Natural Approaches to Infertility
There seems to be a growing epidemic in America - infertility. Almost all of us at this point know of someone who is trying to get pregnant but can’t, or who has used some form of conventional infertility treatment - In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), Artificial Insemination, etc. But, are these the only options that a couple has when having difficulty conceiving? As you may have guessed by the title of this article, the answer is a resounding NO! There are many different approaches that one can take when trying to address infertility from a natural medicine perspective, and I will discuss a few of them here.
When I work with couples having difficulty conceiving, there are a few things that I always want to look at. First and foremost - is the woman ovulating, and is the man “producing”? Obviously, if either of these things is not happening, they need to be corrected first. The woman can take her basal body temperature daily to look for an “ovulation spike” that occurs at ovulation. This, combined with an examination of the cervical mucus, can be a fairly accurate way to detect ovulation. I will discuss male issues later. As far as female infertility issues are concerned, there are a few tests that I like to run.
The first test gives us a unique look at the female hormone cycle. The woman takes a saliva sample every three days for a month. Then, the samples are analyzed for their estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone content. The results are plotted on a graph and we get a very clear picture of the hormonal changes that take place throughout the woman’s cycle. This way, we can see how the hormones are interacting and if there is an imbalance in the hormones at any point in the cycle. Are they too low, too high, or just out of balance? This will tell us. ANY hormone imbalance at any point in the cycle is a potential cause for difficulty conceiving or for difficulty maintaining a pregnancy. Once the imbalance is identified, it is a relatively simple matter of correcting it. This method is vastly superior to a one-time blood test that just looks at your hormone levels at the instant that the blood was drawn. Maybe, for whatever reason, your hormones go haywire on the day AFTER the blood test. If all you do is a blood test, you will never know this.
The other test that I will always run on women trying to get pregnant is an Adrenal Stress Index. This is also a saliva based test that tells about the state of your adrenal glands and how much chronic stress the body is under. The adrenal glands are our stress responders and by measuring their output of cortisol, we can get an idea of how stressed the body is. There have been many, many studies looking at the effects of stress on infertility. All of them have found that women who have higher prolonged stress levels - which would lead to poor adrenal function - have a more difficult time conceiving. This is because the body is held in a state of “fight or flight” due to prolonged stress. When you are running away from the tiger, you don’t have to nourish your sex organs, so blood supply to these organs is highly diminished in this state. If your uterus is not receiving adequate amounts of blood, how can it ever support a fetus? It can not. Once the state and nature of the adrenal dysfunction is identified, it can be easily corrected. In my experience, this is a very common finding (poor or overactive adrenal function) in women who are having a difficult time conceiving or maintaining a pregnancy.
Besides looking at these two tests, it is also important to do a complete health assessment and make sure that the woman is on the right supplements, is eating a good diet, and is not making lifestyle choices that may negatively impact her ability to conceive. One free piece of advice that I can offer here: DO NOT use NSAIDS (tylenol, motrin, advil, etc) while trying to get pregnant. A recent study has found an 80% (!) increase in spontaneous abortion in woman who use these over the counter drugs on a regular basis.
Acupuncture can be invaluable when working with infertility issues. There have been a few studies that have shown a beneficial effect of acupuncture on infertility, whether it is due to an inability to conceive, or an inability to hold a pregnancy. In fact, where acupuncture really shines is in women who are not ovulating regularly, or have very irregular or erratic cycles. Acupuncture does a very good job of treating those situations. Acupuncture has been found to specifically: regulate the menstrual cycle, decrease the stress effect on the body, increase blood flow to the uterus, and strengthen the ability to hold a pregnancy. Another amazing effect of acupuncture was discovered by a team of doctors in Germany. They did a study looking at the effects of acupuncture combined with In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF). They found that acupuncture was able to DOUBLE the success rate of that procedure. Let me repeat that - acupuncture was found to double the success rate of IVF. Needless to say, if you know of anyone doing IVF, they should be doing acupuncture as well. In addition to acupuncture, I always give a Chinese herbal formula as well to help strengthen and nourish the organs of reproduction (just like on a recent Sex in the City).
Acupuncture was also found to benefit male infertility. Specifically, studies have shown that it can increase not only sperm counts, but sperm motility as well. The little soldiers will be both stronger and able to swim better. The same stress effects that I talked about for the females also applies to the men, so if there is a male infertility issues I will want to run the adrenal test on them as well. Also, there is a male hormone profile (saliva based) that can tell me not only about testosterone, but also male levels of estrogen, progesterone, and how well testosterone is being metabolized by the body. All of these parameters can have an effect on infertility. Furthermore, there have been studies showing that supplements such as carnitine, arginine, zinc, selenium, vit. C, and vit. E, and certain herbs can have a beneficial effect on male infertility.
So, as you can see, the options for a natural approach to infertility are many and varied. There is no single best approach - it depends on where the problem lies for that individual. I want to stress that all of these approaches can be done in a complimentary manner with your infertility M.D. They can help to increase the chances of success for just about any procedure that you are doing. However, they can also be used by themselves with a good success rate. Whatever you decide to do, find a natural doctor who knows about these issues and has had some experience working with infertility. Best of luck to you.