Other than survival itself, there is no greater biological imperative than reproduction. That’s why our sex drive is so powerful. The human body is designed to facilitate fertility.
Our very perception of beauty arises from our subliminal expectations of what fertility looks like. And it looks like health. Rested. Calm. Vital.
But what are the quantifiable measures of fertility, and how can we use them?
People measure fertility for one of two reasons: either they want to become pregnant, or they emphatically do not want to become pregnant. Either way, the science is the same. Has wearable tech added a new tool to the fertility arsenal? New research suggests it has.
Where do babies come from?
Every woman is born with an intact lifetime supply of eggs. After puberty, healthy women become fertile for a few days each month. A mature egg is released every 28 days or so (ovulation). If the egg is successfully fertilized by male sperm, she becomes pregnant. If the egg is not fertilized, 14 days later it is expelled, along with the uterine lining, through menstruation. Then the cycle begins anew.
Ovulation (the period of heightened fertility) lasts 3 days (although women can and do become pregnant at other times in the cycle). Recognizing ovulation is the key to reproductive control. But it can be difficult to pinpoint ovulation, especially in women whose cycles are irregular. Wearable tech may be a game changer. The growing power to measure multiple physiological changes at home, with accuracy, has boosted our ability to monitor fertility outside of a healthcare setting.
How can you tell?
The typical fertility cycle is divided into the follicular phases and the luteal (post-ovulation) phases. Some women have classic 28 day cycles and ovulate like clockwork, others have cycles of varying length and complexity: the components are the same. Hormonal changes cause the uterine lining to thicken and a mature egg to be released into the fallopian tube. But measuring the levels of estrogen, progesterone and luteinizing hormone in blood or urine is not yet affordable or practical outside of a laboratory setting.
Most women learn to assess their cycle through personal observation of non-hormonal changes, over time, using their eyes, their instinct, and a calendar. As ovulation approaches cervical mucus increases. Some women experience a pain on one side of the abdomen (mittelschmerz, German for middle pain) as the egg is released. But these signals can be subjective, variable, and inherently difficult to quantify.
The traditional ‘scientific’ at-home fertility measure has been basal body temperature (BBT). As women move through their standard 28 day cycle their temperature spikes as they begin to ovulate. But temperature can be affected by illness or exertion.
Changes in estrogen and progesterone levels impact the cardiovascular system: there is a considerable uptick in pulse rate during ovulation. This change in heart rate as a predictor of fertility holds true even for women with irregular, highly variable cycles—a group that can especially benefit, given historical difficulties in measuring their fertility with standard means. Wearable tech has now sophisticated the assessment of these other changes that help mark ovulation.
What about sleep?
Circadian rhythms impact menstruation, and menstruation affects our circadian rhythms. Disruptions in sleep and circadian rhythms has been linked to decreased fertility and compromised health. Scientific studies are underway to research whether enhanced sleep can improve outcomes in women undergoing in vitro fertilization and on how stress and sleep disturbances might impact fertility. But there is no question that a good night’s sleep fosters health.
Beyond sperm count
It’s not just women who can benefit from tracking physiological markers. Recent research on male fertility have implicated diet, oxidative stress, heat stress, intense exercise, moderate exercise, sleep deprivation and even late bedtime as drivers of male fertility. Wearable tech that enables men to measure sleep, activity, pulse and temperature may find themselves ahead of the curve when they decide it’s time to reproduce. Our fertility depends on our health. Wearable tech keeps us healthy by tracking physiological changes with ease.
Don’t stress about it
For both men and women, stress is linked to reproductive health. Taking ownership of fertility tracking can actually ameliorate stress that might compromise your health or fertility.
For something so central to our lives and our designs as humans, not every aspect of reproduction is understood. New factors continue to emerge: A recent study found that a gene linked to coronary heart disease (and present in Egyptian mummies) has persisted in humans because it confers a reproductive advantage in both men and women. Another study discovered that mice who ‘smoke’ (exposed to cigarettes) compromise the fertility of not only their children but their grandchildren.
The nuanced of mechanics of fertility (beyond ‘the birds and the bees’) are still unfolding. So the more we learn about physiological markers of fertility, the better we can leverage wearable tech — and the specific knowledge about our bodies they help us collect.
For women who are trying to conceive, tech assisted fertility awareness helps them time intercourse to get pregnant quicker. For those women who want to remain sexually active without pregnancy, tech-assisted fertility awareness has proven as effective as hormonal contraception (‘the pill’) in avoiding pregnancy.
Either way, when it comes to fertility awareness, 18th century genius Benjamin Franklin’s quote remains apt: “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” Fortunately, today’s wearable tech offers us planning tools even the inventive Franklin could only have dreamt of.