As multiple studies suggest that reproductive health is highly influenced by nutrition, FemTech World finds out how our diet can impact fertility.
In 2011 Deborah Brock and her husband started their fertility treatment. “Growing up in Ireland, nobody ever thought us how to get pregnant when the time came,” she remembers. “We were led to think that you would touch a guy and get pregnant. But we were thrown in this medical world without knowing anything.”
They decided to switch clinics and three ICSI – intracytoplasmic sperm injection – and frozen embryo transfers later, they had a baby. “We had a very long journey, but we were lucky to find some amazing doctors who treated us like patients first,” Deborah tells me. “They told us that we had to work together as a team, they looked at multiple aspects of our life and they helped us make some key nutritional and lifestyle changes from the very beginning.”
Deborah has a background in community and education and she worked with people from some of the most disadvantaged areas of Dublin. “Education was key,” she says. “But educating others was about educating myself in the first place. After my successful pregnancy, I thought there must be something that can make a difference [in people’s life] with slight changes that can have a great impact. So, I started researching and I realised that there is a connection between our gut microbiome and our reproductive health and I got in touch with the APC Microbiome research centre, here in Ireland.”
After three years of research, Deborah developed two fertility supplements – one for men and one for women – that focus on the microbiome to optimise fertility health.
The human microbiome consists of trillions of symbiotic microbial cells harboured by each person, primarily bacteria in the gut. There are roughly 40 trillion bacteria cells in the human body and the digestive tract is the place with the highest density of microorganisms. The gut bacteria are closely tied to our immune health and help us to digest food. However, they can be highly impacted by environmental factors and diet.
“An imbalance in the gut microbiome is connected with nearly 70 per cent of unexplained infertility,” Deborah explains. “It’s connected with PCOS, endometriosis and even with simply absorbing the nutrients that you need. If something’s out of balance, you’re not going to absorb what you’re taking in. That can be knocked out from a number of things such as antibiotics, contraceptive pills and lifestyle.
“So, when we launched Nua, we wanted to bring the amazing microbiome to the world and show what effect this can have on your reproductive health.”
The supplements contain five strains of live bacteria, vitamins, and minerals, as well as vitamin D which which helps the normal function of the immune system and Zinc which contributes to normal fertility and reproduction. Although full of benefits, Deborah says that small lifestyle changes matter the most.
“There is no magic pill that exists in the world to have a baby. There is no magic doctor that exists to have a baby. But what you can do is get your body ready and prepared for a baby as best as you can,” she insists. “That’s why we want people to take control of their fertility health.
“What we’re trying to do this year is extend the website and have a digital side where people can log in and have the products as well as a programme [they can follow]. Because it’s about much more than taking a pill. You need to look at what you’re taking, eating and drinking and you need to look at the diversity of your gut microbiome.”
The programme her team are building has weekly webinars, tools and recipes that can help people map out their plan. “We try to get people to do what’s right for them. We did wellness and yoga in the past and we also partnered with Fertility Network UK. Charity is my background and it’s really important for us to work with people [from different backgrounds]. Accessibility isn’t there and we need to remember that not everybody has access to this.”
Her lived experience made her extremely passionate about fertility and it feels as if her aim is to support and educate people rather than just sell a product. “My husband and I weren’t really informed about the impact that nutrition could have on fertility,” she says. “When we were on that initial journey, many doctors we spoke to did not talk about nutrition and lifestyle at all. I think if you weren’t lucky enough to grow up and understand how to cook different foods, what variety of foods is out there and you didn’t have access to that information, it’s really hard to know how to eat properly.
“In the UK, one in seven couples are affected by infertility and with nutrition playing such an important role in our life, I think education is more needed than ever,” Deborah continues. “And it’s not just about educating people that we’re working with and our customers. It’s also about educating younger people so that, when the time comes, they know that they have to look at various different areas of their health first. The reason why I love the microbiome and gut bacteria is because once you change a few things in your everyday life, you can see those changes within a couple of days.”
Does she think that more people should receive emotional support? “Absolutely. The emotional journey that people go on is extremely important, but it can be very hard-hitting. Couples who might have just started their fertility journey and had a failed cycle, are then left on their own. We want to be there for them. Not just on the success points, but also when they don’t get pregnant and when they need the most support.”
The founder says that this year they want to expand their online community and raise funds. “We are on a funding round and we are open for anybody to talk to us. I try to arm myself with people that I can truly learn from because we have big ambitions for the future.”
Before we wrap up our call, I ask Deborah what is the best part about her job. “When I get a 12-week scan or of new babies,” she laughs. “That’s what keeps me going in the business battle and what tells me that we’re doing something right. Hearing back from women who got pregnant naturally for the first time just by taking our supplements and making a few changes in their nutrition is extraordinary.”
She adds that: “The key is to treat people with respect. Meet them where they’re at, and really support and educate them. We’re very conscious about the world, the people, what we’re doing and our impact on them. I think if you have that, have integrity, and you’re honest in what you’re doing, then you can also have a thriving business.”
The Nua supplements are available in pharmacies in the UK and Ireland and online on nuafertility.com.
What Iceland can teach the world about gender equality in tech
The recent surge in artificial intelligence (AI) is reviving the tech industry, but gender bias is preventing women from joining the sector. Sorina Mihaila travelled to Reykjavík to find out what needs to change.
When, as a 24-year-old lawyer, Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir ran as the secretary of the Independence Party in Iceland she had one goal: to make an impact.
Eight years later, in a packed conference hall in her native Reykjavík, Sigurbjörnsdóttir, now Iceland’s Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, maintained she has the same mission.
“I was lucky to be born in a world where a female was president of Iceland,” she told a crowd of 200+ delegates at the Nordic Women in Tech Awards, referring to Iceland’s former president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the first elected female head of state in the world.
“Icelandic women have changed the world and I believe we can do it again.”
In the light of October’s “kvennafrí”, the country’s first full-day women’s strike since 1975 when women stopped work in protest at gender inequality, Sigurbjörnsdóttir echoed many Icelandic women’s view when she said equality is still far from being achieved.
“Iceland has been ranked the best country in the world for gender equality by the World Economic Forum for 14 years in a row. But we need to do more,” she explained.
Touching on the role models that helped her become the person that she is today, Sigurbjörnsdóttir told the audience that she believes in innovation and she believes progress in innovation means recognising women for their contributions.
It was truly an empowering atmosphere – a beautiful way of celebrating women in the world’s most gender-equal country.
As I’ve come to realise during my time in Iceland, Icelanders are receptive to innovation and therefore adoption of new technology in this small island nation happens quickly. Focusing on women in tech feels, in this context, not only necessary but essential.
One organisation that caught my eye in this sense was WomenTechIceland, the non-profit behind this year’s Nordic Women in Tech Awards.
Started as a Facebook group, WomenTechIceland was officially registered as a non-profit organisation in 2021 by founders Paula Gould and Valenttina Griffin and dedicated its work towards encouraging equality in the tech industry.
Since 2017, the organisation has been working with visiting businesses, dignitaries, personas and influential voices in tech to host special events, panel discussions and online events to connect Iceland’s tech ecosystem with the global tech community.
Reykjavík-based venture capital firm Crowberry Capital is too on a mission to support women building businesses around technology advances.
As the only major Nordic venture fund headed by an all-female team, the firm has achieved recognition for focusing on backing founders who have traditionally not had access to capital.
In 2021 the company, led by founders Hekla Arnardottir, Helga Valfells and Jenny Ruth Hrafnsdottir, launched a US$90m fund to invest in technology start-ups in the Nordics, with a focus on supporting businesses in emerging tech sectors, with a particular emphasis on encouraging inclusivity.
Their reason? “To demonstrate that the region can also show the way in terms of inventive venture support.”
Whether it’s IT, sustainability, femtech or digital health, the tech industry unarguably needs more gender diversity to continue thriving.
For starters, gender diversity encourages divergent ways of thinking, which can improve quality in the ideas output. This, in turn, drives innovation and growth.
Countries like Iceland have shown us that improving gender equality is a great place to start, but there’s still some way to go.
Women must be able to see that they can have an exciting career in technology and succeed. That means fostering an inclusive work culture, advocating for better representation and introducing more family-friendly policies.
As minister Sigurbjörnsdóttir rightly put it on stage: “If we want to make an impact, we need to engage, participate, campaign and put words into action.”
‘I went undiagnosed for 15 years’ – the researcher leading the fight against endometriosis
The lack of research in endometriosis and her experience of the disease have prompted Dora Koller to study the condition herself
When Dora Koller noticed her first endometriosis symptoms, she was 14, but it wasn’t until she turned 29 that she got a diagnosis.
“They say diagnosis time is between four and 11 years. In my case, it was 15,” she explains.
One might have thought her background would have made a difference – Dora is a postdoctoral researcher in computational genomics at Yale University and the University of Barcelona. However, it didn’t.
“I had to keep insisting because I knew something was wrong,” she says.
“I understand biology, but I can’t imagine how it must be for someone who doesn’t have my background.”
One in 10 women of reproductive age has endometriosis, yet often their primary care doctors do not know what it is and the specialists to whom they are sent are ill-informed.
Vast numbers of women go undiagnosed or under-treated, with some scientists arguing endometriosis is an example of “undone science”. However, Koller thinks the issue goes beyond research.
“Often patients with endometriosis get diagnosed when they present with infertility and the fact that women are not properly represented in the medical profession is partly responsible for that,” she says.
“Gynaecology has been a very male-dominated field and [conditions like endometriosis] have not been a priority. The priority was for us to procreate. When that didn’t happen, they may have started thinking about what’s happening to us. Otherwise, pain wasn’t important.”
The under-representation of women, the lack of research in endometriosis and her experience of the disease have prompted Koller to study the condition herself.
“I work in the field of psychiatry, but having endometriosis made me interested in knowing as much as possible about it,” she says.
“I wanted to connect the two and understand the link between endometriosis and mental health.”
Her latest research – the largest epidemiological study to date on the psychiatric factors that can accompany endometriosis – has demonstrated that depression, anxiety, and eating disorders are not only a result of the chronic pain endometriosis generates, but also have their own underlying genetic mechanisms.
“It’s a great result, because now we can say that it’s not women’s fault.
“For a long time, researchers thought endometriosis was just a gynaecological disease — that it didn’t affect anything but female reproduction, and so women were often only treated when they presented with infertility.
“Now, we have to acknowledge that the effects of endometriosis extend far beyond reproduction.”
Although she thinks understanding the impact of endometriosis is important, Koller says diagnosis and treatment should remain a priority.
“The fact that it’s 2023 and the only available diagnostic method for endometriosis is surgery is unacceptable.”
‘This is not just a conversation between scientists’
There is still a long way to go to address the challenges in diagnosing and managing endometriosis, but by raising awareness the researcher believes we can open up the conversation.
“I always like to talk about this based on what happened 10 years ago with breast cancer,” she says.
“We saw women and campaigners talking about breast cancer and now everyone is aware how common it is. I think something similar is happening with endometriosis.”
However, not all countries are involved in this discussion. According to the World Health Organization, in many places, the general public and healthcare providers are not aware that life-altering pelvic pain is not normal, leading to a normalisation and stigmatisation of endometriosis.
“The change is happening mostly in the West, but we need to make more efforts to bring it everywhere and raise awareness everywhere,” Koller agrees.
“Most of the things [we are seeing] appear in English or Spanish which makes it harder to reach people who don’t speak those languages. We need to translate that information to other languages to reach as many people as possible.
“Scientists, myself included, also need to work on translating the information to the public, because often we’re using difficult language that people can’t understand.
“This is not just a conversation between scientists. This is a conversation that needs to involve patients and the general public.”
Female empowerment: A bra for the pelvic floor? Yes, please
Your pelvic floor is essential to daily function. So why are we still not talking about it?
We know how vital your bra is. What if we told you there’s one for your pelvic floor? Sorina Mihaila speaks to the founders behind the groundbreaking innovation.
Pelvic floor health is a critical aspect of a woman’s overall wellbeing. The pelvic floor muscles, located at the base of the pelvis, consists of muscles and connective tissues that support important organs, including the bladder, bowel and reproductive organs.
Weak or dysfunctional pelvic floor muscles can lead to a range of health issues, including urinary incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse and sexual dysfunction.
Despite this, a UK survey found that 69 per cent of women had not spoken to their health professional about their pelvic floor health. In many cultures, it is still considered taboo or embarrassing, leading to shame and a lack of discussion about it.
Anna Maria Ullmann, Yair Kira and Kaven Baessler, founders of the Berlin-based start-up YoniCore, think the stigma and lack of awareness are the biggest obstacles preventing women from seeking help.
“Many women are simply not used to take care of their pelvic floor and look at conditions affecting their pelvic floor,” says Ullmann.
With little innovation happening in this space, the trio is committed to disrupting the market and improving the quality of life of millions of women. Their product? A small device that supports the pelvic floor and improves bladder control with one press of a button.
“We call it the bra for the pelvic floor,” says Ullmann. “Women with pelvic floor dysfunctions are often not able to enjoy everything they used to so with YoniCore, we wanted to solve that and help them get their lives back.”
The device, which inserts into the vagina like a tampon, inflates to fit a woman’s unique body structure and provide optimal support. Used with the accompanying app, it also promises to help users do their pelvic floor exercises and strengthen their muscles.
Empowerment and education
While the immediate relief is important, Ullmann says their real mission goes much further than that.
“We want to come and say, Hey, it’s okay to talk about your pelvic floor, it’s okay to take care of it and put it on our priority list.
“We think this is an issue of education and a societal problem. As a business, we really want to be part of this societal shift and change how women perceive their body.
“We aim to build a community to empower women to educate themselves and learn about their body and create the biggest database on pelvic floor health,” she continues.
“We believe that there are many other conditions we could look at. With a big database, we can start treating other diseases and for us, that’s really empowering.”
Kira, her co-founder, acknowledges the challenges of bringing the product to market, but he’s optimistic.
“Not getting enough support is frustrating, but we are hoping to fulfil our mission regardless” he explains.
“We are already seeing changes in society. Women are a lot more comfortable using menstrual cups and tracking their cycle. My mother is in her 70s and she uses a smartwatch,” he laughs.
“Here in Berlin, there are many companies developing products to change the way our society deals with women’s health. So, we are really proud to be part of that.”
The entrepreneurs have big plans. After bagging the Deep Tech Award Berlin last month, the duo announced a collaboration with the health tech company Thaumatec to build an MVP for their application and get support with building the first version of the YoniCore app.
“We are also in fundraising,” adds Ullmann. “We are trying to go through this with more validation and we are also focusing on kicking off our marketing strategies to build this community that we think will be very important in our mission with YoniCore.
“In addition, we are focusing on going into R&D with our suppliers that will then produce the product.”
If approved as a medical device, the futuristic pelvic floor bra could be available as soon as 2025.
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- New treatment could ‘disrupt’ growth of breast cancer tumours
- The slippery slope of presumed consent in post-humous reproductive health cases
- Women’s health content censored and blocked on social media
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