Some people live out their lives without feeling the urge to procreate. Others are consumed by an incredible longing and cannot imagine life without the experience of rearing children. Infertility is defined as the inability to conceive a baby after a year of unprotected sex or the inability to maintain a pregnancy to term. A few decades ago, falling pregnant used to be as easy as falling off a log, and often as unplanned. In industrialised countries today, however, infertility is on the increase, affecting around 15–20 per cent of all couples.
- Inability to become pregnant or carry a baby to term.
- A range of emotions. For couples wanting to conceive, the diagnosis of infertility can be an emotional bombshell. Feelings range from denial, anger, depression and guilt to feelings of inadequacy.
What causes it?
- Certain health conditions can affect fertility including cystic fibrosis, coeliac disease, mumps, diabetes and chronic bronchitis.
- Chemotherapy, cortisone and some heart medications may also have a detrimental effect.
- Smoking, excessive alcohol and the use of marijuana and cocaine have all been shown to damage sperm.
- Stress and infertility are linked, particularly for women.
- Up to 40 per cent of infertility is due to the male partner.
- Low sperm count and motility (the ability of sperm to move under their own steam) is a major cause of infertility. The British Medical Journal reports that the average sperm count has dropped over the last 50 years from 113 million per ml in 1940 to 66 million per ml in 1990.
- The cause for this type of interference to sperm health is unclear. Some studies blame mobile phone use, others suggest an increase in hormonal disruptors found in the environment, particularly the amount of degrading plastic in oceans and landfill.
- Low sperm count, motility and agglutination (where sperm stick together) have been linked to exposure to chemicals including pesticides, lead, cadmium, arsenic and solvents.
- A varicocele is a relatively common cause of male infertility. A varicocele is basically a varicose vein in the scrotum that causes poor blood flow and apparently feels like a small sac of worms. Varicoceles are treatable by surgery.
- Infection of the prostate gland or the testicles is another cause of male infertility.
- Obesity is associated with male infertility as testosterone production is decreased and scrotum temperature is increased.
- Occupations with the largest infertility rates include welders, painters, taxi drivers, truck drivers and bakers.
- Women who are extremely overweight often have problems conceiving due to hormonal imbalances.
- Additionally, underweight women, particularly those suffering anorexia nervosa, are often low in oestrogen and may not be ovulating at all.
- Gynaecological problems may be to blame including endometriosis, fibroids and polycystic ovarian syndrome.
- For sperm to survive and conception to occur, the vaginal mucus needs to be a certain pH (a little bit acidic).
- Sometimes an ‘antisperm’ antibody is produced, rendering the sperm useless.
- Women over the age of 40 find it more difficult to conceive as fewer eggs remain. Human physiology favours younger mothers.
What to do
It takes around 75 days for sperm to mature and roughly 100 days for ovum to be ready to be fertilised. To give it your best shot (pardon the pun), both partners should be on their very best healthy behaviour for at least 3 months prior to conception. The remedies (herbal as well as vitamin and mineral supplements) recommended below are fine to take even if you are pregnant and don’t know it yet. However, there are several herbs and supplements that are not recommended during pregnancy. If in doubt, the wisest course of action is to check with your practitioner before taking any remedies.
- Caffeine is out. This includes your cup of coffee as well as cola and that irresistible chocolate bar. There have been several studies, including one reported in the medical journal The Lancet, which found that as little as a cup of coffee a day reduces a woman’s chance of conceiving; 2 to 3 cups a day reduces your chances by 25 per cent. So it is worthwhile cutting it out completely.
Men and women
- Reduce alcohol. For men, alcohol is often implicated in erectile dysfunction. If this is a problem for you, desist (from drinking). Note, however, that many babies are conceived after a celebratory glass of bubbles, or a relaxing holiday meal that involves some pinot noir. Moderation is key.
- Protein is important. Make sure both partners eat adequate amounts of protein foods including eggs, fish, chicken, red meat, nuts, seeds and legumes.
- Eat a diet rich in antioxidants (see below). - Omega 3 fatty acids are important for fertility for both men and women. Oily fish is of course recommended, but as there is a risk of ingesting methyl mercury with some of the larger fish such as marlin, swordfish and Bluefin tuna, stick to sardines and salmon. Other sources of omega 3 fatty acids are walnuts, linseeds and chia seeds.
Since the mid 1990s, antioxidants have been a buzzword in the fields of both nutrition and medicine. Antioxidants are of interest to nutritionists and naturopaths (because most antioxidants are found in food) and for medicine (because antioxidants help prevent certain diseases such as heart disease, cancer and possibly osteo-arthritis and autoimmune conditions). The discovery of antioxidants and what they do in the body has transformed the old-fashioned message of eating fresh fruit and vegetables and wholegrains into scientific good sense.
Oxygen – friend and foe
We have come to know oxygen as a handy little molecule that helps us stay alive, but when oxygen is altered chemically, it may oxidise certain substances to form free radicals. Free radicals are thought to be at least partially responsible for heart disease and cancer. Factors that add to this unfortunate state of affairs include radiation (from the sun, mobile phones, x-rays etc), carcinogens (like cigarette smoke, benzene, diesel exhaust), pesticides and the general process of aging. Oxidative damage is a fact of life.
Free radicals wreak havoc in the body, including – and this is the scary part – the DNA found in the central nucleus of cells. DNA is the blueprint or recipe for the creation of new cells. If the recipe is changed, new cells are created with a difference or mutation. Most often, the immune system gobbles up these mutated cells but sometimes they survive and divide in a manner not originally intended (eg forming a tumour). The number of potentially damaging hits to DNA per cell per day is about 100 000, and there are over 100 trillion cells per human. Considering this kind of bombardment, it’s a wonder we have time to make a cup of tea (although tea does contain lots of antioxidants), let alone repair and protect all these cells from free-radical damage. In response to free-radical damage, our body manufactures antioxidants including superoxide dismutase and catalase. In addition, your diet provides you with antioxidants. That is if your diet is a good one. In the last few years, there has been a flurry of scientific research into antioxidants. Not a week goes by without another antioxidant being identified, often from the plant world. Which only goes to prove; never underestimate a vegetable.
You may already be familiar with antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E as well as zinc and selenium. In fact, a run-of-the-mill multivitamin and mineral supplement is a good source of antioxidants. However, don’t rely solely on supplements for your antioxidant intake. For a start, new antioxidants are being found all the time in simple everyday foods. For example, catechins (good for preventing heart disease and cancer) are found in tea (green and black) and red wine. Lycopene (which helps prevent prostate cancer) is found in cooked tomatoes. Coincidentally, many of the substances that make plants brightly coloured are antioxidants. Other plant antioxidants that are good for the liver include silymarin (in milk thistle) and curcumin, which is found in the yellow Indian spice, turmeric. Finally, the detoxifying and antioxidant substance indole-3-carbinol is found in abundance in broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage.
We can’t stop all free-radical damage, but we can help the body help itself. As a safeguard against the damage of free radicals, it is really important to eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, particularly the strongly coloured varieties. If you wish to go further, take antioxidant supplements, perhaps one that contains a combination of vitamin, mineral and plant antioxidants.
The following foods rate very highly on the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) scale and is a technique developed by the National Institutes of Health in Baltimore. There are some limitations to the ORAC rating, for example, it doesn’t say exactly which antioxidants are in the food, only that there are antioxidants. Additionally, it is not a reflection of how well these antioxidants are absorbed by the body. Nutrition is a new science and no doubt in the future a more exhaustive format will be developed. In the meantime, know that the following foods are high in antioxidants and extremely good for you.
- Berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, cranberries)
- Plums, prunes
- Red grapes
- Nuts (walnuts, pecans, almonds, hazelnuts)
- Legumes (pinto beans, lentils, kidney beans, soy)
- Spices (turmeric, pepper, sumac, cumin, cinnamon, cloves)
- Herbs (parsley, oregano, basil, thyme)
- Good fertility herbs for men include damiana, Korean ginseng, saw palmetto, tribulus, withania and ginkgo biloba. These herbs will assist in sperm production and motility.
- Good fertility herbs for women include dong quai, shatavari, peony, rehmannia, withania, chaste tree and false unicorn root.
- Raspberry leaf, often recommended in the later stages of pregnancy, has also traditionally been prescribed for women early in pregnancy to help prevent miscarriage.
- Vitamin C and the bioflavonoids are important for both sexes. They are necessary for the maintenance and strength of healthy blood vessels including the tiny capillaries within the endometrium that line the uterus, which is important in the prevention of miscarriage. In addition, vitamin C can reduce sperm agglutination. Take 1 g of vitamin C daily, with added bioflavonoids.
- Stress can be a cause of infertility. One of the physical manifestations of stress can include muscle tightness and spasm. Consider that the tiny fallopian tubes (which carry the fertilised egg to the uterus) are lined with muscle tissue. Now picture two stressed fallopian tubes: they will be tightened and narrowed. Magnesium is an excellent muscle relaxer.
- Zinc is a most necessary mineral in the field of fertility. It is of primary importance to the hormonal wellbeing of both men and women. Low sperm count has been linked to a zinc deficiency. Men need to take a zinc supplement in addition to their multivitamin.
- Vitamin E has a reputation as a fertility vitamin. It helps with hormonal imbalances and with circulation.
- The amino acids taurine and arginine are both important in the formation and viability of sperm. If you suffer from herpes, take a lysine supplement as well, just in case the extra arginine triggers an attack.
- Tight-fitting trousers and underpants are out for men. They will cut the circulation to and increase the temperature of the scrotum, reducing the sperm’s chance of being viable. In addition, forgo long hot showers and electric blankets.
- Massage or bathe with a few drops of rose oil. Although true essential oil of rose costs a bomb, it has a fine reputation both as an aphrodisiac and for improving fertility.
- There is a relatively small window of opportunity for the sperm to fertilise an egg and intercourse is recommended at this time. Generally this is around days 13–15 of a woman’s menstrual cycle – the time of ovulation – although it has been known for fertilisation to occur any time up to a day or so before the period is due. Many women can tell that they are ovulating because their vaginal discharge becomes a little thicker, clear and slightly sticky, in fact, like egg white. There are also body temperature changes at this time. If you have trouble determining when you ovulate, seek the advice of a naturopath who specialises in the area of natural fertility.
- Stop smoking. Smoking increases free-radical damage within the body. Most women stop smoking anyway when they are trying to conceive, as the risks to the unborn child are many including low birth weight, a risk factor for poor health. However, men should also consider taking this step, as smoking reduces circulation and improved circulation in the reproductive area is what we are aiming for.
- There is some evidence to even suggest certain positions during intercourse can increase the likelihood of conception. One suggestion is to place a pillow under the woman’s hips. Another factor that can increase the chances of conception is female orgasm, as contractions that develop as a result of orgasm can help transport sperm further into the cervix.
- We do live in polluted times, but try, where you can, to reduce plastics and chemicals in your environment (eg pesticides, solvents and chemical-based cleaning products).
- If your relationship is bearing the brunt of your desire to have a baby, see a counsellor, or at least talk it out with friends and family. The less stressed you are as a couple, the more likely conception is.
- Bach flowers are helpful for the full gamut of emotions you may be feeling. Gorse for despondency,
- Trust that your baby knows the right time to make his or her entrance on this planet.
At a glance
- Women should consider giving coffee and other caffeinated drinks the flick. Studies show that caffeine can reduce the chance of conceiving.
- It is recommended that men and women drink no more than 1 or 2 standard alcoholic thanksdrinks a day.
- For both partners, eat sufficient protein (eggs, fish, chicken, red meat, nuts, seeds and legumes), a diet rich in antioxidants (berries, legumes, vegetables, herbs and spices) and omega-3 fatty acids (fish – except for marlin, swordfish and bluefin tuna – walnuts, linseeds and chia seeds).
- Good fertility herbs for men include damiana, Korean ginseng, saw palmetto, tribulus, withania and ginkgo biloba.
- Good fertility herbs for women include dong quai, shatavari, peony, rehmannia, withania, chaste tree and false unicorn root.
- Vitamin E and zinc are both important for the reproductive health of both men and women.
- Trying to conceive can be stressful on relationships. Seeing a counsellor may help.
- If possible, reduce the amount of chemicals you use at work or home.