From diet and supplements to fitness and acupuncture, there are many natural ways to increase fertility - for women and men.
Early in our reproductive years, the subject of fertility is often of only fleeting interest—we have years to look forward to starting a family. But as many women get older, the subject of fertility and conception becomes much more than just a topic of conjecture and conversation.
Infertility affects one in six couples in Australia, and the problem rests with both men and women in equal measure. Among females, while it’s highest among older women, even younger women are having problems. Many are turning to fertility treatments, at high physical, emotional and financial costs.
While every woman (and man) is different, informed lifestyle choices can increase the chances of conceiving.
A healthy diet
Being overweight or significantly underweight can alter reproductive hormones. In comparing women’s body mass index (BMI), researchers discovered a low BMI (under 19) could quadruple the time it takes to get pregnant, while a high BMI (25 and above) could double it. For overweight women, losing 5 to 10 per cent of body weight improves both ovulation and pregnancy rates.
The right foods
Eating well aids fertility. According to Harvard School of Public Health researchers, you should:
- monounsaturated fats (olive oil)
- vegetable protein (soy)
- high-fibre, low-glycaemic foods (whole grains, vegetables)
- moderate amounts of high-fat dairy products (yoghurt, whole milk, cheese)
- trans fats (baked goods, fast foods)
- animal protein (red meat)
- refined carbohydrates and sugars
- only low-fat or skim milk products
Alcohol has a negative effect on fertility. A Swedish study reported a nearly 60 per cent reduction in fertility in women who drank two alcoholic beverages per day.
Too much coffee may have a negative impact by inhibiting the egg’s ability to mature and fertilise. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine suggests a daily maximum of 200 to 250 mg of caffeine from all sources—coffee, tea, soft drinks and chocolate.
From fitness to acupuncture
Working out is good; overdoing it isn’t. For many women, long, intense daily workouts can stop ovulation and reduce the length of menstruation. Moderate exercise, on the other hand, increases the chances of conception.
Fertility yoga, combining relaxation and poses that open the pelvis, is thought to be helpful by improving blood flow to the reproductive organs and relieving stress. Try a class, get a DVD or download instructions from the internet. Just stay away from intense forms of yoga such as power yoga or hot yoga, which may have a negative effect.
Most studies linking acupuncture to increased conception have included women on fertility treatments. However, some experts believe that acupuncture, by encouraging overall health and fertility, works in general.
Supplements and fertility
Researchers are investigating herbs and supplements, either alone or in combination, to enhance fertility. Unlike standard fertility drugs, these supplements don’t have uncomfortable side effects or result in multiple births.
- Chasteberry improves ovulation and progesterone balance.
- L-arginine improves blood circulation to reproductive organs for better egg development and embryo implantation.
- Vitamins B6 and B12, iron, magnesium, selenium and zinc have all been shown to improve fertility.
- Green tea and vitamin E can be taken for antioxidant qualities that may counteract damage done by caffeine, drugs and alcohol.
- Vitamins E and C for women with endometriosis reduces inflammation that might prevent fertilisation.
Lifestyle and habits to avoid
Some everyday lifestyle situations and choices can hinder conception.
While not all researchers accept the correlation between stress and infertility, new studies indicate they are linked. For about 5 per cent of women, stress causes functional hypothalamic amenorrhoea (FHA), a condition that interferes with menstrual cycles.
Other studies have looked at how stress-reduction therapy affects fertility, both for women trying to conceive naturally and those undergoing fertility treatments. In both cases, less stress resulted in more pregnancies.
Ways of relieving stress include yoga, music, massage, journal writing, gardening or watching comedies. Talking to friends or simply holding your partner’s hand are also stress busters.
Whether first-hand or second-hand, smoking is bad for conception. The chemicals in cigarettes
- damage the cervix and fallopian tubes
- age ovaries and deplete eggs prematurely
- decrease oestrogen levels and ovulation
- make the uterus less receptive to implantation
Researchers are increasingly pointing to toxic chemicals, both outside and in homes and offices, as a leading cause of infertility. Chemicals topping the to-be-avoided list include
- flame-retardant chemicals
- solvents (cleaning and printing products)
- toluene (inks, gasoline, cosmetics, glues)
- phthalates, bisphenol A (plastics, cosmetics, resins)
- glycol ethers (electronics, dyes, varnish, paint, cosmetics)
- formaldehyde (resins, plywood, insulation)
Although manufacturers have stopped using some of these chemicals, or changed to less toxic versions, they’re still found in older products and can stay in the body for years. Researchers recommend using green and organic products and frequent, vigorous hand-washing to cut chemical absorption.
Love-making dos and don’ts
Because sperm can survive in the uterus for three to five days, having sex daily or every two days in the six days leading up to ovulation increases the chances of conception. More frequently, however, can lower some men’s sperm count.
Having intercourse while sitting or standing pits sperm against gravity. The old-fashioned missionary position, then remaining prone for 10 to 15 minutes afterwards, gives sperm the best chance of entering the cervix.
Many commercial lubricants contain spermicides, while even water-based lubricants, soap or saliva can inhibit sperm motility as much as 60 to 100 per cent. Use sperm-friendly vegetable, canola or peanut oil.
Fertility and men
Along with reducing stress, alcohol and tobacco, men need to be aware of other fertility factors.
The following things can lower testosterone, decrease sperm concentration, limit motility or damage sperm.
- edamame and other soy products
- marijuana, cocaine and anabolic steroids
- medicines for high blood pressure, bowel disease, gout, ulcers, organ transplants and fungal infections; chemotherapy; rheumatoid arthritis; and kidney disease
- oestrogen-like and hormone-disrupting chemicals, including bisphenol A, phthalates and organochlorines
- heavy metals such as lead, cadmium or arsenic
- wearing briefs versus boxers, though not all studies support the theory
- taking hot baths or using hot tubs, saunas, steam rooms or laptops
- varicose veins (varicoceles) around the testes
- mobile phones; while not all researchers agree, it’s a good idea not to keep hands-free mobile phones in trouser pockets
The following herbs and supplements have been studied for their abilities to increase sperm count, quality and/or motility.
- vitamin E
- ferulic acid
- coenzyme Q10