You’ve been trying to start a family without success for the past year or more, you’re not alone. As many as one in 10 Americans will experience infertility, according to RESOLVE, a national infertility association. While the causes are not completely understood, research suggests contributing factors may include poor nutrition, environmental agents and stress — symptoms common to other health issues. The fact that many women are waiting longer to start families also plays a role.
The good news is that there are a number of natural, noninvasive options for treating infertility, and embracing them can often help improve general well-being and vitality.
If you’ve been struggling for a while to get pregnant, seek medical testing to rule out any physical impediments, like blocked tubes. In the meantime, consider working with a healthcare professional who takes an integrative approach to infertility.
Instead of focusing strictly on ovulation and conception, integrative practitioners look at the big picture. They work to correct hormonal imbalances and biochemical problems that can be triggered by factors such as toxins, a poor diet and anxiety. They see infertility as being symptomatic of a larger, systemic issue.
“Remember the spot-reducing craze of the 1980s?” asks holistic health counselor Alisa Vitti, founder of FLO Living, a healthcare center for women in New York City. “We thought we could do certain exercises to get rid of ‘saddlebags.’ Now we know you have to work on the whole body and increase your metabolic rate, build your muscle mass and so on. Same thing with fertility. The best way to protect it is to use food and lifestyle to support the overall function of the endocrine and reproductive systems.”
That means consciously working to improve health before even attempting to get pregnant, especially if you’re over 35, when the decline in the frequency of ovulation can make conception harder.
“We used to think it only made a difference what women did while they were pregnant,” says Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN, NP, cofounder of the Women to Women clinic in Yarmouth, Maine, and author of Are You Tired and Wired? (Hay House, 2011). “Now we know that it’s important to begin these changes during the year before you get pregnant. A lot of women don’t even realize that they’re pregnant until they’re already six or seven weeks in, so it’s important to make that conscious shift to a healthy body early on.”
If you want to start a family, today or sometime down the road, these nine strategies can help make your dream a reality.
Given the stereotypical imagery featuring pregnant women craving sweets, it’s not widely known that sugar can negatively affect fertility. Any food that creates inflammation, in fact, can have a negative effect.
In 2007, when he was conducting research for his thesis, Jorge Chavarro, MD, ScD — now an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and coauthor of The Fertility Diet (McGraw-Hill, 2007) — noticed data showing certain diabetes medications, which regulate insulin, also affected fertility.
“It occurred to me that there might be a shared mechanism between glycemic control and insulin sensitivity and ovulation,” Chavarro says. “I wanted to investigate whether the dietary risk factors for diabetes and those for infertility might be the same.”
Chavarro wound up studying behavior and lifestyle among 18,555 married women who took part in the Nurses’ Health Study II, which evaluated various diet and lifestyle risk factors on rates of chronic disease.
The study revealed that dietary habits that have a negative effect on glucose sensitivity, like eating a starchy diet, also dampen fertility. Women whose diets contained significant amounts of trans-fatty acids (found mainly in processed foods) also tended to have issues with ovulation.
Integrative practitioners recommend a non-inflammatory diet for couples who want to get pregnant, with plenty of vegetables, complex carbohydrates and protein to stabilize blood sugar. Produce should be organic and meat should come from pasture-raised animals. Women should also cut back on caffeine (studies have correlated it with miscarriage) and alcoholic beverages, which can act like sugars in the body.
Chavarro was surprised to find that women in the Nurses’ Health Study II who drank skim milk experienced lower fertility than those who drank whole milk. There are a number of likely reasons for this. In The Fertility Diet, Chavarro and his coauthor, Walter Willett, MD, DrPH, suggest the process of skimming away the fat from milk also removes the milk’s female hormones, which bind to the milkfat, leaving behind only male and sex-neutral hormones. This imbalance may interfere with the delicate machinery of ovulation.
Additionally, removing the fat from milk increases the ratio of lactose, or milk sugar, which triggers a higher glycemic response. Lactose is also the trigger for most allergic responses to dairy, which is estimated to affect about 70 percent of the world’s population.
If you’re having trouble conceiving, it’s wise to be tested for dairy intolerance, along with other food sensitivities. If you find you can tolerate dairy, stick to organic, whole milk products whenever possible. (For more on full-fat dairy, search for “Skimming the Truth.”) And go easy: Chavarro and Willett recommend you limit your intake to the equivalent of one 8-ounce glass of milk per day.
The gastrointestinal (GI) system plays a key role in fertility, says Bethany Hays, MD, FACOG, medical director at True North, a healthcare center in Falmouth, Maine. When addressing fertility issues, she always makes sure her patients’ gastrointestinal tracts are working well. She suggests eliminating food allergens and boosting friendly bacteria through diet and supplements, and also recommends digestive aids so patients can more easily absorb nutrients.
“I rarely see women with endometriosis [a condition where uterine cells grow outside the uterus] who don’t have some problem with their gut,” Hays says. “Your immune system is completely interactive with your gut — 60 to 70 percent of it surrounds the GI tract — and you have to calm down that system to get pregnant.”
Using food therapeutically is also central to holistic health counselor Alisa Vitti’s work with patient fertility. Her protocol focuses on eliminating toxic substances (from pesticides in food to dry-cleaning chemicals), strengthening the body’s ability to detoxify naturally and using foods to enhance the hormonal ratios of each phase of the menstrual cycle. Vitti successfully treated her own issues with polycystic ovarian syndrome (a hormonal disorder that affects menstrual patterns) by changing her diet, which she believes is a key to balancing hormones.
As critical as it is to eliminate allergens and toxins, Vitti stresses that a healthy diet requires variety. “People are conditioned to ask what is the one thing they need to eat to get pregnant,” she says, “but there is no such thing.”
Vitti also cautions against engaging in a full-scale detox program. “For women trying to get pregnant, drastic detox is the wrong first step,” she says. “Conception and pregnancy require tremendous energy reserves; as such, the focus should be on strengthening that reserve first. Improving daily detoxification is the third step in our protocol, not the first.”
One reason to go slow: Fasting and elimination diets can cause weight loss, and since body fat is a storage site for toxins, this can trigger a sudden release of toxins into the bloodstream, Vitti explains. She notes that fat cells also help protect the integrity of hormone molecules, keeping them away from organs and toxins. When fats are broken down too quickly, it can put hormones at risk, further interfering with fertility.
The safest detox option for would-be mothers is to get tested for food intolerances (including common offenders like gluten, dairy and soy) and eliminate those foods that might be causing trouble. Then the body can harness the full power of its detoxification systems to eliminate things that really need to go, such as heavy metals. (For more on safe detoxification techniques, search for “Detox Done Right” and “Day-to-Day Detox.”)
The Nurses’ Health Study II showed a correlation between women with good exercise habits and healthy fertility. Still, hardcore female athletes can sometimes have such low levels of body fat that they cease to menstruate, an obvious obstacle to pregnancy.
Licensed acupuncturists Brandon Horn, PhD, and Wendy Yu, who practice in Los Angeles, encourage their patients — typically type-A women who are already doing a lot of strenuous exercise — to settle their bodies down with yoga.
“Yoga is a good balance of physical movement, breathing and relaxation,” Yu says. Horn and Yu teach clients a series of poses, based on acupuncture theory, that align with the four stages of the monthly cycle. The sequence is designed to support growth of the ovarian follicles and the uterine lining, help activate ovulation, enhance implantation, and encourage discharge and detoxification during the menstrual phase. (Their widely available DVD, Restoring Fertility, demonstrates this sequence.)
One net result of any good yoga practice is that it moderates the stress response, thereby creating more promising conditions for a healthy pregnancy.
Chronic stress can create fertility troubles because the body may perceive that a stress-filled world is not a safe place for newborns. Our bodies react to contemporary stresses the same way our forebears’ bodies responded to historical upheavals like war and displacement — with a storm of molecular signals announcing that this female has no time to care for an infant.
Chronic stress triggers the production of cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone that activates the sympathetic nervous system. This often knocks other hormones out of balance — like progesterone, which quiets the womb and helps sustain a pregnancy.
Integrative practitioners suggest taking deliberate measures to understand and eliminate sources of stress. OB/GYN Marcelle Pick recommends that her patients work reasonable hours, practice yoga and do some soul-searching. “I look at what [my patient’s] childhood was like and what her current life stressors are,” says Pick, who often finds patients are not conscious of the amount of pressure they’re under. “I encourage meditation, journaling and deep breathing.”
Sometimes stress is generated by underlying concerns about pregnancy, so Bethany Hays, MD, encourages patients to investigate their unconscious beliefs. “Most women who are trying to get pregnant are really two women,” she explains. “One wants a baby, and the other is worried that a baby will make her life go down the tubes. You’ve got to bring that second woman into your conscious brain and have a conversation with her, or else your body will respond to her need to stay childless.”
This can entail a lot of psychological work, as women explore issues they had with their own mother and family of origin, as well as imagining their future with a baby. It can be helpful to spend time talking with a therapist, as well as friends with children and similar careers, to get a sense of how to balance parenting with your current responsibilities.
Whether it’s related to work and life or the prospect of raising kids, anything you can do to reduce stress will send the reproductive system a message that it’s safe to get pregnant.
There is always one peak fertility day each month, and women who understand how to identify it may not need any other help in getting pregnant. Unfortunately, many women misunderstand their true fertility cycle — and don’t realize that it can vary from month to month — because they were taught the “rhythm method.” Long touted as a way to avoid pregnancy, the rhythm method suggests that women base their fertility calculations on a standardized cycle in which ovulation occurs on day 14. “That one myth alone is responsible for so many unplanned pregnancies and failures to conceive,” says Toni Weschler, author of Taking Charge of Your Fertility (Collins, 2006).
During her college years, Weschler was repeatedly panicked that she had a vaginal infection, but “no one ever explained that this was the normal cycle of my cervical fluid,” she recalls. Today, Weschler, armed with a master’s degree in public health, is on a mission to provide women with a basic education about their monthly cycle, something shockingly few patients receive.
Weschler teaches the “fertility awareness” method in her book, which instructs readers to track two daily indicators: basal body temperature, taken upon waking and before getting out of bed, and the quality of cervical fluid. A woman releases one egg per cycle, so she produces this fluid only around the time the egg is going to be released. At that time, the cervical fluid becomes more wet and slippery, like seminal fluid or egg whites. Watch for this positive fertility sign.
Women dealing with infertility are often crushed if they’re told they have high levels of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), which is released by the pituitary gland to nudge the follicles into maturing an egg just before ovulation. Many conventional doctors prematurely deduce that the pituitary gland is producing the excess because the ovaries have a poor reserve of eggs and thus aren’t responding properly to FSH.
“High FSH levels are usually a deal-killer in Western medicine,” says Brandon Horn, PhD. “Many Western doctors interpret this to mean a woman has poor ovarian reserve. But what they don’t tell you is that they are just guessing. We often find that the problem is somewhere else in the body and affecting the reproductive system. We’ve worked with a number of women with high FSH levels who got pregnant without medical intervention after a few months.”
Acupuncture has been shown to increase rates of conception and live birth among women undergoing in-vitro fertilization; improve the thickness of uterine linings (a boost to fertility); and stimulate ovulation and improve the quality of eggs.
One of the primary ways that acupuncture works is by addressing and redistributing “chi,” or the body’s energy. If the quantity is low, or its distribution is blocked, organs begin to malfunction, Chinese-medicine expert Brandon Horn explains. There are specific meridians (energy pathways) leading into the various parts of the reproductive system. If any of these pathways develops blockages, then reproductive function is altered.
“Acupuncture is one of the most powerful techniques to increase chi production and to help remove anything that is preventing its smooth distribution,” Horn says. “Once the flow is restored, the body will begin the process of repair.”
Randine Lewis, PhD, a Chinese-medicine specialist and author of The Infertility Cure (Little, Brown and Company, 2005), also notes that there can be a “husband-wife” imbalance in women who are struggling to get pregnant. The impulse to force a pregnancy can create a dominance of “yang,” or controlling energy, in a woman’s body, when pregnancy requires “yin,” or receptive energy. Acupuncture works to unblock this energy and restore equilibrium.
While a diet of nutrient-rich whole foods is essential in cultivating fertility, conventional and holistic practitioners agree that dietary supplements can also play an important role. Here are a few supplements commonly recommended by our experts (please consult your own health professional before altering your nutrition program):
Thirty percent of infertility cases stem from male problems, so men also need to take care of their reproductive health. Sperm counts in American men are falling at the rate of 1.5 percent a year, according to the Center for Reproductive Epidemiology at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Men should follow the same general health recommendations as women, preferably for a year before trying to start a family. But with key components of their reproductive systems exposed in a way that women’s aren’t, men also need to take other precautions: