If you’ve ever been diagnosed with unexplained infertility, you know how frustrating that lack of clarity is. Not having a concrete example for why your body isn’t doing the one thing you want it to do can feel so defeating — and in some ways, when there’s no medical cause that experts can point to, it puts even more pressure on the patient to fix the problem.
Speaking of vague, tough-to-understand medical issues: Enter inflammation. Inflammation has become something of a buzzword, both on social media and in real life. But despite how often it is discussed, it can be tough to know what exactly inflammation is and how it affects your body. And now, thanks to a paper published by Harvard Medical School, we’re left wondering: Could inflammation be a factor that affects fertility?
First of all, let’s nail down a definition of inflammation:
According to Cleveland Clinic, inflammation occurs when your body encounters an agent (think a bacteria, virus, or injury) and your body reacts by sending out inflammatory cells and cytokines, which are proteins that help your body produce more inflammatory cells for protective measure.
Inflammation can be acute (think: A response to an illness or injury) or chronic (which occurs when your body continues to send these signals even if there's no obvious danger causing this reaction). Signs of acute inflammation can be easy to spot (like redness or swelling after an injury), while chronic inflammation can affect the body in less obvious ways (think joint pain, fever, or fatigue).
Inflammation and Fertility: What's the Connection?
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There’s no clear answer at the moment, but the Harvard paper, which was written by Robert H. Shmerling, MD, breaks down research that aims to identify the relationship between inflammation and fertility. He raises an important question: Could inflammation be behind cases of unexplained infertility?
As the paper mentions, conditions like endometriosis and PCOS are marked by inflammation, and both of those conditions are linked to infertility. Dr. Shmerling also cites research suggesting that women who adopted low-inflammatory diets (such as the Mediterranean diet) had higher rates of successful pregnancies after IVF. Based on a review of research, inflammation’s ability to affect fertility is a real possibility, according to Dr. Shmerling.
“While recent research is intriguing, there’s not enough evidence to show that an anti-inflammation action plan will improve fertility. A plant-based diet such as the Mediterranean diet, and other measures considered part of an anti-inflammatory lifestyle, improve heart health and have many other benefits,” he writes. “It’s not clear if this is directly due to reducing inflammation. But this approach comes with little to no risk. And abundant convincing evidence suggests it can improve health and even fight disease.”
Sign me up! How can I reduce inflammation?
While it’s still somewhat unclear (even experts haven’t come to a specific consensus on how to lead an anti-inflammatory lifestyle), per Dr. Shmerling’s recommendations, you can make a few simple changes. Eat more plant-based foods, healthy fats, and whole grains; stop smoking or vaping; get enough sleep; avoid excess alcohol; exercise regularly. You know, all the stuff you’re likely already attempting to do.
We get it — it’s tough to stick to these guidelines sometimes. But maybe an anti-inflammatory lifestyle’s potential ability to boost fertility serves as an extra bit of motivation.
Inflammation can also be treated with medications or supplements, so be sure to check in with your doctor if you have any questions.
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The Bottom Line on Inflammation and Infertility
We don’t know whether or not inflammation plays a role in fertility. But exercising regularly, getting good sleep, eating more plants and healthy fats, and reducing stress are never going to hurt — though, of course, it’s much easier said than done, especially when you’re navigating the stressful, time-consuming world of infertility.
So while the research and opinions presented here are worth considering, you also should not beat yourself up if you need to skip the gym, indulge in a comforting pint of ice cream, have a glass of wine, or find yourself experiencing stress while trying to conceive (it’s practically inevitable!).
Zara Hanawalt is a freelance journalist and mom of twins. She's written for outlets like Parents, Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Motherly, and many others. In her (admittedly limited!) free time, she enjoys cooking, reading, trying new restaurants, and traveling with her family.