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Fertility 360

21 Miles: Swimming in Search of the Meaning of Motherhood



21 miles

I sometimes feel ashamed of admitting that I went through eleven rounds of IVF. Yes, ELEVEN. By any account, it’s the extreme end of the fertility treatment spectrum. It remains a lasting symbol of the depths of desperation and despair that my pursuit of motherhood took me to which I wrote about in my first book The Pursuit of Motherhood that in turn led to me becoming a columnist for Fertility Road magazine, founding Fertility Fest ( and campaigning to improve things for people who struggle to conceive. It’s also led to my new book – 21 Miles: Swimming in search of the meaning of motherhood out in May.

I was 34 when my partner and I started trying to conceive. I thought it was the perfect age. Like many women, I’d spent my twenties trying not to get pregnant. I’d gone to university, climbed the career ladder, taken my time to find the perfect man. Shortly after my 34th birthday we threw away the contraception and started having sex for the purpose nature intended – to make a baby. That’s when I discovered that getting pregnant isn’t necessarily that easy, especially in your mid thirties. After a year of unprotected sex, ovulation kits, and knicker-watch we made an appointment with a fertility clinic. We were diagnosed with ‘Unexplained Infertility’ – the frustrating answer given to roughly a third of people who struggle to conceive. It’s a terrible diagnosis because it isn’t really a diagnosis at all.

What followed was a decade long journey that involved round after round of IVF, multiple miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy that almost took my life. We seemed to be able to make perfect embryos – specks of life in the laboratory which when they got put back inside me, dissolved and disappeared. Every doctor we saw was convinced that if we kept on trying it would eventually work. So we did.

It’s hard explaining the pain of something you’ve never had. Something that was just an expectation, a dream, at most a cluster of cells. I wasn’t dying. The world wasn’t on the verge of a humanitarian disaster because I couldn’t have children. I call it the ‘pain of never’. Its symptoms include: never feeling like a real woman because you can’t do what every other woman seemingly finds so easy to do; never being able to feel happy for someone when they announce they’re pregnant without feeling sad for yourself at the same time; and never seeing someone else’s photos of their children on Facebook without wishing you had photos to post too.

Jessica with Pre Leith

Infertility is brutal. It has a soul-destroying effect on your relationship with family, friends, colleagues as well as your partner. It decimates your self- esteem and grips you in a fear for your future. The thing that drove me through so many cycles was quite simply the terror that if I couldn’t become a mother – what would my life look like? Was it a life I even wanted?

And like many who go through this, for years I suffered in silence. In public I was a successful ‘career woman’, in private I was on a desperate mission to become a mother that ended up costing over £70,000. And alongside IVF I did every ‘add on’ treatment you can imagine: acupuncture, dietary supplements, therapy (several types). I even had a stranger’s white blood cells injected into my arm. Don’t ask. But no amount of money could buy me a baby.

Our eleventh round of IVF was just before my 43rd birthday. Three top quality embryos were returned to my womb. All the signs looked good but then they always did. For the eleventh time I dreamed about my due date; about writing an ‘out of office’ saying I was away on maternity leave; about mummy meet-ups and feeding the ducks.

But all it resulted in was another negative pregnancy test, and with it the end of hope. At the same time my relationship started to implode. Another little acknowledged fact is the impact IVF has on a marriage. It destroys your sex life and you start to question whether love can ever be enough without a child.

Taking Off

That was the moment I decided it was time to do something different. I thought back on my childhood dreams. If I couldn’t be a mother, maybe I could be…a Channel Swimmer. The only problem being that it wasn’t something I’d thought about for over thirty years. I hated exercise, and the cold. I wasn’t even a very good swimmer. But after years of ‘Project Baby’ taking on a challenge like the Channel to raise money for families without children and children without families, gave me something else to think about.

As my punishing training schedule commenced I soon learned that you need to put on weight to stave off the cold. This then led to a new idea. What if I were to write to a collection of inspiring women and ask them to meet and eat with me and answer the question: does motherhood make you happy? I thought it might help me decide what to do next.

So I did and the response was overwhelming. From baronesses to professors; award-winners to record-breakers; household names to people who have done something quietly amazing. 21 women from different walks of life, all of whom had compelling truths to tell about female fulfillment and the meaning of motherhood. I learnt about the different routes to parenthood beyond the biological – adoption, fostering, egg donation and surrogacy and also that there are some women who mother in the world without ever becoming parents. I met women who had not had children – some by choice, some by circumstance – and even a woman prepared to admit that motherhood had been a regret. The candour of all the women I met was breathtaking and it became the most life-affirming quest – with a lot of cake!


At 1.30am on the 2 September 2015, I set out from Dover in the dark taking the words and wisdom that each of the women I’d met had given me to the sea. For the first few hours I was very sick, retching into the water with the guttural sound of an animal dying in pain. It’s not an uncommon occurrence at the start of a Channel swim – generally considered to be brought on by nerves. The sickness stopped around about the time the jellyfish began. They are one of the hazards of Channel swimming and I was to face more of them than they’d ever seen, stinging me all over my face and body. It was like swimming through jellyfish soup. But even worse was to come. Despite all the training, I was still a slow swimmer and if the tide turns when you’re getting close to France, then it can take many hours to land.

If I had known that swimming the English Channel was just like going through IVF maybe I’d never have done it. Ultimately you have to accept that nature is in control of your body, and it’s also in control of the sea. Nature is bigger than all of us, it’s definitely bigger than me. But I also had no idea that swimming from England to France would become like my own version of giving birth. 17 hours 44 minutes and 30 seconds of labour – followed by the most extraordinary euphoria that eclipsed all the pain. I’d done something different and life would never be the same again.

21 Miles Jessica HepburnJessica Hepburn is the author of The Pursuit of Motherhood (published 2014) and 21 Miles: Swimming in search of the meaning of motherhood (out 3rd May from Unbound, £14.99). She is also founder and director of Fertility Fest

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Detech your bedroom



Detech Your Bedroom

Why charging your phone next to where you sleep could be harming your sperm.

“If you are trying for a baby and it doesn’t happen within a year you might want to think of whether it could be your mobile phone habit that is to blame,” says Professor Martha Dirnfeld, of the Technion University in Haifa which recently investigated whether mobile phone use can affect sperm quality. In the study, Israeli scientists monitored 106 men attending a fertility clinic for a year and results indicated that those who chatted on the phone for more than an hour daily were twice as likely to have low sperm quality as those who spoke for less than an hour.

The scientists’ findings were published in the journal Reproductive BioMedicine and found that 47% of men who kept their phones within 50cm of their groin had sperm levels that were seriously affected, compared with just 11% of the general population.

The benefits of leaving your laptop and smartphone outside the bedroom have long been known: blue light before sleep suppresses melatonin production leaving you feeling exhausted, and answering work emails whilst in between the sheets can build a virtual wall between you and your partner. But aside from being an obvious passion killer, this new study also found that a man’s sperm count can be reduced by talking on a phone that is charging, or even keeping it close by on a bedside table at night.

The science behind the findings is alarmingly simple: heat and electromagnetic activity which emanate from a mobile phone are thought to ‘cook’ sperm, causing them to die. Also, men who used their phone as it charged were almost twice as likely to suffer problems, suggesting that the so-called urban myth of charging devices giving off stronger rays may actually have some substance to it..

Professor Gedis Grudzinskas, a fertility consultant at St George’s Hospital, London, comments: “Men need to think about their wellbeing and try to stop being addicted to their phones. If you wear a suit to work put the mobile in your chest pocket instead of close to your testes. It will reduce the risk of your sperm count dropping or dropping so much.”

However, some medical professionals are keen to prevent studies like this causing a mass hysteria. Dr Fiona Mathews, a biologist from the University of Exeter, has conducted her own studies in this field and acknowledges that whilst these rays seem to have a detrimental effect on sperm, there is still not sufficient evidence to prove that mobile phone radiation can render men infertile. “We have previously found that there are consistent patterns of mobile phone exposure being linked to reduced sperm quality,” says Dr Mathews.

“Unfortunately, there is not yet any direct evidence available to link mobile phone use with complete infertility. All we can say at the moment is that mobile phone exposure reduces sperm quality and it would therefore be reasonable to infer that, for men who are already on the borderline of infertility, phone exposure could further reduce the chances of pregnancy.”

So why not follow the lead of James Bond actor Daniel Craig, who though known for his high-tech gadgets on screen, once suggested that the secret to his happy marriage with Rachel Weisz is their bedroom ban on technology. He told The New York Times: “There’s nothing technological allowed in the bedroom. If the iPad goes to bed, it’s a killer. We have a ban on it.”

Of course this doesn’t mean we need to ditch mobile phones all together, but it is important to be aware of our addiction to tech. So what else can we do to minimise mobile disruption? When at work or home it’s worth making sure men take their phones out of their pockets and keep them on the desk or table. Before bed consider a device curfew; not only will this have a positive effect on your mental health but will encourage intimacy between you and your partner. Lastly, buy an old-fashioned alarm clock and keep your charging smartphone away from the bed. All these are small lifestyle changes, but ones that could have a profound effect on both your relationship and your fertility journey.

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Fertility 360

Do This ONE Thing to Improve Your Fertility Immediately



Do This ONE Thing to Improve Your Fertility Immediately

Why is Earth the only planet in our solar system that supports life forms?

Quite simply…water.  No other planet has it.

Drinking water is essential for optimal health.  And you probably think you get plenty of fluids every day.

Yet, up to 75 percent of Americans may be in a chronic state of dehydration, according to research.

Many people understand the importance of drinking enough water but they don’t overcome the perceived inconvenience to make it part of their routine.

The problem is that allowing yourself to become dehydrated causes more inconvenience because it can be a significant contributing factor to your fertility issues.  Something as simple as drinking enough water can be the turning point for you.

Staying hydrated is critical when trying to get pregnant.  You can survive weeks without food. But as little as a few hours without water.  For example, a child left in a hot car or an athlete exercising hard in hot weather can dehydrate, overheat and die in a period of a few hours.

50-70% of your body weight is water.  Your blood is 85% water, your muscles 80%, your brain 75% and even your bones are 25% water, which indicates how important water is for your health.

Water keeps all of your organs and cells functioning properly including the reproductive cells (egg, sperm) and reproductive organs (brain, ovaries, uterus, testes, thyroid).  It also naturally flushes out toxins in the body.

For men, semen production and semen volume can be reduced by not drinking enough water.   If semen is thicker due to dehydration, sperm may have trouble swimming.

For the fetus, staying hydrated is critical for fetal development.  Water helps carry nutrients to the placenta and is an important part of all aspects of development from the time of fertilization. Without water, a developing baby cannot survive, increasing the risk of miscarriage.

For women, dehydration can affect…

  • …which leads to dehydration interfering with or preventing ovulation
  • The cervical mucus, which is important in transporting the sperm to the fallopian tubes for egg fertilization.  Having little to no cervical mucus can be an indication that you’re dehydrated. You should see 2-3 days of egg white, stretchy cervical mucus around ovulation.  Without enough water, the cervical mucus that balances vaginal pH also becomes too acidic, harming the sperm.
  • Implantation –  Water is necessary for cell division and metabolism. The cells of the uterine wall must be healthy for the embryo to implant.


How much water to drink?

Because people are busy throughout the day, using thirst as a guide is unreliable.

A general rule of thumb is to drink half your weight in ounces of water.

But more accurately, use your urine as a guide.

The color should be pale yellow like lemonade.  If it is a deep, dark yellow then you are probably not drinking enough water.  If it is colorless, you are drinking too much water which can cause salts & other electrolytes in your body to become too diluted.

A healthy person urinates on average about 7-8 times a day.  If you haven’t urinated in many hours, that’s an indication that you’re not drinking enough.  Time your water intake so that needing to go to the bathroom doesn’t cause you to wake up at night.

Make sure you start your day with a large glass of water to rehydrate.  You breathe out a small amount of water every time you exhale as you’re sleeping.  If you sweat at night, you’re also losing water.

Water bottles

Storing your water in the appropriate water containers is important.  Glass and stainless steel water containers are best.

DO NOT USE plastic bottles!  Even if they’re BPA-free.

BPA (bisphenol-A) mimics estrogen, and therefore can have estrogenic effects in the body causing infertility including low sperm quality.  BPA increases aneuploidy, a defect consisting of abnormal loss or gain of chromosomes, which could lead to miscarriages or disorders such as Down Syndrome.

Plastics, including BPA-free materials, leach chemicals that act like estrogen in our bodies.  Conditions that are known to release these harmful chemicals are heat, putting them in a microwave or dishwasher, or leaving a plastic water bottle in a hot car.  Microwaving the containers or placing hot liquids or food into them releases BPA 55 times more rapidly! But even normal contact with food or water was enough for these chemicals to leach into the food and the water because they are unstable.  Some of the chemicals that are in the BPA-free plastics actually have been found to have greater estrogenic activity than BPA itself.

Water quality

Many people rely on drinking bottled water regularly.  The problem is that you don’t know how long they’ve been in the plastic bottle and what conditions they have been stored in.

Instead, purify your tap water using the best water filtration system you can afford, preferably one with reverse osmosis (RO).

Unfortunately, an effective water filtration system also removes beneficial minerals (magnesium, calcium, iron, manganese).  Because RO water doesn’t have enough minerals, when it is consumed, it also leaches minerals from the body and your food if you cook with RO water. It’s because water wants to bind to everything, and it will take the minerals where it can — like from your body or your food.  This means that the minerals in food and vitamins are being urinated away.

Less minerals consumed plus more minerals being excreted equals serious negative side effects and big health problems, including fertility issues.

A simple solution is to add trace minerals to filtered water.

Here are some easy tips to ensure you’re drinking enough water

  • Have a bottle with you constantly and make it a habit to take a sip whenever you have down time.
  • Use an app to track your water intake.>
  • Set recurring water break reminders on your phone.
  • Buy a bottle with pre-marked timed intervals. You can also make your own stickers to add to your favorite clear bottle.  All you have to do is come up with your own timed drinking goals and write the times on the bottle.

Optimal fertility starts with the basics – water being the most critical ingredient to life.  Make it a daily habit to drink enough for your reproductive needs.

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Fertility 360

Study Points To Fertility As A Leading Economic Indicator



Study Points To Fertility As A Leading Economic Indicator

Many research studies have shown that when the economy does well, people have more babies, and when the economy does poorly, they give birth less.

New research from the University of Notre Dame, however, discovers something unique — people appear to stop conceiving babies several months before recessions begin.

The study, “Is Fertility a Leading Economic Indicator?” was published Feb. 26 in the National Bureau of Economic Research’s working paper series. It is coauthored by Notre Dame economics professors Kasey Buckles and Daniel Hungerman, and Steven Lugauer from the University of Kentucky.

The team compared conceptions to other well-known economic indicators — such as consumer confidence and durables purchases — over the past 30 years and found that conceptions fall at the same time or even before other indicators whenever a recession is about to start.

“We show that for the last three recessions, conceptions predicted the downturn just as well as traditional economic indicators did,” Buckles says.

The team examined data on more than 100 million births spanning decades in the United States. Unlike most studies that use data aggregated up to the year level, the NBER paper focuses on the timing of births within the year using monthly or quarterly data, which allowed the researchers to study changes occurring months before a recession — changes that papers using annual data would miss.

“Once you examine monthly or quarterly data, the pattern becomes obvious,” Hungerman says. “We show the existence and magnitude of this pattern before the Great Recession, and it’s striking since that recession was famously hard to predict. None of the experts saw it coming, and in its first few months, many business leaders were convinced the economy was doing OK — even as the number of conceptions plummeted and had been falling for a while.

“While the cyclicality of fertility has been studied before, the possibility that conceptions change months before recessions begin has not been shown before,” he says. “In fact, some well-known studies have even declared that the pattern we find shouldn’t exist.”

“One way to think about this,” Buckles says, “is that the decision to have a child often reflects one’s level of optimism about the future.”

The study also shows conceptions are slow to rebound when recessions end. The Great Recession famously had a “jobless recovery.” This study finds it also had a “babyless recovery.”

The paper is available online at

Also published on Medium.

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