceive your children. And mums can minimise the risk of exposure to EDCs in utero by eradicating the chemicals that she can from her life; buy organic beauty products and natural cleaning products, get an air purifier, and limit her exposure to plastics, pesticides and fungicides.
But what about all those emergency c-sections that are out of your control? Vaginal seeding anyone? Sounds delicious doesn’t it. But essentially this is a great workaround to exposing your baby to some of your gut flora. Essentially a swab is inserted in the vagina and then wiped over the baby’s nose and mouth after delivery. Put it on your birth plans people!
There are many ways we can nurture a strong immune system. Allow your children to bury their heads into as many farmyard animals as possible… that’s an easy one! But also let them get ill. Don’t medicate at the first sign of trouble but allow their immune systems to learn how to fight illness on their own. Let medication be a “fall-back” rather than a “go-to”.
And lastly, talk to them about infertility. Raise their awareness that fertility is in a dramatic state of decline. And practically, if you have daughters you might want to think about private medical insurance that covers them for gynaecological and fertility problems before they hit puberty so that they may have access to necessary diagnostics and surgery if they need it. Or if you have boys, talk to them about freezing their sperm to be used later in life. You might think this is bonkers but we know that the need for IVF is very much on the rise. You can radically improve the outcome of that IVF by using younger, more potent sperm. (A man is most fertile between the ages of 21 to 25). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if your sons knew they literally had it in the bank!
Swan, Countdown: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperilling the Future of the Human Race, 2020
Cederqvist LL, Ewool LC, Litwin SD. The effect of foetal age, birth weight, and sex on cord blood immunoglobulin values. Am J Obstet Gynaecol 1978 Jul 1; 131(5): 520-5
Odent, The Caesarian, 2004
Schulfer & Blaser, Risks of Antibiotic Exposures Early in Life on the Developing Microbiome, 2015
Odent, Primal Health, 2002
Tresande et al, PubMed, Infant antibiotic exposures and early-life body mass, 2012 Aug 21,
Verity Allen - BSc, BA, MBAcC, Lic Ac