01/02/2017 8:41 AM AEDT | Updated 01/02/2017 9:34 PM AEDT

The Role Of Genetics In Fertility, Pregnancy And Diet

As more people turn to personalised medicine for answers, a molecular geneticist gets back to basics.

Getty Images/iStockphoto
One in six Aussie couples are affected by infertility.

Ever since you were a teenager your Sex Ed teacher, or probably your mother, drilled into you the importance of contraception.

So you can imagine the frustration when you finally get to an age when a child doesn't seem like such an crazy idea, only to discover you're one of the one in six couples in Australia affected by infertility.

Denise Furness, a molecular geneticist whose clients largely consist of couples struggling to fall pregnant, specialises in the area of personalised medicine which sees her providing tailored treatments designed to optimise overall health to improve fertility in both men and women.

Furness' focus is largely folate nutrigenomics and DNA damage in relation to pregnancy outcomes and explains while there once was a time when the focus was solely on the woman, today it is widely accepted men are equally affected by problems that can cause infertility.

"Folate nutrigenomics is fancy word for biochemistry," Furness, who has a PhD in biochemistry focusing on genetics, told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Specifically, nutrigenomics is the interaction between your genes, your diet and how that affects your health," Furness said.

In 40 percent of couples the cause of infertility is attributed to a sperm factor, and in another 40 percent the cause is found within the female reproductive system.

All of these things play a role in fertility, chronic disease risk and other underlying conditions like inflammation.

"Through genetic testing, we'll see what genes you've inherited, what variations you may have and what we can do nutritionally and lifestyle-wise to compensate for those variations," Furness said.

Ahead, Furness reveals the key things to know if you are trying to conceive, and why diet and lifestyle factors shouldn't be ignored.

Get to know your body (and family history)

"A lot of what I do is about education," Furness explains. While the majority of her clients come to her for genetic testing, Furness said there is little point in spending money on tests if you are not willing to make dietary changes and address other areas like work stress and your environment.

"I'll have couples come to me who smoke and I'll tell them there's no point in continuing with me because they are doing DNA damage to their body," Furness said.

The role of the environment

"There are a number of factors in infertility and age is a huge one, but it's also our environment," Furness explains.

"We're exposed to more chemicals than ever before, as women we're putting things on our skin and hair and they may have ingredients that can interfere with our endocrine system, affecting hormones," Furness said.

'Nutrigenomics is the interaction between your genes, your diet and how that affects your health.'

Of course this is not everyone, and this is where the genetics comes in.

"Some people can tolerate more than others because we are genetically stronger, and some people have predispositions in some areas," Furness said.

Having this knowledge however, ensures you are better equipped to make informed diet and lifestyle choices.

Yes, diet is important

Less than four percent of the Australian population eat the recommended five servings of vegetables each day.

"Even people who think they're eating well will realise after we sit down and go over their diet that in fact they're not," Furness said.

One of the first questions I'll ask a client is, 'are you eating real food?' and 'are you exercising, or are you sitting all day?

She explains our diet is not what it used to be and because we are all so busy, we take shortcuts at the expense of our health.

"One of the first questions I'll ask a client is, 'are you eating real food?' and 'are you exercising, or are you sitting all day?'" Furness said.

After discussing diet and lifestyle factors, Furness carries out genetic testing and blood tests to look for variations, for example, in folate metabolism or Vitamin D that may be causing issues.

Supplements shouldn't replace a diet, but support it.

"We know that folate is so important in pregnancy because of neural tube defects.

"So I will look at their genes and try and determine areas that genetically may need support," Furness said.

Supplements help

"You cannot replace a good diet with supplements but what you can do is support it with good quality supplements," Furness said.

If you are genetically predisposed to having certain issues with folate, for instance, we will look to top you up with supplements," Furness said.

She explains it's a no-brainer in pregnancy to be taking both a folate supplement and a pregnancy multi-vitamin.

Denise Furness will be speaking at the 5th BioCeuticals Research Symposium in April to present on this topic.