A lot of tabloid ink is spilled discussing whether and when our favorite celebrity couples will have children. And our curiosity reflects the fact that these questions come up in more families now than ever before. If you’re like many women, you’ve started your career and you’re wondering when it might be best to have children. Can you leave the workforce for a couple of years and then jump back in at your current salary level? Welcome to the “mommy track,” where corporate life is still shifting to accommodate an increasing number of women who are having babies later in life.

Career concerns are valid, but it’s important for women to regard their fertility equally as seriously—and to know that behaviors they engage in even years before they’re ready to have a child can have significant impact on their future ability to conceive. For some women, this is a wake-up call.

Are you struggling to get pregnant?

If you’re 34 or younger and have spent 12 months trying to conceive, seek expert advice. If you’re 35 or older, seek help after six months. In either case, be sure to take your waking temperature each morning with a basal thermometer and keep a chart for each cycle, so that your care provider can help you identify any possible problems that could keep you from developing a normal pregnancy.

Threats to fertility

Did you know that in times of stress your body adapts by suppressing your fertility? Stress can cause problems with ovulation, diminish your sex drive, reduce blood flow to your reproductive organs, increase your blood pressure, and cause significant hormonal fluctuations. You don’t have to be in the middle of a meltdown for stress to impede your fertility. Mitigate its effects by using simple relaxation and stress-management techniques. Yoga is a proven stress buster. Exercise reduces our stress and bolsters us against future stressors. Deep breathing, listening to meditation tapes, and relaxing music can relieve stress. A warm bubble bath with candles and soft music can literally wash away stress. Find what relaxes your mind, slows your breathing, and puts you at ease—and use these tools on a regular basis.

Other risks to your fertility include polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, sexually transmitted infections, tubal disease, and age. Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), caused by excess male hormones, is increasing in prevalence. Warning signs include weight gain (especially in your abdomen), irregular or absent periods, coarse or dark facial or body hair (hirsutism), and adult acne. PCOS raises your risk of developing heart disease and diabetes and requires assistance from your health care provider to bring your body into balance.

Millions of women today suffer with endometriosis, a condition that causes uterine tissue to grow outside of the uterus, often near the ovaries, fallopian tubes, bladder, bowel, and other areas. Because this tissue responds to hormonal changes, it can cause pain, irritation, scarring, and infertility. Most health care providers use oral contraceptives to treat endometriosis. Surgery can remove the tissue, but it’s tenacious and can return. Endometriosis often causes painful cramping, heavy menstrual flow, diarrhea or painful bowel movements, and pain during intercourse.

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can also negatively affect your fertility. STIs include chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, HIV, genital warts, genital herpes, hepatitis B and C, trichomoniasis, scabies, and pubic lice. Using a condom during sex can help prevent STIs as well as unwanted pregnancies.

Tubal disease causes infertility in one in five women struggling to conceive. Tubal disease occurs when your fallopian tubes are affected by STIs, pelvic surgery, endometriosis, IUDs used for contraception, or two or more abortions, among other risk factors. The bottom line: Get annual gynecological exams to keep your reproductive organs healthy so you’re ready when the time is right.

Adopt healthy nutritional habits: Your diet should include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and lean meats. Get at least 400 mcg of folic acid every day to help prevent birth defects, and take a daily multi- or prenatal vitamin. If you have to “eat on the fly,” bring along a meal replacement, a nutritional supplement drink, or a nutritional bar so that your diet doesn’t suffer.

Maintain a healthy body weight: Estrogen is stored in fat cells; being overweight creates an overabundance of estrogen, which then acts like birth control, preventing pregnancy. On the other hand, if you don’t have enough body fat, your body won’t produce enough estrogen and your monthly reproductive cycle can’t begin. Women who are underweight or who exercise to extremes stop having periods.

Exercise often: Exercise goes hand in hand with a healthy diet and pregnancy. But talk with your health care provider about exercises that can diminish fertility—almost anything to excess can affect your cycles, impeding your chances of conceiving.

Quit smoking: Smoking damages your ovaries and affects your body’s ability to make estrogen, an essential reproductive hormone. Smoking also increases the risks of genetic abnormalities that lead to birth defects, and it deprives the baby of oxygen.

About the Author: Jan DeMasters, PhD, RN, is CEO of DeMasters & Associates, a division of Total Health Concepts, LLC; she specializes in health and stress management consulting in St. Louis.

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