If you’ve been trying to conceive with no success, you may want to consider alternative treatments—they’re working remarkably well with some forms of infertility. Could healthy babies be as simple as better nutrition and herbal remedies?
When she was trying to get pregnant, Sherry found herself embroiled in an internal battle—over fried vegetable chips. “I remember buying a bag one day, and I felt like an addict,” she says. “I opened the bag and ate one, and I thought, ‘No, this isn’t what I want to do.’ I wanted to eat the whole bag, but I gave it away to a friend.”
As part of her pursuit of natural infertility care, Sherry and her husband Bohdan were on a diet that eliminated many foods they loved. They had tried for more than a year to conceive, with no success. So they decided to look into infertility treatments.
“We wanted to do whatever we possibly could,” Sherry says. “We put all our energy into making it happen.”
Sherry and Bohdan worked for several months with herbalist Joyce Stahmann, who guided Sherry through a regimen that included stress reduction, detoxification, hormone balancing herbs, dietary changes, and exercise. Stahmann is the first representative in the United States of Natural Fertility Management, a program imported from Australia and founded by naturopathic doctor Francesca Naish, who has twenty-five years of experience treating infertility holistically.
During her work with Stahmann, Sherry also had surgery for endometriosis and a uterine polyp. And something—although she’s not sure what—paid off. In February 1999, she had a healthy baby boy, Noah.
“We attribute this success to multiple things,” she says. “Was it Joyce’s program? Was it the polyp and the endometriosis surgery? I do know that physically, emotionally, and spiritually we were in the best shape we’ve ever been in. I knew I would feel better, but I didn’t realize I would feel that good.”
Sherry and Bohdan are not alone in their desire for a child or in experiencing the frustration that can accompany infertility. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, approximately 4.5 million couples experience infertility each year. Less than 2 million of these couples actually seek help from the medical community. Some of these couples choose to explore alternative infertility treatments, either instead of mainstream Western medical treatments or, sometimes, in combination with them.
Of course, no infertility treatment works for everyone. Some causes of infertility are irreversible. But in many cases, herbal medicine has a “tremendous amount to offer” in the area of reproductive health because Western medicine doesn’t have very good answers, says herbalist Roy Upton, vice president of the American Herbalists Guild and executive director of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia.
“You have [hormone replacement therapy], which carries with it an increase in cancer, and fertility drugs with their own set of problems, including multiple pregnancies and miscarriages,” he says. Miscarriages in particular may happen because “the overall health of the system has not been changed.”
Although precise numbers are difficult to find, herbalists and naturopaths worldwide are successfully treating certain forms of infertility. Some practitioners claim success rates as high as 80 percent. But little definitive research has been done to determine how many infertility cases respond to holistic treatments.
“You tend to hear only about the successes,” Upton says. The thirty or so women Upton has treated were all successful, but he has told “literally hundreds” of women about his protocol and cannot confirm an overall success rate. What he does know is that, in many cases, natural treatments may increase the chances of conception and a healthy pregnancy.
“There’s a lot you can do on your own,” Upton says. “Luckily, infertility isn’t a life-threatening disease, so there’s no real line to be drawn other than how long does someone want to try natural therapies without trying more mainstream ones.”
Any preconception routine should last through three menstrual cycles, Upton says. Because ovaries alternate each cycle, if you try a treatment for a shorter time, you’re affecting only half the system. “This is something that most Western practitioners would probably pooh-pooh, but from a vitalistic perspective it’s key.”
Many alternative practitioners agree that, compared to other diagnoses, cases of unexplained infertility tend to respond well to alternative treatments. Infertility—commonly defined as the inability to conceive after twelve months of unprotected sex—is probably the single most common ailment to afflict men and women of reproductive age. About one in seven couples are infertile if the woman is aged between thirty and thirty-four, one in five when she is between thirty-five and forty, and one in four when she is between forty and forty-four.
“The pressure to use technology is great, especially for those older couples who feel that their time is running out,” says Naish, founder of Natural Fertility Management and director of The Jocelyn Centre in Sydney, Australia, the country’s first health center dedicated to holistic and natural resolution of fertility issues.
“With older couples, who represent an ever-increasing proportion of our patient base, there’s clear statistical evidence that they have a greater chance of success with a natural conception,” Naish says, pointing to research conducted by Foresight: the British Association for the Promotion of Preconception Care. This research indicates that good nutrition, a healthy lifestyle, avoidance of toxins, and treatment of allergies and infections in the months preceding conception play an important role.
“Going by the Foresight study and our experience, the success rate for these older couples can be significantly improved through preconception health care and the risk of age-related defects virtually eliminated. We find that there is no fertility problem that we cannot support,” Naish says.
Alternative treatments can also complement mainstream medicine. Chanchal Cabrera, a medical herbalist who divides her time between southern Virginia and Vancouver, British Columbia, describes a client who was trying to get pregnant using artificial insemination.
“She was having problems, but no one was explaining why,” Cabrera says. “She was in her mid-thirties, at an age where she didn’t want to waste any time.” With Cabrera’s recommendation, the client improved her dietary habits and did a cleanse, which resulted in headaches, achiness, fatigue, and other symptoms, Cabrera says. But the client persevered and made it through. “She conceived very quickly thereafter and had a little boy.”
Fertility problems are often caused by multiple factors, Stahmann says. “It’s important to address many aspects of a person’s health to make sure you cover all your bases.”
Upton generally complements Western diagnoses with a primary diagnosis from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). This sort of diagnosis includes determining the patient’s constitutional and pathological state.
Upton, Stahmann, and other alternative healers suggest being mindful of the following factors.
Undiagnosed infections. Infection is a recognized factor in infertility, says Margaret Hollister, director of educational services at Resolve, a national infertility association based in Somerville, Massachusetts.
As many as 50 percent of all fertility problems are due to undiagnosed genito-urinary infections, says Stahmann. Half of infected men and 70 percent of women will be asymptomatic for these diseases. Although numerous infections can affect fertility, the ones that are cause problems if left untreated include mycoplasma/ ureaplasma, toxoplasmosis, and cytomega-lovirus, she says.
Hormonal balance. The complex balance of hormones is essential for conceiving and supporting a pregnancy. Hormone imbalances, such as those caused by polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), can inhibit ovulation and therefore fertility. From 20 to 35 percent of female infertility is attributed to PCOS, writes Naish in a book she coauthored with Janette Roberts, Healthy Parents, Better Babies (Crossing, 1999).
Phytoestrogen-containing herbs such as black cohosh and red clover may help rebalance estrogen levels gone awry. Yet how and whether phytoestrogens work is a source of controversy. The understanding is that the phytoestrogens are up to 400 times smaller than the body’s natural estrogens and that they slightly stimulate receptor sites. If you’re low on estrogen, you’ll get a slight boost; if you’re too high, the phytoestrogens will block the body’s stronger estrogens.
“It seems . . . we see that effect in clinical practice, but it’s still controversial,” Cabrera says.
The primary herb used for hormone-balancing is vitex, or chaste tree berry. Vitex is thought to stimulate the pituitary gland, and herbalists believe vitex has a balancing or regulating effect on the gland, perhaps by behaving as a progesterone agonist, or competitor, much as phytoestrogens do for estrogen.
“That’s where we take a leap of faith,” Upton says. “The pituitary responds to what the body needs, so if you’re enhancing pituitary function, you’re just giving it something to work better.”
Kidney deficiency. In TCM, some infertility, such as that resulting from endometriosis, is thought to be caused by “damp heat” or “blood stagnation,” Upton says. Or infertility may be attributed to a deficiency of the kidneys, which are thought to rule reproductive maturation. “If somebody has lower back pain, frequent urination, and weak joints—all signs of kidney deficiency—we would give specific kidney formulas,” Upton says.
Blocked qi. In classical TCM gynecological therapy, specific channels are thought to be connected with reproductive health, Upton says. An acupuncturist may help unblock these channels; look for a practitioner who has experience treating infertility.
Pelvic circulation. Most alternative practitioners agree that the reproductive system requires proper circulation. Blood carries nutrients to and waste products away from the pelvic area. Poor circulation, and thus unhealthy tissue, may be caused by wearing tight clothing such as girdles, or by physical damage such as scar tissue left by sexually transmitted diseases or pelvic inflammatory disease.
From a more traditional Chinese perspective, Upton says, other factors may also cause circulation to congeal, including cool liquids, cold and raw foods, bathing in cold water during menses and a sedentary lifestyle. One of his basic protocols for gynecological problems is to get a woman out walking for twenty minutes every day, he says.
Liver function. The liver decommissions hormones, Cabrera says, so if the liver is congested, you may not process hormones well and they may return to the bloodstream. Traditional herbs for supporting liver function include dandelion and milk thistle.
Uterine tone. Uterine tonics improve the condition of the uterine tissue, strengthening and nourishing the glandular lining that forms every month.
“If the lining of the uterine wall is in good shape, then it’s easy for the fetus to attach,” Upton says. “But if it’s mushy, there’s more chance of problems.”
We learn about uterine tonics predominantly from Native American herbal traditions, but they may not have been substantiated pharmacologically,” Upton says. Some of them may be progesterone agonists. Uterine tonics include black and blue cohosh, yarrow, cramp bark, and black haw, some of which also encourage menstruation.
Because menstruation and pregnancy don’t mix, timing is everything.
“It’s important to work toward promoting gynecological health before attempting conception—ideally for four to six months,” Upton says. Then discontinue use of the herbs and try to conceive.
Poor nutrition. Fertility—and the health of sperm and ova—is profoundly related to nutrition, Stahmann says. “A diet that’s nutrient dense and has high amounts of vitamins and minerals is really important.”
Stahmann and her colleagues also recommend an alkaline diet, which makes it easier to detoxify the body. The basic formula for achieving this is to increase vegetable intake to one-half to two-thirds of the diet. The rest of the diet consists of lean protein, such as tofu or fish, and legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
“Some people need to take it step-wise,” Stahmann says. “They may want to make a couple of big changes every month” such as changing from white flour to whole grains one month and cutting out alcohol the next.
“Don’t let your wife go through this by herself,” Upton says.
About 35 percent of infertility problems originate with the male, and 20 percent of cases involve problems with both partners, according to Resolve. Many researchers believe that the causes of declining male fertility today are environmental; they include pesticide and chemical exposure, drug use, radiation, and pollution.
From a TCM perspective, the way you enhance a man’s reproductive health is by nourishing the kidneys, Upton says. In TCM, the term “kidneys” refers to both the kidneys and adrenal glands, which are considered one organ. The adrenal glands enhance sperm production and motility, which increase the chances for healthy conception. If you choose to pursue this sort of treatment, be sure to consult a qualified TCM practitioner for guidance.
Other advice: Reduce your alcohol consumption and stop smoking cigarettes and marijuana. All three substances are associated with male infertility. And stay away from hot tubs and abstain from intercourse as much as possible, says Upton, adding that, in general, American men already have lowered sperm counts. From a traditional perspective, less-frequent sex can increase the concentration of sperm, he says.
Erika Lenz is editor-in-chief of Herbs for Health.
By Erika Lenz