Infertility: Natural Solutions for Couples

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An estimated one out of every five couples in the United States suffers from infertility. And, it's not just a women's problem. According to Resolve, the National Infertility Association, 35 percent of the time the infertility is a female problem, in 35 percent of the cases it's a male problem, in 20 percent of the cases it is a combined problem of the couple and 10 percent of the time, the infertility is inexplicable.

For couples experiencing infertility, the seemingly endless waiting, month after month, for pregnancy to 'occur can be very difficult. Is there anything you can do to improve your chances of conceiving? While there are no guarantees, there are steps you can take to increase your odds.

If you're concerned about infertility, chances are you have already read about or tried conventional medical approaches. These often include using synthetic hormones that have unpleasant side effects, such as weight gain, or undergoing an expensive Assisted Reproductive Technology (A.R.T.) procedure, such as in vitro fertilization (I.V.F.) or gamete intra-fallopian transfer (G.I.F.T.). Such procedures are often not covered by insurance plans, and, in many cases, after much pain and expense, may not result in pregnancy.

The good news is that there are natural ways to increase the fertility of both men and women. Relatively inexpensive herbs and other nutritional supplements are available. And natural techniques such as tracking ovulation, and common-sense health habits such as smoking cessation and stress relief can all effectively enhance fertility. Many of these natural solutions can be used along with more traditional medical treatments. Do, however, be sure to keep your health care team informed of any nutritional supplements or herbs you are taking.

Start with a Thorough Health Evaluation
The average length of time it takes for a woman to get pregnant is 6 to 18 months, but even longer is not unusual. If, after 18 months, you have been unsuccessful at attempts to become pregnant, it's time to get some professional help to determine any possible causes of infertility. Both partners should be examined by a qualified health professional; men should make an appointment with a urologist and women should visit an obstetrician/gynecologist. It is best to work with a health care provider who shares your values and is willing to investigate all the possible ways of increasing fertility, with both conventional and natural medicine. You may also want to consider seeking the advice of an herbalist, naturopath or other natural health practitioner.

The examinations for both men and women should include a complete physical as well as a thorough examination of the reproductive system. You can expect to be asked questions about your health and reproductive history, which helps your healthcare team identity any related conditions, such as diabetes, that could impair fertility. Men will be asked to provide a sperm sample. Be sure to have vitamin and mineral levels measured and a hair analysis completed to determine if there has been any exposure to heavy metals or other toxins.

Identifying the Causes of Fertility Problems
Once exams are completed, and you have received your test results, sit down with your healthcare team to learn about any causes of infertility they were able to identify. Often, there are several causes in one or both partners.

In men, the semen analysis can reveal some of the most common causes of male infertility: low semen volume; a low sperm count; low sperm motility; and a higher than normal percentage of abnormally shaped sperm.

Other common causes of male infertility include hormonal imbalances that prevent sperm production or maturation and anatomical abnormalities that block the flow of sperm.

In women, infertility is usually due to a problem during any part of the menstrual cycle: ovulation may occur irregularly or not at all; an egg may be blocked along the route to the uterus; or a fertilized egg may not be able to remain implanted in the uterus. In addition, the body's immune system may actually create an allergic reaction to a partner's sperm, causing the body to attack and destroy the sperm.

Steps to Enhance Your Fertility
Once you understand the reason for decreased fertility, you can identify which options could work best for you.

Be sure to ask for thorough explanations of all options, including cost and probability of success. As you learn more, you're likely to develop a sort of hierarchy of solutions, starting with the easiest and most natural, then moving to more invasive, expensive medical treatments if these fail.

Whatever the cause of infertility, there are steps that both men and women can take to enhance fertility.

Stop smoking. Don't forget to avoid secondhand smoke.
Relieve stress. Practice stress-reducing techniques such as meditation, prayer and yoga.
Control any chronic conditions such as diabetes.
Eat a well-balanced diet. For women this includes prenatal vitamin supplements (with folic acid). Stay away from fatty foods, fried foods and any junk foods during this time. Extreme dieting can also cause infertility.
Get regular exercise -- but don't overdo it. Excessive exercise may result in a drop of the production of hormones that are needed to ensure potency, sex drive and fertility.
Limit use of alcohol, or, better yet, avoid alcohol use altogether.
Have intercourse at peak times. The window of time in which a woman can get pregnant is generally only a few days -- at ovulation [when an egg cell is released by an ovary] and on the day or two preceding and following ovulation.
Natural Solutions Especially for Men
A low sperm count may be caused by any number of reasons:

Alcohol, nicotine or drug use.
Exposure to toxins or radiation.
Excessive heat to genital area from a sauna or hot tub.
Testicular injury.
Endocrine disorders, testicular mumps or even a recent acute illness or a prolonged fever.
Some common over-the-counter medications for heartburn and other conditions.
You may be able to increase sperm levels dramatically simply by addressing or eliminating some of these conditions and habits. For example, stop smoking and drinking and, if you work around chemicals or radiation, take all precautions to avoid exposure. A recent animal study published in Biology of Reproduction suggested that a commonly used pesticide, HPTE, a breakdown product of the pesticide methoxychlor that is used to preserve fruits and vegetables, may adversely affect a man's testosterone levels thus impairing fertility -- one more reason to choose organic foods!

Certain nutrients are considered to be especially important for sperm health. They include:

Vitamin C - research suggests it may prevent sperm from "clumping" together and that it increases sperm count.
Zinc - this mineral is found in great amounts in the outer layer of sperm and plays an important role in the production of the hormone testosterone.
Superoxide dismutase and glutathione - research shows that these and other antioxidants may improve sperm quality.
Vitamin E - supplementation with this antioxidant has been shown to increase sperm motility and to enhance the ability of the sperm to penetrate the egg in test-tube studies.
L-arginine - studies indicate that this amino acid may improve sperm motility.
If an active sexually transmitted disease inhibits sperm development, try supplementing with acidophilus, which helps to restore good bacteria, along with the antibiotics that are generally prescribed for STDs. Garlic is a natural antibiotic and also helps boost your immune system. Vitamin C also helps the immune system. Lastly, echinacea, goldenseal and alfalfa may alleviate symptoms and promote healing.

If sperm development is hampered by a hormone imbalance, octacosanol (found in wheat germ), sarsaparilla and saw palmetto may help. Also, check to be sure you are not being exposed to synthetic estrogens, such as those used in many fertilizers and other chemicals.

Natural Solutions Especially for Men
As mentioned earlier, an out-of-kilter menstrual cycle can affect fertility and can be caused by many factors:

* Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
* Hormonal imbalances.
* Rigorous exercise.
* Nutritional deficiencies and extreme dieting.
* Being over- or underweight.
* Excessive caffeine consumption.
* Exposure to heavy metal toxins, radiation or chemical
fertilizers that mimic estrogen.
* Pre-menopause.
If ovulation is irregular or does not occur, be sure you are eating enough, controlling stress and exercising only in moderation. Avoid melatonin supplements, which can inhibit ovulation.

Hormonal imbalances that cause infertility may be helped by manganese, octacosanol, dong quai, parsley, alfalfa, false unicorn root, ginseng, fennel, red raspberry, soy and vitamin E. Another common cause of infertility is endometriosis, a condition in which the glands and tissues that line the inside of the uterus grow outside the uterine wall.

Some experts suspect that birth control pills play a role in infertility among women, too. One such expert, Barbara Seaman, who co-authored the 1999 book, For Women Only, with nutrition guru Gary Null says, "... If a woman has been on the pill for a long time, she may be very low in folic acid, vitamins B1, B2, B6, B12, C and E; and trace minerals zinc and magnesium, all essential to normal fertility. Sometimes just getting on a really good diet with really good supplements can get her back into a fertile cycle without needing heavy-duty drugs." However, she advises these women to opt for dietary supplements which are low in vitamin A, niacin, copper and iron since the levels of these nutrients tend to be elevated in pill users.

And, as many people know, among women, fertility decreases with age, so while there is nothing wrong with having a baby past the "prime" childbearing years, do realize that you are more likely to have fertility problems as you get older. According to Resolve, a woman in her late 30s is about 30 percent less fertile than she was in her early 20s.

Last Notes
You may find that these natural solutions are all that are needed to increase fertility and conception. But perhaps despite your best efforts and all that traditional and natural medicine have to offer, you may still find conceiving difficult. If so, don't give up. It's not uncommon for a couple to become pregnant years after determining that they were infertile. Keep following these common-sense steps to ensure you're in the best of health and to give your bodies the best chance of conception success.

For all nutritional supplements described in this article, follow the dosage instructions on the label. Better yet, seek the advice of a health practitioner who understands and prescribes nutritional supplements. And be sure that everyone on your health-care team knows about all treatments you try. Nutritional supplements can affect other medications and treatments, making them more or less potent than intended.

REFERENCES
RESOLVE: www.resolve.org/infertility.htm

Balch, MD, James F, and Phyllis A, Balch, C.N.C. Prescription for Nutritional Healing. Garden City Park, New York: Avery Publishing Group, 1997.

Deutsch, Nancy. "Pesticide may impair male fertility," www.reutersheahh.com, 3/20/00.

Feinstein, Alice, Ed. Healing with Vitamins. Emmaus, Penn: Rodale Press, 1996.

Holford, Patrick. The Optimum Nutrition Bible. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press. 1999.

McQuade Crawford, Amanda. The Herbal Menopause Book. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1996.

Null, Gary, and Seaman, Barbara. For Women Only! Your Guide to Health Empowerment. NY, New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999.

Pasqualotto, Fabio F, MD, et al. "Relationship between oxidafire stress, semen characteristics, and clinical diagnosis in men undergoing infertility investigation," Fertility and Sterility 73(3), March 2000.

Peirce, Andrea. The American Pharmaceutical Association Practical Guide to Natural Medicines. NY, New York: The Stonesong Press, 1999.

Roybal, Beth Ann Petro and Skowronski, Gayle. Sex Herbs: Nature's Sexual Enhancers for Men and Women. Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press, 1999.

Sinclair, Steven, ND, LAc. "Male Infertility: Nutritional and Environmental Considerations," Alternative Medicine Review 5(1):28-38, 2000.

Skowronski, Gayle and Roybal, Beth Ann Petro. What You Need to Know About Vitamins, Minerals and Supplements. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1998.

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By Beth Roybal and Gayle Skowronski

Beth Ann Petro Roybal and Gayle Skowronski are the authors of the 1999 book, Sex Herbs -- Nature's Sexual Enhancers for Men and Women, published by Ulysses Press, Berkeley, CA.

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