Growing up, Allison always knew she wanted kids. When the time finally came, though, she couldn’t get pregnant. She visited a reproductive endocrinologist, who diagnosed her with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and explained that both PCOS and excess weight — Allison is among the 42% of American adults with obesity — can hinder ovulation. He referred her to my obesity medicine practice for weight loss in hopes of improving her fertility.
I worked with Allison to develop an individualized treatment plan that addressed nutrition (she wanted to adopt the Mediterranean diet since it seemed sustainable), exercise (we identified several forms of physical activity she enjoyed that fit her schedule) and behavior modification (for example, we shifted her meal timing earlier and discussed techniques to avoid stress-eating). As part of this plan, we also started on metformin, a great option in cases like hers, because it can help with weight loss, it can help restore ovulation, and it is generally considered safe to take during pregnancy.
After a few months, Allison had lost 20 pounds and she began to ovulate; however, she had not yet conceived so she elected to start fertility treatment.
This meant her weight management program would be even more critical.
Weight gain associated with fertility treatment
Since hormones affect weight, hormonal therapy to enhance ovulation (whether pills or the multiple shots that the in vitro fertilization process entails) often leads to weight gain. This gain can be significant, especially for patients with insulin resistance and patients who, like Allison, have overweight or obesity.
While we don’t want to add to patients’ anxiety during the stress of fertility treatment, it is important for us as providers to be mindful of the potential for weight gain. Fertility-treatment-related weight gain can have a long-term impact because successful treatment means pregnancy — and thus pregnancy weight gain — and it’s often difficult to lose the cumulative excess pounds afterward. For women with multiple pregnancies, the extra weight can add up quickly. One of my patients, for example, gained 70 pounds with her first pregnancy and then lost only 20 pounds before conceiving again. She presented to me during her second pregnancy, and we’re working on strategies to avoid excessive weight gain this time.
Excess weight is associated with various health complications during pregnancy, including hypertension, diabetes, obstructive sleep apnea and preeclampsia, as well as an increase in the child’s risk of congenital anomalies. Women’s healthcare providers often hesitate to bring up the topic of weight, but both mother and baby could benefit significantly if more fertility specialists and OB-GYNs (nonjudgmentally) asked patients’ permission to discuss the issue — and then monitored their weight at appointments and took appropriate action as needed.
Managing weight during fertility treatment
Cases like Allison’s are extremely common, so it’s important for women’s healthcare providers of all kinds to be aware of the options and limitations of weight management during fertility treatment. Most anti-obesity medications are off the table for patients during this time, but there are still a number of steps practitioners can take to help their patients avoid excessive weight gain:
- Optimize lifestyle interventions. Dietary strategies, physical activity and recommended behavioral modifications may be more effective when tailored to the patient’s specific lifestyle. Referrals to outside resources, such as a dietitian or behavioral therapist, for instance, can be great options if additional support is needed.
- Address other contributors to weight gain. Stress, lack of sleep and many factors unrelated to the conventional diet-and-exercise combo contribute to weight gain, and all of these contributors may be in play during fertility treatment. Patients benefit from a personalized plan that addresses these as well.
- Assess for drug-induced weight gain. Many medications are known to promote weight gain, so consider pausing these medications or reducing the dose during fertility treatment, if possible, when substitution with weight-neutral agents isn’t an option. Critical medications obviously need to be maintained, but a risk-benefit analysis might suggest that others should be discontinued.
- Consider prescribing metformin. Some gynecologists and reproductive endocrinologists may be comfortable prescribing the diabetes medication, metformin, for patients with overweight, obesity or insulin resistance, or for those at high risk of weight gain. In addition to improving insulin sensitivity and helping to balance hormones, metformin is a weight-loss-promoting medication and can thus help decrease weight gain associated with fertility treatment.
- Refer to an obesity medicine specialist. While we generally can’t use anti-obesity medications during fertility treatment, patients may benefit from a comprehensive medical evaluation and a personalized treatment plan. A thorough plan is particularly important when a patient is unable to conceive quickly and undergoes fertility treatment for a prolonged period. (I currently have one patient, for example, who has gained 40 pounds over the course of seven months of fertility treatments and still isn’t pregnant.)
Supporting better outcomes for mother and child
Women with overweight or obesity who plan to become pregnant are often counseled to lose weight before trying to conceive, both to enhance fertility and to reduce the risk of health complications for themselves and their babies. This recommendation often becomes more explicit before a woman begins fertility treatment — and obesity medicine specialists like me receive many referrals at this juncture.
The more time we have to treat a patient’s obesity beforehand, the more we can do, of course, but we can still help even after treatment begins. While managing weight during fertility treatment is a challenge, it’s not a lost cause. Taking steps to counteract the potentially weight-promoting effects of hormone therapy can significantly impact the health of the woman and her future child. This is a challenge that impacts many generations to come. We can do this together!