There are natural ways to support healthy conception.
By Lisa James
When it comes to making babies nowadays, the three little words “I love you” have been joined by three little letters—IVF.
IVF, which stands for in vitro fertilization, is the best known assisted reproduction technology, procedures designed to help a woman conceive and carry a baby to term. IVF includes any procedure in which an egg is fertilized by sperm outside of the woman’s body (in vitro means “in glass”).
Couples turn to IVF and other ARTs to overcome infertility, defined by the Centers for Disease Control as being unable to conceive after a year of unprotected sex. The CDC says infertility affects about 6% of married women between the ages of 15 and 44; another 11% have impaired fecundity, or difficulty in becoming pregnant. And one CDC study found that 7.5% of men younger than 45 who consulted a reproductive specialist were found to have fertility issues.
“I’m glad IVF exists,” says Sami David, MD, of Fifth Avenue Fertility in New York City, who performed the procedure once before looking for other ways to help couples conceive. “But frankly, sometimes it’s easier to get a person pregnant with natural methods. IVF inundates women with an enormous amount of drugs. Half the women who do IVF don’t need it in the first place.”
Pregnancy is made possible through a complex hormonal interplay within a woman’s body. Follicle-stimulating and luteinizing hormones spur the ovaries to ovulate, or produce a mature egg, which then is captured by the fallopian tubes that lead to the uterus. The ovaries also produce estrogen and progesterone, hormones that prepare the uterus for a possible pregnancy by thickening the lining, or endometrium. If no pregnancy occurs the lining breaks down and is shed during menstruation, and the whole cycle begins again.
A number of factors can knock this system out of whack, the most basic of which is Father Time. As a woman moves into perimenopause, the period before ovulation stops for good (generally in one’s early 50s), hormone levels tend to become more irregular, which can throw off the monthly cycle. This has been a source of concern as more and more women delay becoming pregnant while trying to establish themselves in their lives and careers: One CDC study found that the average age of first-time mothers rose from 21.4 to 25.0 between 1970 and 2006.
A hormone imbalance explains why Lorelei Danilchick couldn’t carry a baby to term. “I had no problem getting pregnant but right around the eighth or tenth week I’d miscarry,” says Danilchick, 45, a graphics designer from Rutland, Vermont. All the medical doctors I saw kept saying, ‘Do IVF, do IVF,’ but I wasn’t sure I wanted to put my body through that.”
It helps to remember that people age at varying rates. “Your chronological age is different from your biological age. It’s a reflection of how you live your life,” says Aimee Raupp, MS, LAc, who has a three-location practice in the New York metro area and is the author of Yes, You Can Get Pregnant (Demos Health).
For example, lack of sleep speeds the aging clock. “That would be a huge red flag for me,” Raupp says. “You can actually see it; people are aging before their time.” Obesity is another factor that harms fertility, with one study concluding that its impact is greatest among women under the age of 35 (Nutrition Reviews 10/13). Some lifestyle factors are as simple as excessive heat exposure (think hot tubs and saunas) or for men, putting warm electronic devices on their laps.
But one of the biggest lifestyle issues affecting fertility is stress. And while stress can harm sperm development, it can absolutely derail a woman’s monthly cycle.
“A major traumatic event can cause a woman to go into ovarian failure,” says Raupp, who has seen this happen in women who suddenly lost loved ones. “Under severe stress, the first thing the body will shut down is the reproductive system.” One of David’s patients had gotten pregnant quickly the first time “but her second child took much longer. I asked about her lifestyle; she was visiting her dying aunt daily and she had a heavy exercise schedule (which affects hormone levels).”
Even the stress of worrying about whether or not she’s pregnant can delay a woman’s cycle, says Michele Sayball, ND, CPM, of Brattleboro Naturopathic Clinic in Brattleboro, Vermont. Stress affects daily fluctuations of the hormone cortisol. “In the morning we expect cortisol to rise because that’s what makes us ready to face the day,” Sayball says, explaining that cortisol levels then usually fall throughout the day. But if “cortisol levels are high in the middle of the night, that’s going to really mess up your sleep. If you can’t get your body on that rhythm, how can you get your body on a fertility rhythm?”
Toxins can affect fertility, especially the endocrine disrupters that mimic estrogens in the body. Key toxins include dioxins, which are manufacturing byproducts; phthalates, used in everything from flooring to shower curtains to cosmetics; BPA and phenols, found in plastics, canned food liners and thermal paper; and PFCs, used in stain repellants. Other chemicals that impair fertility include heavy metals and those used in pesticides.
Both genders can be harmed by toxin exposure. “Sperm development can be affected just like the menstrual cycle can be affected,” says Raupp. “Non-organic foods have played a strong role. There are a lot of toxins in our bath and beauty products.”
Certain medical conditions can also depress fertility. Men can develop varicoceles, varicose veins within the scrotum, and can, like women, experience hormonal imbalances. A number of disorders can affect female fertility, among them endometriosis, in which uterine lining grows elsewhere in the body; polycystic ovarian syndrome, in which small cysts form on the ovaries; and luteal phase defect, which causes abnormalities in endometrium development. Sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea and chlamydia can also affect fertility by causing pelvic inflammation.
Living the Fertile Life
What factors make it easier to become pregnant? “A good healthy lifestyle, good healthy diet, nothing in excess. Minimize your stress,” says David, author (with Jill Blakeway) of Making Babies (Little, Brown). Sometimes the problem is fairly straightforward; David says one couple stopped doing Bikram yoga, which is done in a heated room, and “they were pregnant in about three months.”
However, it isn’t always that simple. “Nine times out of 10 there’s an issue that’s been overlooked,” says David. “Make sure your doctor has done a complete workup: environmental factors, toxicity, infectious causes, immunological causes.”
Cleaning up one’s diet not only reduces toxin exposure but also supplies the nutrition needed for full fertility. “Quite simply, the right nutrients give you the right building blocks for making a baby,” notes British holistic practitioner Zita West, founder of The Zita West Clinic in London, in Eat Yourself Pregnant (Nourish/Watkins).
West says prospective parents can promote healthy estrogen balance—a crucial factor in both genders—by eating fermented foods such as kefir, miso, sauerkraut and live-culture yogurt to support beneficial bacteria within the intestinal tract, reducing saturated fats and increasing vitamin B6 levels. West suggests getting more natural compounds called phytoestrogens, which block the effects of foreign estrogens within the body, by eating foods such as cabbage and related vegetables (broccoli and Brussels sprouts, for example), chickpeas, fennel, garlic, onion and parsley. In addition, she recommends eating food sources of key antioxidants, such as citrus fruits and leafy greens for vitamin C, nuts and seeds for vitamin E, tomatoes and watermelon for lycopene, and lean meats and fish for coenzyme Q10, selenium, NAC and zinc.
Lean meats also supply protein. West says, “It’s not only the neuro-transmitters in your brain and your hormones that need protein—eggs and sperm need it, too.”
Diet is just one issue that naturopathy addresses. Sayball says, “If someone comes to me for fertility issues I have to make sure the foundations for health are there,” such as regular sleep. “If your immune system is challenged before pregnancy you have to get that settled first,” she continues. “You can spend a whole hour easily on a plan for sleep hygiene, for diet. People aren’t getting outdoors in the fresh air. They’re not getting enough water.”
Sayball emphasizes that both partners must make an effort. “If the woman’s doing all this work, we really need the man to do it, too, at least initially,” she says. “We know cigarette smoke will change the DNA within a sperm. What if a woman did all of this detoxification work and the one sperm that got to the egg wasn’t a good one?”
Danilchick saw Sayball on a friend’s recommendation. “She blew me away; she listened to my history and diagnosed me then and there,” says Danilchick, who was found to have “a huge drop in progesterone” that may have been a lifelong issue. (You can find an ND at naturopathic.org.)
Traditional Chinese Medicine, which includes both acupuncture and herbal remedies, doesn’t “look at infertility as a disease, and I try not to use that word ever,” says Raupp. “From our perspective, it’s about preserving longevity and maintaining optimal health. If you restore optimal health, a woman in her 40s should be able to get pregnant.” In addition to lifestyle improvements, “acupuncture is a major tool and I’ll use Chinese herbs; I think those are extremely important.” (You can find a TCM practitioner at aaaomonline.org.)
Raupp is, as she puts it, “a billboard for my message”; at age 40 she’s in her second trimester. “I very much practice what I preach. We got pregnant the second month of trying and I attribute that to my lifestyle.”
Jennifer Burke, 32, of Nyack, New York, “never had a regular cycle; it would regularly skip months at a time, sometimes three, sometimes six.” After years of taking drugs to have regular periods (“even though I knew it wasn’t a ‘real’ period”), Burke was concerned about being able to become pregnant once she found the man she wanted to have children with.
Besides going for acupuncture, Burke—under Raupp’s guidance—kept a food diary, took herbal supplements, avoided toxins and learned to scan her body. Although told she would probably need medication to ovulate, Burke simply continued to observe “my body’s natural signals to determine when I was ovulating. I was so in tune with my body that I conceived after just a few months without much ‘trying’ involved.”
Danilchick says Sayball put her on a regimen of natural progesterone. “It took four months of dialing in the right dosage and figuring out when the best time was to conceive. I conceived and held the pregnancy, no problem.” Her first child, Adelle, was born via IVF when Danilchick was 40 and her second, Theo, was born when she was 44 after she saw Sayball. “I feel great,” she says. “It was a very healthy pregnancy, healthy birth, healthy child.”
Danilchick is happy she took a natural approach to fertility support, saying, “I had such a great experience and it was so much more affordable than going the IVF route. Have the IVF really be the last resort.”
Raupp encourages all women to take that approach. “Do not lose faith in your body,” she says. “You have the power to change your health and improve your fertility.”
Using Yoga to Encourage Fertility
In addition to its effectiveness as an all-body workout, yoga has been used to quell pain and reduce stress among other specific health benefits. Yoga can also be used in a natural fertility program. In Yes, You Can Get Pregnant (Demos Health, aimeeraupp.com), Aimee Raupp says the following two poses “bring an increase of energy, blood flow and fertile Qi into the pelvis” while helping to release anxiety and stress. Pillows and blankets can be used as props in both, although for the first pose you could also use yoga bolster. (An eye pillow is optional for both.)
Supported Bound Angle
Legs Up the Wall