The secrets of fertility over 40

Support your body to optimise your chances.
Support your body to optimise your chances. Photo: Stocksy

She's known as "the baby-maker" - so-named for her track record in helping women to get pregnant against the odds. Emma Cannon does not, she laughs, have all the answers but, having founded the Fertility Support Clinic in 2004, she has come to be relied on for using a more natural approach to conception. With more than 50,000 hours of clinical experience and an average of 360 new clients each year, she has become something of a "baby whisperer".

"One in 28 babies are born to women over 40," says Cannon, "but [we're told] you only have a 5 per cent chance of getting pregnant every month when you're 40, so where do these statistics really come from? Science would have you believe our fertility falls off a cliff at 38, but so many other factors come into play. We don't all decline in the same way at the same time."

With a raft of older women, from 64-year-old Julia Peyton-Jones to Janet Jackson, 50, becoming first-time mothers in recent months, and conception rates growing in the UK among older women, there is more focus than ever on keeping the body healthy as it ages.

IVF, for so long considered the only hope for women unable to fall pregnant naturally, has come under fire of late, with leading fertility expert Lord Winston criticising clinics which insist on "unnecessary" treatments for vulnerable couples hoping to conceive - particularly as women remain fertile until they are 45.

Cannon, 49, believes IVF isn't the only answer for women wanting to get pregnant, and that many could find their fertility better boosted through acupuncture, making simple lifestyle changes and, actually, just having more sex - all of which she details in her new book, Fertile. It offers a combination of practical advice on nourishing the body before starting to try for a baby or beginning IVF, and delicious recipes created with Cannon's friend, the nutritionist Victoria Wells.

"I've known patients go for IVF who aren't regularly having sex and aren't given advice on regular sex," Cannon says. "Often people are prioritising everything but sex. They've created a joyless life for themselves and they're doing endless yoga or furiously juicing and that isn't working either. The more out of control we feel, the more out of control we can become with things like our diet."

The emotional fallout from trying and failing to get pregnant is not, she adds, helped by the fact that we are living in a society in which "we are all so used to getting what we want, when we want it". Many rely on IVF as a way to get pregnant when "we have been massively oversold [it]. The idea that it works and it works for everyone is nonsense.

"We are told that a truth exists in science and, when it doesn't work in areas of fertility, people feel really let down. What I'm advocating isn't perfect either, but my clinic works in a more integrated way. We aren't ruling out medicine, we are supporting it."

Cannon urges women to consider that "the older we get, the more important it is to address our lifestyle choices. The rejuvenating and protective aspects of our body reduce. During the time when the eggs are suspended in the ovaries, they come under the influence of the ovarian environment and there is a small window there where we can potentially make an impact on the quality of the eggs."


So is there a way we can actually change the quality of our own eggs? "This really is the holy grail of fertility," she says. "The quality of the egg declines with age, but this is an area of medicine that is looking to improve the end-stage development of the egg."

And, she adds, there are simple steps that can be taken to help things along the way. "Melatonin is the hormone secreted at night and it can be taken as supplement. Research suggests that higher levels of melatonin found in the fluid surrounding the developing follicles produced larger follicles during IVF and neutralised free radicals [that can cause disease]. Melatonin can be achieved by exposure to sunlight, so walk to work in the morning if you can. And avoid light at the end of the day from computers and phones, as this can deplete it."

She also recommends acupuncture, which improves blood flow to the ovaries; regular visits to the dentist (gum disease is associated with pre-term labour); and increasing your vitamin D intake, which is said to make the uterus more receptive.

Not to be forgotten, however, is paying attention to one's digestive system, and that is where Fertile is particularly helpful. It presents a natural approach to making one's body as ready to conceive as possible with a heavy focus on the gut. Half of it is a culmination of scientific research and Cannon's years of experience, the other half is a wonderful array of recipes made using fertility-boosting foods such as good oils, fish and chicken broth. "You can have a great diet, but if you have a poor digestive system, with inflammation, fermentation and poor gut function, the way everything functions in the pelvic cavity won't be optimal."

In an era of food fads and quick fixes, Cannon, who has two daughters aged 16 and 21, promotes a calmer and comparatively sensible approach to eating, continually emphasising that every individual is different and everyone's digestive systems are unique. "I don't believe in 'superfoods'. All these terms that we attach to foods are actually really damaging. Just eat as near to nature as possible and cook as much as you can." And it's not only what you eat, but how. Too many of us are eating too late in the day: "When we go to bed at night, we're meant to digest our day, not our dinner. Our lifestyle and health do not support fertility, particularly when we are waiting longer to get pregnant.

"Twenty years ago, there was no word for wellness and people didn't understand it. The medical profession has long been in denial about the impact of food on our lives. We need a conversation in the middle."

And for the many, many women now hoping for conception over the age of 40, IVF doesn't have to be the only road. In the Eighties, Cannon muses, "so many of us drank a bottle of chardonnay and ate a packet of Haribos in a cab on the way home and wondered why our ovaries were covered in cysts", but with leaps forward in our understanding of our bodies, eating one's way to fertility may be the most productive route of all. "It's important to remember that the preparation of food itself is a bit like alchemy. It feels really self-healing and means couples are spending time together, off their phones, and far more likely to make love." It sounds simple but, as Cannon's clients know, it works.

Eat your way to fertility: improve your digestive system

- Fermenting preserves seasonal vegetables and increases their nutritional profile, in turn restoring your gut to prime health and improving your mood and sense of wellbeing. Seventy per cent of the serotonin in your body is produced in your gut and food fermented at home has a far wider microbial diversity than shop-bought versions.

- Try to make your dishes mainly plant-based, with a little high-quality meat included in your weekly diet. Cook mainly with second-pressed olive oil and use cold-pressed oils to add to food after cooking.

- Don't forget your nuts, vegetables and pulses for healthy fibre, and limit sugar.

- Remember your bones. Broth is nourishing and soothing to the digestion and has a reputation as a traditional healing food. Fertile contains a recipe for making your own chicken bone broth, and a section on how to flavour your chicken broth with darkened ginger.

- Eat organic where you can. A study published in 2016 by the British Journal of Nutrition found that organic fruits and vegetables can contain as much as 70 per cent more antioxidants than non-organic.

The Telegraph, London