7 FERTILITY MYTHS THAT BELONG IN THE PAST
No, lying flat after sex won’t increase your chances of conception.
By Jen Gunter, M.D.
As an ob-gyn, I’ve personally encountered many fertility myths in my office or online — some of them even during my training. Why do they persist? Sex education, particularly about the physiology of reproduction, is typically incomplete and subpar. And when we do talk about fertility and reproduction, we don’t talk about it directly — euphemisms for the uterus, menstruation, the vagina and the vulva are still common, and when you can’t use a word, the implication is that the body part is shameful. And, of course, many myths persist simply because they’re alluringly fantastical, and we’re inclined to believe these tall tales over the stodgy facts. Here are seven fertility myths that need to be forgotten.
1. Phases of the moon affect menstruation
This is not an uncommon belief — some women even refer to menstruation as their “moon time.” The confusion is understandable: The 29.5-day lunar cycle (from new moon to new moon) is very close to the average 28-day menstrual cycle. But studies show no connection between the moon and menses. Moreover, it is hard to envision how a moon-menstruation connection would be biologically beneficial to human reproduction.
2. Reproductive hormones need to be ‘in balance’
This is a common modern myth in gynecology exam rooms all across North America — and it results in a lot of unnecessary testing of hormone levels. The truth is that, for women of reproductive age, the hormone levels for FSH, LH, estrogen and progesterone change not only day to day, but also often hour to hour. When a woman has certain symptoms — for example, an irregular menstrual cycle or infertility — hormone testing may be recommended to make a diagnosis. But in these situations, doctors will look at individual levels in conjunction with symptoms, rather than comparing levels with some mythical “balance.” Being “in balance” may sound natural, like a person who is “in tune” with her body. But it is simply not a factual statement, or even a good analogy, for what happens biologically.
3. Lying prone after sex increases the chances of becoming pregnant
“How long should I lie flat after sex?” is one of the most common questions asked of OB-GYNs. The myth is that sperm will rush back out of your body once you’re standing up because of the effects of gravity. But most sperm with any chance of fertilization have gone past the point of no return almost immediately. There are no studies that establish a correlation between the length of postcoital recumbent time and subsequent pregnancy rates — but there is a large study that examined pregnancy rates after insemination in a doctor’s office. That study concluded there was no difference in pregnancy rates between people who spent 15 minutes lying flat versus those who got up and moved around as soon as the procedure was completed.
[Read our guide to fertility and getting pregnant.]
4. Women were never meant to go through menopause
The myth is that menopause isn’t natural because for most of history women did not live long enough to experience it — a misconception born both of a mischaracterization of life expectancy and of the way that society has historically tied a woman’s worth to her reproductive capacity. Although it’s true that for centuries the average life expectancy for women was less than 50 years, it’s not as if women were dying en masse at 50, having lived long enough to satisfy evolution. In fact, if you exclude infant and childhood mortality (which were largely due to a lack of basic medical care, sanitation and immunizations), the life expectancy of women, even before 1900, rises sharply. Women in the 17th century who survived the traditionally perilous gantlet of childbirth had an average life expectancy of 60 years. For that matter, the life expectancy for men was never much longer — yet for some reason society has never needed an explanation for the age-related decline in reproductive function in men.
5. The female orgasm can’t just be for pleasure — it must be related to improving the chance of pregnancy
The bulk of the evidence tells us that female orgasm does not affect conception one way or the other. If it did, orgasms would most likely almost always occur with penile penetration; but the reality is that they occur only 25 percent to 33 percent of the time. For orgasm to affect sperm transport — and hence conception — it would also have to occur immediately before or during the male orgasm, which, well, is uncommon. In reality, many women achieve orgasm once or more before their male partner does — or after, or not at all.
6. The human papillomavirus vaccine is associated with premature ovarian failure
Myths and fears about vaccinations have been around almost as long as vaccines have, and fertility-related myths are no exception. This myth was propagated by six cases of premature ovarian failure that were described in the HPV vaccine literature, in what is known as a case series. But this is not proof — although it did prompt a number of provocative headlines that gave birth to this myth. Fortunately, a much larger study, involving more than 199,000 women, tells us that there is no association between HPV vaccination and premature ovarian failure.
7. Men stay fertile forever It’s a common myth that all men can reproduce until their 80s. And it’s true that we see some celebrities in their 50s, 60s and even their 70s announcing their new fatherhood (almost always with a much younger female partner). But both sexes experience an age-related decline in fertility. For women, the decline begins in their 30s, and by their mid-40s, pregnancies without reproductive assistance are rare. For the aging male, erectile dysfunction increases with age, and the quality of seminal fluid and sperm also declines. Men over 51 (notably, this is also the average age of menopause for women) experience a significant decrease in success with infertility therapies. It is true that men don’t experience the same absolute reproductive cutoff that women do, but every discussion about age and fertility should also include men.