Quick and easy” may have described the conception of their first child, but when Fern Reiss and her husband, Jonathan, decided to have another baby, the key words became “frantic and desperate.” One miscarriage and three years later, Fern just couldn’t seem to get pregnant again.
Unlike the experience of the Baby Boom generation of the 1950s and ’60s, for whom getting pregnant was sometimes too easy and trouble-free, a new generation of couples is having to deal with the frustration and heartache of infertility, defined as the inability to produce a pregnancy after 12 months of trying. This struggle to conceive now affects one in five couples in the United States — a statistic that rises with age, with one in two couples in their 40s becoming infertile.
Cause and Effect
A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that a number of environmental and dietary factors are to blame for the rising infertility rates.
“We live in an estrogen-rich environment,” says William Wong, Ph.D., a Texas-based naturopathic doctor, writer and lecturer on natural health and exercise. A conglomeration of pesticides, plastics, petrochemical byproducts and other synthetic estrogens and estrogen imitators fills our world. Add to that the excess of hormones and hormone-like compounds we consume in everyday food, and humankind is suddenly on estrogen overload.
“This estrogen dominance can affect ovulation in women, and can lower sperm count, sperm viability and the amount of seminal fluid produced in men,” Wong explains. Some experts also believe that uterine fibroids, endometriosis, ovarian cysts and infections of the reproductive organs — all which can impair fertility in women — are often the result of estrogen overload.
Reiss, a nutrition expert, realized that dietary changes had solved many of her family’s previous medical problems, so why wouldn’t similar changes work with infertility? Researching the topic, she discovered numerous studies that reinforced this idea. Inspired, she began to incorporate in her and her husband’s diet foods linked to increased fertility and prevention of miscarriage. “We conceived two months later,” Reiss says. She subsequently wrote The Infertility Diet: Get Pregnant and Prevent Miscarriage (www.infertilitydiet.com).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 9 million couples with fertility problems are turning to some kind of infertility service to conceive a child. Others are improving their odds with herbs, dietary supplements and healthy, organic foods that reduce estrogen overload and increase fertility. Although you may not be able to avoid all the suspect environmental factors that exist in today’s fast-food, high-tech, chemical-drenched, disposable culture, research suggests you can reduce many of their effects — which include infertility.
Here’s a guide to herbs, supplements and dietary changes that may make the difference whether you are able to start or add to your family.
For women, estrogen dominance and excessive production of the pituitary hormone known as prolactin can lead to problems with ovulation, irregular cycles, low progesterone levels and ultimately the inability to conceive. Herbs can help normalize hormones, thereby regulating the menstrual cycle, lowering prolactin levels, bringing on ovulation — whatever is needed to help bring your body into balance.
The herb vitex (Vitex agnus-castus) has been shown to restore hormonal balance by stimulating luteinizing hormone production and mildly inhibiting the release of follicle stimulating hormone. This creates a shift in the ratio of estrogen to progesterone — improving the concentration of progesterone in the second half of the menstrual cycle, which helps promote ovulation. Two double-blind, placebo-controlled studies demonstrated increased fertility and pregnancy in participants using a vitex preparation: 82 percent pregnancies in the control group compared to 45 percent in the placebo group for the German study; and in the Stanford University School of Medicine study, 33 percent in the control group compared to zero pregnancies in the placebo group.
Extracts of Pinus maritima bark (sold as Pycnogenol) also may perk up sperm. In a clinical study of subfertile men, Pycnogenol (200 mg daily for 90 days) was found to improve sperm quality and function by 38 percent.
Majid Ali, an herbalist and acupuncturist in Santa Monica, California, recommends damiana (Turnera diffusa). “It helps with circulation and maintaining a certain amount of pH in the testes, which in turn helps with sperm development,” he says.
One herb that may boost fertility in both women and men is maca (Lepidium meyenii), a Peruvian tuber that dries into a butterscotch-tasting powder. Its adaptogenic actions help normalize hormones. “Maca is used to increase fertility and libido in both men and women by its effects of decreasing estrogen, increasing progesterone and unbinding testosterone,” Wong says. Japanese researchers found that progesterone and testosterone levels increased significantly in mice that received maca.
Supplements that Sizzle
Most experts agree that vitamin and nutritional deficiencies can cause infertility in men and women. Supplementing your diet with a good multivitamin that contains nutrients specific for reproductive health can help increase your chances of conceiving a child.
According to an article published in the February 2000 issue of Alternative Medicine Review, a number of nutritional supplements have proven beneficial in treating male infertility. These include zinc, selenium, vitamins C and E, and arginine, an amino acid and testosterone precursor that raises sperm counts and motility. A number of studies have shown that zinc supplementation can improve male fertility. An article published in Fertility and Sterility reported that subfertile men receiving a daily dose of zinc and folic acid (66 mg of zinc and 5 mg of folic acid) showed a 74 percent increase in total sperm count after 26 weeks. (See “Foods for Fertility,” below.)
Antioxidants, such as vitamin E and vitamin C, help protect sperm from the damaging effects of free radicals. Several studies also have found vitamin C to boost sperm counts. In one study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, sperm counts increased by 140 percent after one week in men taking 1,000 mg daily of vitamin C as opposed to the placebo-controlled group, whose sperm counts remained unchanged. Additionally, a recent study of infertile men published in the Archives of Andrology reported that vitamin E and selenium supplementation (400 mg of vitamin E, 225 micrograms of selenium) produced an improvement in sperm motility.
Women also benefit from zinc and vitamin E, along with the B vitamins (ditto for men), especially folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12. Moreover, both sexes benefit from systemic enzymes, which work via the bloodstream to support various tissues and cellular functions. Unlike digestive enzymes, which generally are taken before or with meals, systemic enzymes are taken on an empty stomach. “Anyone over the age of 35, especially women, should be taking them,” Wong says. “Systemic enzymes help clean the blood of toxins and metabolic wastes, modulate immune function, and help keep inflammation and fibrosis under control.”
Foods for Fertility
Few would argue that what you eat can greatly affect your chances of conceiving. A diet based on good overall nutrition featuring natural foods — whole grains, vegetables and fruits — will help increase your chances of becoming more fertile. Naturally, that nixes the standard American fare consisting of processed foods, refined carbohydrates, sugars, animal fats and fried foods. But even hormone-containing dairy products, meats and soy-based foods should be eliminated or drastically reduced (see “Fertility Factors” at right).
Organically grown foods should be at the heart of your fertility-enhancing menu. Synthetic estrogens are widely used in the meat and dairy industries, and conventionally grown foods contain added levels of pesticide residues that can affect fertility. Eating organic foods reduces that risk. Evidence also indicates that organically grown foods contain significantly more nutrients, as well as higher levels of cancer-fighting compounds and other natural antioxidants, than conventionally grown crops.
Certain foods also can keep yeast infections under control. “The thing I’ve found to be consistent with women is that yeast infections can contribute to infertility,” Ali says. Yeast infections can cause hormone imbalance and make the body too acidic for the healthy functioning of introduced sperm, thereby preventing conception. Ali recommends avoiding sugars, yeast, refined grains and processed foods in favor of foods that make the body more alkaline, such as whole grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) found in fish, flaxseed oil, grapeseed oil and other seed oils can help regulate hormone levels, ensure proper membrane fluidity and improve sperm quality and blood flow. “Anything that helps blood get to sexual organs is helpful,” Ali says. And because semen is rich in prostaglandins (hormone-like fatty acids found in healthy oils), EFAs are especially beneficial to men.
Olive oil, sesame oil and other seed oils are also good sources of vitamin E, an essential nutrient for fertility. Perhaps the richest source of vitamin E can be found in wheat germ and wheat germ oil. Other sources include whole grains, nuts, seeds, green and cruciferous vegetables, and seaweed. “Nuts, particularly almonds and walnuts, are also among the few foods that contain arginine, which markedly increases sperm count and motility,” Reiss says.
Low sperm count and motility are helped by consuming foods rich in zinc, such as nuts, whole grains and pumpkin seeds. “Even a marginal zinc deficiency has caused sperm counts to drop precipitously; the highest concentrations of zinc in the body are found in the sperm and the prostate gland,” Reiss says. “Zinc also affects female fertility, particularly in concert with vitamin B6.”
Kris Wetherbee is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Herbs for Health. She lives in the hills of western Oregon with her photographer husband, Rick Wetherbee.
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