By Dr. Monique Hallee, BScHK ND. Patients that come in to my office for fertility issues have typically been trying to conceive for several months without success. Many of those patients have already tried to address the issue with their family medical doctor, but often are turned away because they have not been “actively trying” for a year or more. When a couple is ready to have a child and are not able to, being told they have to wait a year to access help can be torturous. This article includes some of basic steps that I often use when I work with my patients on fertility issues. Many times I have been able to help a couple get pregnant without using any IFV (in vitro fertilization) or other intervention, simply by improving their health naturally.
Keep in mind that the topic of fertility is enormous. There can be many reasons that an individual has fertility issues and there are also two people involved, so the complexity doubles. There are also differences between not being able to conceive at all, verses not being able to maintain a pregnancy (i.e. having a miscarriage). For the purposes of this article, we are simply discussing the act of first getting pregnant.
For Both Partners:
A contributing factor of conception, which can affect both male and female partners, is stress. Stress has an influence at the very beginning, with sexual desire. A high stress level often contributes to low sex drive. This is another reason I prefer to not have my patients wait for a year before addressing causes of infertility – couples become more anxious and stressed at the thought that there may be something wrong. In some cases all that is “wrong” is that one or both of the members is stressed around the topic of getting pregnant. If you know you are a person experiencing a lot of stress for any reason, experiment with doing things like exercise, meditation/prayer, breathing techniques, acupuncture, yoga etc. You may also need to consider getting better sleep to support your busy lifestyle. Certain herbal medicine offers wonderful support for the stress hormones of the body, so consulting with a licenced naturopathic doctor is also recommended.
Couples who are having difficulties in trying to conceive may have a lot on their plate, but sometimes it is what is NOT on their plates that could be causing a problem. Proper nutrition is very important to maintain for both partners, even before they get pregnant. The woman’s body, particularly, will be under a lot of stress during and after pregnancy so her vitamin and mineral stores should be well established.
Certain nutrients have been proven to be found particularly helpful. Take for example an amino acid called “L-Arginine”, which is helpful for men having fertility issues. A typical North American diet may contain about 5.5g per day of this amino acid. Keep in mind, though, that 70% of that 5.5 grams is from animal protein, so men who are vegan or vegetarian may not be getting enough. Also keep in mind that the refining process of some foods will lower the amount of arginine (such as alkali treatment processes with textured vegetable protein [TVP] or with heating proteins and sugars together). For the vegetarian male, a diet with nuts, seeds, and chocolate can help to promote arginine levels, but additional supplementation may be required.
Vegan and vegetarians also should be aware that they may not be getting enough L-carnitine, which is found mostly in animal products and has been known to help fertility. If you have chosen not to eat animal products because of religious beliefs, personal beliefs or environmental concerns, I would suggest considering using supplements for the various compounds you are lacking in your diet. For my patients who have cut out meat for “health” reasons, but do not have any conditions that warrant being a vegetarian, I tend to encourage adding a bit of meat into the diet, such as free-range and organic meats. By no means am I promoting anyone to consume a large amount of animal products, as that can have ill effects on one’s health as well, but a small amount to support the body’s iron, vitamin B12, arginine and carnitine may be beneficial in some people.
Other common nutrients concerned in male fertility are selenium, folic acid and zinc, to name a few. These sort of vitamins and minerals may help with either sperm quantity or mobility. Before loading up on a variety of different supplements, I generally recommend completing a sperm analysis and consulting with a naturopathic doctor. That being said, it is important to have a healthy diet at any point in your life, but particular during conception.
For the woman’s side of fertility, things tend to get a bit more complicated. There is a lot to consider with her cycle and hormone levels. As mentioned above, stress hormones can be a problem, but I also look at testing thyroid levels, progesterone, estrogen, luteinizing hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone, prolactin and even testosterone. I have noticed that hormones rarely act in isolation, so my treatment plan often addresses multiple levels of hormonal balance for a woman. I highly encourage women to seek help from a naturopathic doctor who is well versed in women’s health for fertility issues. One thing a woman can do to help speed up the process before she sees an ND is to chart her menstrual cycle.
Charting both periods and ovulation times can be very useful information for a doctor. This may involve counting the days that you bleed during your period, counting the days from the start of one period to the start of the next and noting the days in which your cervical mucus changes during ovulation. Some women cannot tell when their vaginal mucus changes; if this is true for you, you can buy urine test strips in a pharmacy which will give you an idea of when you ovulate. Additionally, charting your temperature every morning upon waking can be useful. Temperatures graphed on a chart should be fairly steady with a noticeable spike each month or so. If you can’t find a reliable spike after charting your temperatures, you will likely need help addressing your sex hormones.
Beyond hormonal issues, the most common cause I see for women is actually their immune system. This is why I often order a variety of tests to assess their immune balance along with their hormone levels. If you have a family history of auto-immune disorders, this may an avenue to consider testing.
A simple cause of infertility for some women are simply mechanical. If their fallopian tubes are blocked, the egg cannot travel to meet the sperm and eventually implant in the uterus. To clear up this problem women will need to get a hysterosalpingogram, which will be able to tell you if your tubes are blocked.
The information above is a very general over-view of considerations to make when addressing infertility. No matter how long you have been trying, I strongly encourage couples to seek the help of an ND. It is never too early to optimize your health to promote the growth of your family.
If you have questions about your own health that you would like answered contact Dr Hallee. If your question is a good article topic, it could be featured in a column!
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