Reproductive health refers to the overall well-being of both the male and female reproductive systems during all life stages. Our reproductive systems literally produce life if an individual decides to have children—and even when they don’t, keeping them fit is vital for good health.
Let’s look at both the male and female reproductive systems, the main problems we can face with them, and some ways we can support our own reproductive health each day.
Female Reproductive System
The internal female reproductive system includes the:
- Vagina: also known as the birth canal.
- Uterus: also known as the womb, which is divided into the cervix (the lower part) and the corpus (the main part of the uterus). The uterus can expand to hold a developing baby when a woman is pregnant.
- Ovaries: small glands on each side of the uterus that make hormones and eggs.
- Fallopian tubes: slender tubes that attach to the upper uterus and act as a tunnel for egg cells. An egg is also fertilized by sperm in the fallopian tubes.
When a female is of reproductive age, she has a monthly cycle (menstruation) that prepares the body for potential pregnancy.
Male Reproductive Health
The male reproductive system includes the:
- Testicles: two oval-shaped organs that make the hormone testosterone and create and store millions of sperm cells.
- Duct system, which includes the epididymis and vas deferens through which the sperm-containing fluid semen travels.
- Accessory glands, which include the prostate gland that makes some parts of semen and the seminal vesicles that provide help lubricate the duct system and protect sperm.
- Penis, which contains the shaft and glans where semen and urine exit the body.
The main purpose of both male and female reproductive systems is to produce and transport either an egg or sperm. Nature’s goal is to create a baby—make another person!
Unfortunately, a number of diseases and conditions can occur in the reproductive system, including:
- developmental disorders
- birth defects
- preterm birth
- low birth weight
- birth defects
- fertility issues
- menstrual disorders
- and many more
What Affects Reproductive Health?
According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, research shows the greatest threat to reproductive health may be exposure to environmental pollutants.
Exposure to chemicals that may interfere with hormonal activity—known as endocrine disruptors—may also be involved in reproductive concerns like pregnancy or fertility issues.
In addition, lead exposure has been linked with reduced fertility in both genders.
Lifestyle factors like the following may also affect fertility and reproductive health:
- The age a family is started
- Nutrition, exercise and body weight
- Stress, anxiety and depression
- Cigarette smoking, illicit drug use, and alcohol and caffeine consumption
- Obesity or being underweight
How to Support Your Reproductive Health
Reproductive health can vary depending on the individual and circumstances. However, here are some general recommendations:
STAY EDUCATED AND PLAN CAREFULLY
Practicing safe sexual health, tracking monthly cycles, and pre-planning for pregnancies are all ways to stay aware and informed about your reproductive health.
This includes scheduling regular doctor visits and screenings for your sexual health and seeking medical attention for infections or dysfunctions.
GET ENOUGH FOLIC ACID
This B-vitamin is crucial for women of reproductive age, as having enough before and during pregnancy can help reduce the risk of brain and spinal cord birth defects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 400 mcg of folic acid per day for all women.
DIET AND EXERCISE
A healthy and well-balanced diet is key in maintaining good overall—including reproductive—health.
For men, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, as well as carbohydrates, folate, fiber and lycopene, are associated with better semen quality.[2,3]
- Replacing carbohydrates with vegetable protein has shown to have a positive effect, while increasing animal protein was correlated with higher chances of infertility.
- Eating trans fats instead of healthy monounsaturated fats has been shown to increase the risk of infertility.
- Women who take multivitamins could be less likely to deal with infertility.
- Women who focused on more monounsaturated fats than trans fats, vegetable protein instead of animal protein, high-fat dairy instead of low-fat dairy, increased multivitamin and iron intake, and a lower glycemic index diet showed higher “fertility diet” scores.
Maintaining a healthy weight—avoiding being overweight or underweight—may also help support reproductive health.
Psychological stress may also contribute to fertility issues. So taking steps to reduce emotional stress is good for your reproductive health and well-being as a whole.
The Bottom Line
Making healthy choices that nourish your body are good ways to support your sexual and reproductive health—whether you plan to have children or not. This starts with staying informed, getting checkups, talking with your partner about any concerns, and focusing on a good diet and regular exercise.