For many couples wishing to start a family, the journey to parenthood can be difficult. Conceiving can be complicated by an array of factors, ranging from hormonal, structural and functional problems affecting the reproductive system to environmental, nutrition and lifestyle issues. It’s estimated that 15-20% of couples experience difficulty conceiving and that in up to 30% of these cases the cause of infertility remains unexplained.
In this blog, we will explore:
- Key dietary and lifestyle changes you may wish to consider adopting to increase your chances of conceiving — and to feel healthy and well!
- Why digestive health is key to reproductive health (and much more!)
- The different types of reproductive health problems that may lead to infertility, in women and men
- Some of the herbs that can support male and/or female fertility
Fertility relies on healthy hormonal function on both sides, which can be affected by a wide range of factors, for example by dietary imbalances, or by our increasing levels of exposure to stress and to endocrine disruptors like pesticides, microplastics and other toxins.
To support your ability to conceive, there are dietary and lifestyle changes you can both adopt — without letting it become a source of stress - as easing stress levels is one of the first helpful things you can do! Many deeper challenges around infertility can also be overcome with the right diagnosis and support.
Herbs can be another precious ally for improved fertility. For example, a few plants can be very effective at supporting the endocrine system to retrieve balance and healthy functions if any imbalances are at play there, like black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), chaste berry (Vitex agnus-castus), red clover (Trifolium pratense) or gokshura (Tribulus terrestris).
Reproductive physiology and the mechanisms by which herbs help resolve any hormonal concerns are quite complex — and we strongly recommend consulting a medical herbalist to guide you through this journey. But the bottom line is this: There are many ways in which herbs can be supportive, whatever the underlying roots may be for male or female fertility issues.
A quick note before we get into it: We refer here to “men”/“male” and “women”/“female” in this article for simplicity, but fully acknowledging that there are non-binary individuals as well as trans men who menstruate, and who may therefore be affected by some of the symptoms of oestrogen or progesterone imbalance, or from endometriosis or fibroids, which can be linked to infertility or with imbalances in the reproductive system. Similarly, trans women and other gender non-conforming people may have testicular problems which may also lead to reproductive imbalances. We hope this article has interesting and inclusive information for all!
Acknowledgement: A key source for this article is Marie Reilly’s fantastic book on Herbal Medicine and Reproductive Health, which we warmly recommend if you are interested in the topic!
Nutritional tips to improve fertility and help you to conceive
Let’s start with your diet. There is a strong body of scientific research that shows how dietary changes can help increase fertility. Evidence shows that fertility improves when the intake of animal protein is lower and the intake of plant-based protein is higher; when the intake of trans-fat is very limited and the intake of monounsaturated fat is relatively high; and when preference is given to high-fibre, low-glycaemic index carbohydrates.
So, in order to support your fertility, consider increasing your consumption of omega-3 essential fatty acid-rich foods (such as flax seed oil and fatty fish — omega-3 are essential for a range of reasons, including to ensure proper membrane fluidity in sperm cells); whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans and pulses (especially organic soy products); fresh fruit and vegetables, especially leafy green, cruciferous vegetables; and high-fibre, low-glycaemic index foods. As much as possible, it’s important to eat organic foods to reduce exposure to potentially toxic pesticides and fertilisers.
Foods that are best to avoid include animal fats, meat and dairy products (especially non-organic ones, which may be rich in exogenous oestrogens), high-glycemic index processed carbohydrates (candy, sweet soft drinks, white bread, refined sugar), as well as coffee and alcohol.
Eating a lot of refined carbohydrates can lead to decreased insulin sensitivity, which affects ovulatory function and fertility. Improved insulin sensitivity is associated with improved ovulatory function and fertility in women.
Obesity in males has been associated with infertility, and reducing weight through diet and exercise may be of help if your BMI is on the high side.
Speak with your doctor about checking for nutritional deficiencies, as infertility can be associated with deficiencies of various nutrients including vitamins A, C, E, B vitamins, folic acid, zinc, iron and essential fatty acids. Women trying to conceive are often recommended to take 400 mcg of folic acid per day to prevent spina bifida (NICE, 2004). In men, supplementation of carnitine, arginine, zinc, vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, co-enzyme Q10, and vitamin B12 may double the sperm count, improve sperm motility by about a quarter, and increase ejaculate volume by about a third (Imhof et al., 2012).
Digestive health is key to fertility
A thriving gut flora, healthy digestion and a diverse, nutrient-rich, mostly organic diet can go a long way toward supporting normal reproductive function and promoting fertility. Gut health is important to assimilate key nutrients that are required for healthy hormone production, but also to eliminate metabolised hormones. Gut health also affects the functioning of any herbal medicines used for reproductive purposes, as many of the active constituents that have an effect on hormonal balance will require fermentation by a healthy and well-functioning gut flora. A lot of herbs can be helpful with digestive health generally — for instance all of the ones included in our Digestiion Collection. Digestive health is also key to thriving mental health, to skin health, and to so much more.
Lifestyle factors that impact fertility
Many lifestyle elements beyond nutrition — including exercise, smoking, caffeine and alcohol consumption can be significant contributing factors in cases of infertility. The following lifestyle tips should be of great help in supporting your fertility:
- Exercise regularly — but don’t overdo it: Regular exercising improves oestrogen clearance, and has been associated with a reduced risk of infertility due to ovulatory disorders. However, it is also important to avoid over-exercising: vigorous exercise for more than one hour per day is associated with infertility.
- Ease your stress levels: Psychological and physiological stress lead to high cortisol levels in the bloodstream, which disrupts endocrine function, reduces the secretion of luteinising hormone, and results in a significant drop in testosterone secretion.
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine and smoking: Studies suggest that coffee consumption — from as little as one cup per day — may reduce fertility. This may be due to coffee leading to reduced circulatory capacity and affecting adrenal hormones. While trying to conceive, it’s best to avoid coffee and other beverages containing caffeine. Alcohol intake and smoking have also been clearly linked to reduced fertility and increased risk of miscarriage — it is therefore also best to steer clear of them to maximise your chances of conceiving. This is true for both men and women: cigarette smoking has been associated with lower sperm count and mobility and with an increase in the number of abnormal sperm. Alcohol consumption also increases the number of abnormal sperm.
- Ask your doctor about the effects of any drugs you are taking: Some prescribed medicines can have an effect on reproductive function and fertility, including immunosuppressants, anti-androgens, antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, alpha blockers, radiotherapy and chemotherapy and others.
Reproductive health problems that may lead to infertilityIn women
There are a number of female reproductive health problems that may lead to infertility: organic infertility (including cases where ovulation does not happen for a specific identifiable reason, or infertility linked to a structural abnormality of the reproductive organs) and functional infertility (linked to incorrect functioning of the reproductive system, not due to any underlying medical condition). Organic infertility may include conditions such as PCOS, thyroid hormone imbalance, or primary amenorrhea, or damage or abnormalities in Fallopian tubes, in the uterus, cervix or the vagina. Functional infertility may include reproductive hormone imbalance (oestrogen, progesterone, cortisol, prolactin), stress or other lifestyle factors.
Herbal medicine can have a lot to offer to support women experiencing either type of infertility — particularly functional infertility — and without the side effects and risks of hormone-containing orthodox medications.
Cases of male infertility have been increasing significantly over recent decades, possibly driven by exposure to microplastics, to radiation, as well as by dietary and lifestyle factors. Male reproductive health problems that can cause infertility include low androgen levels, varicocele, prostratitis and sexual dysfunction. They can be divided into three main categories: pre-testicular, testicular, and post-testicular.
Although not as often assessed and addressed as female infertility, male factor infertility is at the root of up to half of all cases of infertility. Any approaches to improve a couple’s chances of conceiving should really include both partners, and over at least a few months.
Consulting a medical herbalist can be a great step towards better identifying the causes for your fertility issues and navigating natural options for treatment or support.
Herbs that can be used to support fertility
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is traditionally used in Ayurveda to treat male sexual dysfunction and infertility. It is a relaxing adaptogen, which makes it particularly adapted for those suffering from nervous exhaustion, stress and anxiety. It is considered a rejuvenative tonic for both the reproductive and the nervous systems. It is a nourishing herb that increases libido.
Damiana (Turnera diffusa) is traditionally used to treat sexual dysfunction and as a tonic for depression and nervous exhaustion. It helps to balance testosterone levels in men, and it can also help address low oestrogen levels in women.
Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris) is often used to treat menstrual disorders of many kinds. It helps to reduce heavy menstrual bleeding, and it gently strengthens uterine tissues. It may increase progesterone function and can be used to help promote conception.
Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) is highly prized in traditional Ayurvedic medicine, as an excellent reproductive tonic to promote healthy fertility. It may be used in men to promote sperm production, and in women to reduce uterine contractions, to treat any menstrual concerns and prevent early miscarriage. It’s also a great aphrodisiac!
Consult a herbalist for bespoke herbal support
As briefly explored in this article, herbal medicine has a lot to offer (alongside key dietary and lifestyle changes) in a wide range of fertility challenges, whether linked to one or the other partner. To support thriving reproductive health, we recommend looking into our Female Vitality and Male Vitality collections — but most importantly, given the potential complexities of these challenges, our main recommendation would be to consult a medical herbalist to accompany you in this journey with a bespoke approach, treatment and advice.
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