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Natural Approaches to Fertility

by Tanya Leung BSc(more info)

listed in women's health, originally published in issue 92 - September 2003

As we step further into the 21st century, it is clear that the world is overpopulated. The rise in infertility is forever grabbing the headlines and is inevitably linked to the effects of our over-use of natural resources, the earth, the soil and our disregard for nature. Is it possible that Mother nature has responded by taming the flux of the homo sapiens as we have reached mass quantity. Recognizing that if future generations are to be healthy, happy, well adjusted beings, we must re-think the present effect of our careless way of life. Doing so will allow us to focus on the quality of our future generations, rather than quantity. By taking a responsibility towards the way we respond to our bodies, lifestyle, planet and homes, we can contribute to the health of our generations to come, rather than depending on science's manipulation of human genetics, harmful and invasive reproductive procedures and the draining of the earth's resources for conception care.

In this article, we explore self-help methods which will nourish you and your baby.

Preconception Care Key to Natural Fertility

Research indicates that one in six couples are infertile, one in five women will experience a miscarriage or caesarean section, one in ten women will suffer with high blood pressure or toxaemia, one in ten babies are premature or will experience a behavioural problem, and that one in thirty will endure a congenital disorder. What do these statements indicate about the current state of conception care? Factors which inevitably contribute to these figures have been swept under the carpet. These include poor nutrition, the use of tobacco, drugs and alcohol during pregnancy, stress, environmental pollution, little or no exercise, allergies, the use of the oral contraceptive pill, genito-urinary infections, candida and conceiving at late age.

Seemingly, our environment, diet, lifestyle are extremely different in this day and age to those who reproduced before us. Our now 'refined' diet has changed considerably in the last few years. Our lifestyle, which would have been extremely active in the past, is now sedentary and stressful. Our environment is now a toxic flood of chemicals and artificial additives and the regular use of drugs such as the Oral Contraceptive Pill (OCP) mean that sexual activity is ever increasing, as well as the risk of sexually transmitted disease. Also, the option to conceive is now being left fashionably late.

Factors Affecting Fertility

To be classified as infertile, the couple need to be actively trying for a baby for one year. There are equally as many male as female factors involved in infertility, both accounting for thirty percent of the causes of infertility, twenty percent due to mutual problems and twenty percent are of unknown origin. Therefore, both partners need to address health and lifestyle issues (See Table 1).



Table
1

Factors to Address/ Avoid During Preconception care


  • Stress
  • Pre-existing genito-urinary infections and sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Drug intake/ prescribed medication (after consultation with GP)
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol intake
  • Exposure to high levels of radioactivity
  • High levels of toxicity,
  • Poor Eating habit
  • Existing allergies
  • Gastrointestinal malabsorption problems
  • Conceiving soon after ceasing the use of the Oral Contraceptive Pill.
  • Poor sleeping habits



However, it must be stressed that infertility is not a disease, more an imbalance in fundamental health, or general deficiencies, and may involve an underlying disease process, such as a poor immune system. This can be corrected through natural fertility approaches, as practitioners are trained to deal with problems such as undiagnosed genito-urinary infections, gastrointestinal malabsorption problems, high levels of toxicity, radioactivity, allergies that have not been diagnosed, stress, age factors, the after effect of contraception programmes or frequent medication. Smoking and drinking are also detrimental to reproductive health. For instance, it has been shown through empirical studies that zinc deficiency is common in women suffering with endometriosis. Zinc is crucial for fertility in both sexes yet the use of the oral contraceptive pill is often prescribed to decrease pain associated with endometriosis but essentially depletes zinc. This in turn leads to a sure case for infertility. Smoking, the consumption of alcohol and caffeine, and stress also deplete zinc levels in the body.

 

Female Infertility Problems

Under ideal circumstances, a woman will produce a follicle every month in response to various hormonal changes. Once this follicle has matured into an egg, it is released into the fallopian tube, where it is aided to the uterus. Ovulation can only take place if the cervical mucus is of a certain quality and consistency that allows for sperm to pass through the mucus into the uterus.

As well as endometriosis, ovulatory imbalance, polycystic ovaries, tubule blocking and hostile cervical mucus are all contributory factors and will be explained. Ovulatory imbalance is the most presented cause of infertility and due to a hormonal imbalance. The hypothalamus, pituitary gland or ovaries are affected by either stress, excessive weight loss or gain or polycystic ovarian disease, which can lead to hormonal imbalance.

Polycystic Ovaries (PCO)

This condition affects one in five women and, in testing with an ultrasound scan, a small collection of cysts appear on the ovary. Many women with PCO have no problem with fertility. It is only when a hormonal imbalance with absent or infrequent periods accompanies PCO that conception becomes problematic. This is know as polycystic ovary disease.

Tubule blockage

The fallopian tubes pick up the egg and help it towards the uterus. Any damage to the tubes will interfere with the delivery of the egg, deterring fertilization. The damage of the tubes can also result in complete tubal blockage. Blockage is often caused by an infection that travels into the tubes or ascends into the peritoneal cavity, for example, post-operative surgery. Chronic infection is also a potential risk if fluid collects in the fallopian tube (hydrosalpinx). This can be harmful to the embryo's development.

Hostile Cervical Mucus

Women will often produce antibodies against sperm at the time of ovulation, if the sperm is, for example, abnormal. If the sperm has heavy metal saturation or any infection, nature develops its own protective mechanism so that rather than allowing the free passage of sperm into the cervical canal, it rejects it. It seems that hormonal changes in the mucus obstruct this process at ovulation. Drinking, radiation, drugs, pesticides, chemical and heavy metal toxicity, as well as recreational drug use and allergies, will lead to poor sperm count, motility, quality and so on.

Endometriosis

This condition occurs when the endometrial tissue that lines the womb grows outside the pelvis. During the menses, this tissue will bleed and cause pain. Cysts are also likely to grow within the ovaries and these cysts are chocolate brown in colour. It is thought that infertility occurs when the tubes become affected and lose the ability to pick up the eggs.

Male Fertility Problems

It takes three months for the seminiferous tubules of the testes to produce sperm which is then stored in the epididymis. During sexual activity, the sperm travels from the epididymis to the vas deferens with other glandular secretions. Through ejaculation of the seminal fluid it is passed into the female.

Male infertility can be due to either abnormalities of the reproductive tract, such as insufficient sperm production, vas deferens or epididymal obstruction, or malfunction of the sperm themselves. The cause of male infertility according to the medical model of infertility is due to abnormal sperm parameters, azoospermia and antisperm antibodies.

Abnormal sperm parameters is essentially defective sperm production by the testes. Several contributory factors are the rise in temperature around the testes, the use of radiation, surgery, use of drugs and past infections which can reduce sperm motility and quality.

Azoospermia due to bilateral congenital absence of the vas deferens or obstruction at the epididymis or testes, means that there are no sperm in the ejaculate. This is known as azoospermia. Often a chromosomal disorder or past history of undescended testes or mumps are associated with this condition.

Antisperm antibodies are also a complication in infertility and, if attached to sperm, can affect their mobility and stop them from penetrating to fertilize the egg. Usually this condition occurs after reversed vasectomy, injury or infection.

Unexplained Infertility

Twenty to twenty five percent of infertility in couples cannot be explained, though inadequate investigations and diagnosis is probably the reason for this. Reproductive technology has not yet developed methods to discriminate whether or not eggs are released at the time of ovulation, whether fallopian tubes can collect eggs or if sperm actually reaches the fertile egg. Male fertility is more simplistic and easier to assess than female reproductive health. For men, tests prove to be somewhat embarrassing, but are by no means as painful and invasive as female fertility.

Natural Approaches

A herbal practitioner or naturopath will be able to advise on the best individual preconception plan for the individuals' lifestyle. They will encourage optimum nutrition and treat existing allergies, infections or addictions that may be the underlying cases of infertility. Here are a few natural approaches to consider (See Table 2):

Nutrition

Studies by Foresight – the Institute for Preconception Care – established that if a couple consciously ate nutritious food, adhered to healthy lifestyle, avoided environmental pollutants within their control and had any allergies or infections treated, their fertility would significantly increase and there would be a decrease in the proportion of still births, premature births, miscarriages or babies born with congenital disorders. At the end of the study, eighty nine percent of couples had conceived, including eighty one percent who were previously deemed infertile.

The NACNE (National Advisory Committee on Nutrition Education) report advises that eating cereals, vegetables and fruit, with the exclusion of sugar, is the best foundation for optimum nutrition and a rich foundation for conception. Fresh and organic foods are recommended strongly. Cereals such as oats, barley, millet, buckwheat, rye, sesame, nuts and seeds are preferable. Whole grain flour and yeasts are best for breads, so that yeast will not block the calcium, iron or zinc absorption from phytates from other raising agents used in bread and unsoaked muesli. Dairy, such as milk, butter, yoghurt, goat and sheep milk, are recommended, provided there is not a lactose intolerance or allergy. Soft pates and cheeses should not be eaten during pregnancy, due to possible listeria or salmonella poisoning. Vegetables and fruits should be eaten raw and sprouted whenever possible.

Protein foods, such as lentils, pulses and meat are recommended, though meat from animals that have been raised in their natural habitat is best. Filtering drinking water to remove toxic copper, lead, pesticides, chloride and additives is also recommended. Conditions such as Candida and allergies may lead to malabsorption and infection that can in turn leach vitamins A, C and zinc from the body's reserves. Smoking, the use of the oral contraceptive pill, excessive consumption of sugar, white refined flour and alcohol can deplete the body of zinc and other chemicals. Stress, surgery, illness and genito-urinary infection will contribute to infertility. Vitamin and mineral supplements are recommended for optimum nutrition and to aid detoxification. A well balanced and complete programme can be offered to the individual by a qualified nutritionist, naturopath or medical herbalist. Taking vitamins and minerals in isolation is not advised, as they need to be combined to work synergistically.

Alcohol

This liquid travels over the placenta blood barrier directly, so the concentration of alcohol in the blood of the baby is the same as that of the mother. This is extremely detrimental to the baby and, during preconception, both the sperm and the ova can be damaged from alcohol, especially in the first few months of pregnancy. Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and Foetal Alcohol Effect (FAE) refer to babies with abnormalities, impaired growth, intelligence, retardation, behaviour imbalances whose mothers drank during pregnancy. Therefore, avoiding alcohol is recommended in pregnancy.

Allergies

A medical herbalist or naturopath will be able to advise on individual treatment plans. Identifying allergenic foods or environmental contaminants and eliminating them from the diet and the immediate environment will improve the couple's general health. Allergies have an adverse effect during pregnancy and can contribute to the development of conditions in the baby such as eczema, asthma, migraines, depression, insomnia and epilepsy. As many drugs are contraindicated during pregnancy, courses of elimination and alternative medicine, such as the use of herbs under qualified supervision, is suggested.

Environment

Cleaning your environment of as many toxic substances as possible is advisable. This is because lead and cadmium pollution are linked to infertility and miscarriage. Malformed babies and premature deaths have also been associated with high levels of heavy metal pollution. Though it is often difficult to control ones' environment, an individual should reduce exposure to lead, mercury, cadmium, aluminium, copper, selenium as far as possible, during the preconception phase and pregnancy.

Lead is present in traffic fumes, paint dust, seams of food cans and lead piping. It is often a common part of the environment. It is possible to get drinking water supplies tested to make sure they comply with EC standards. By using lead free petrol and encouraging friends to use this too, by wearing protective clothing in case of contact with freshly stripped or repainted walls and adding curtains along road side windows will help to keep fumes at bay. Mercury is found in weed killers, tuna fish, wheat seed, pesticides and amalgam fillings, so all these products should be avoided. Cadmium comes from smoking and passive smoking and often contaminates drinking water through industrial rubbish disposal, so filtering water is preferable. Aluminium from cookware, kettles, aluminium foil, salt, milk substitutes and baking powder should be avoided. Antacids are usually saturated with them and medication find their way back into the drinking water supply. Filtering is then important. Copper is essential, but the use of the OCP, clomid drugs and copper IUDs has contributed to mass levels of toxicity in the water. Copper is also released from new pipes for up to two years, therefore copper kettles, pans, henna dyes, swimming pools, algaecide and brass jewellery should be avoided. It is advisable to take garlic, vitamins C, B1 and B12, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, manganese and selenium to combat heavy metal toxicity, as well as Rumex Crispus and milk thistle which are excellent in allowing the body to detox.

Crucial Timing

After preparing yourself for months nutritionally and hormonally, it is a good idea to know exactly when the fertile phase is and how to use this to optimum effectiveness. From a physiological aspect, sperm lives for three days and the egg between 12-24 hours. There are specific conditions for sperm survival, such as fertile mucus. This is crucial when it comes to the right timing, as it is needed to protect the sperm from the vagina's acidity and to guide it to the womb. Therefore, just before mid-cycle ovulation is the best and most likely time to increase the chances of conception, as the sperm can wait for the egg to travel down the fallopian tube. This is because the egg has a shorter lifespan – if the ovulation happened in the morning, and sexual intercourse didn't happen until the evening, the egg would not survive.

Ovulation is difficult to predict through charting, and basal body temperature readings can be useless (as they record ovulation that has taken place 12 hours previously), especially if sexual intercourse is not possible for another 12 hours. It is advisable to keep an ovulation test at hand to allow you to know exactly when ovulation is taking place and prepare for conception. The best timing is to avoid ageing sperm meeting an ageing ova. In order to increase the chances of conceiving a healthy baby, timing is crucial. Avoid a single act of intercourse several days prior to ovulation as this will mean that old sperm may be defective and avoid sexual activity just after ovulation as there is a higher risk of a defective egg. Instead, frequent intercourse during the peak fertile phase until ovulation subsides is the best conscious conception method.

Conclusion

A natural approach to conception is a way of ensuring that there are adequate supplies to nourish the sperm and ova to create optimum foetal development. Ideally, four months prior to conception is the latest time to implement any lifestyle or diet changes for optimum reproductive health, as sperm takes 116 days to reproduce and ova 100 days to mature. Therefore, the more time given to preconception care, the more effective natural fertility success will be. Help from a professional will address issues such as mineral and vitamin programmes, treatment with herbs to overcome a pre-existing disorder, allergy and genito-urinary conditions. It takes two healthy partners to create a healthy baby.

Case study: Jack and Amy

Jack and Amy suffered from multiple problems in their journey for a baby. After several miscarriages and Jack's insufficient sperm count, they followed advice to have genito-urinary screening. After both having tests, results confirmed that they presented with several infections, though no symptoms were experienced. Additionally, Amy had a long cycle and tests showed that ovulation occurred after day.[18]

After using herbal remedies to clear the infections and re-address Amy's hormonal imbalance, as well as the support of a nutritional programme and antibiotics, Amy and Jack were happy and proud to introduce their beautiful daughter to me.

Resources

Barbato M et al. A New Diagnostic Aid for Natural Family Planning. Advances in Contraception. 9 (4): 335-40. 1993.
Dunson DB et al. Changes with Age in the Level and Duration of Fertility in the Menstrual Cycle. Human Reproduction. 17(5): 1399-403. 2002.
Foresight Association for the Promotion of Pre-conception Care. Preparing for Pregnancy. Europress. Issue 279160. www.foresight-preconception.org.uk
Foresight Study, Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine. London. 1995.
The Lister Hospital Assisted Conception Care Unit Profile. Abdalla, H. p6, 7, 8.
Naish F and Roberts J. The Natural Way to Better Babies – Preconception Healthcare for Prospective Parents. Random House Australia. 2000.
Naish F. Natural Fertility – The Complete Guide to Avoiding or Achieving Conception. Sally Milner Publishing. Australia. 2000.
Stanford JB et al. Physicians Knowledge and Practices Regarding Natural Family Planning. Obstetrics & Gynaecology. 94 (5 pt 1): 672-8. 1999.

Further Information

Calista – The saliva ovulation test and sympto ferning chart is available from Ecobrands Ltd – Tel: 020-7460 8101; www.ecobrands.com

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About Tanya Leung BSc

About the Author Tanya is a Medical herbalist and read at the University of Central Lancashire. She went on to qualify as a naturopathic Iridologist and is currently studying cranio sacral therapy. She is hoping to establish a retreat for those in need of healing and love. She can be contacted at tanya@ecobrands.co.uk

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