Perspectives on infertility and tips for a boost
As part of their respective professional practices, Sandra Clair and Dr Olivia Stuart have both encountered couples struggling to conceive. Olivia is a reproductive medicine sub-specialist at Fertility Associates in Auckland, while Sandra is the medical herbalist/anthropologist who founded plant health products company Artemis. We wanted to share their advice in case even just some of it could be of help to men and women experiencing fertility problems, and the emotional and physical challenges that come with these.
Sandra and Olivia both point to infertility as an issue that’s being exacerbated by couples having children later in life, and say there are many complex factors that can affect the chances of conception.
“We previously thought about one in seven couples in this country would experience infertility, but recent research out of Dunedin [that surveyed] about 1000 men and women around the age of 38, [showed] when they were questioned, one in four couples were experiencing infertility, so it’s a much bigger problem than we envisaged,” says Stuart.
According to the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, more than a quarter of women and a fifth of men had experienced fertility difficulties by their late thirties.
Researcher Dr Thea van Roode said the study findings were important because of the trend in many countries to delay parenthood well past age 30, while fertility specialist and the paper’s co-author professor Wayne Gillett said it was unfortunate that many men and women weren’t aware that women’s fertility startedto decline well before female menopause.
Speaking at a recent talk at ecostore, Olivia pointed out that a woman’s egg quality and number decline with age, and the older a woman and her eggs are, the greater the chance of genetic problems in the baby, or miscarriage.
However, Olivia and Sandra each say there are many options available for couples who struggle to conceive, including lifestyle choices and fertility treatment.
For improved female reproductive health, Olivia recommends a healthy, balanced diet; exercise; weight optimisation (she says a body mass index that’s too high or too low can interrupt hormone system function; which controls ovulation); not smoking; and drinking only in moderation. She also advises stress reduction through activities like yoga, meditation and mindfulness. In addition, she says folic acid is needed to minimise the risk of birth defects like spina bifida.
Some of Olivia’s advice is the same for men – such as maintaining a normal body mass index (as she says obesity can cause low testosterone), drinking alcohol in low amounts, and not smoking. Men can also benefit from a healthy intake of dietary anti-oxidants and a diet that’s high in fruit, vegetables, fish and wholegrains, she says.
One of Sandra’s key messages is that the chances of conception are all about creating the right conditions in the body so that an egg can be fertilised and an embryo can be nourished and grow.
The four months leading up to conception are a particularly important time for women to look after their health to boost fertility, she says, adding that in some Asian countries women are asked to do this for a year before trying to get pregnant.
To take care of your health prior to conception, Sandra suggests chaste tree berries, which she says support ovulation, can correct progesterone deficiency, and enhance corpus luteum development. The corpus luteum secretes estrogens and progesterone, and progresterone causes changes in the uterus that make it more suitable for implantation of a fertilised egg, and the nourishment of an embryo.
Sandra also advises women consume cinnamon and licorice, which she believes can help with polycystic ovary syndrome, and assist circulation in the pelvis. Other plant medicine she recommends are nettle leaf and raspberry leaf, which she says can strengthen and tone uterus tissues, and help build healthy endometrium (the lining of the uterus). Like Olivia, she also recommends pre-natal vitamins such as folic acid. And Sandra suggests taking pure versions of fish oil and evening primrose oil, which she says are essential fatty acids for hormone health. In addition, she says gut health is important, adding that may be assisted by probiotics.
Reducing the potentially harmful chemicals we may be exposed to every day is another tip Sandra has for people trying to conceive. And those could come from the environment or from everyday products, she says.
“Environmental pollutants are found everywhere and have been linked with sub fertility or infertility in men and women,” says Sandra. She advises eating fresh, organic food wherever possible.
She adds women should reduce exposure to potentially harmful chemicals in personal care products.
“Ecostore has made a huge impact in New Zealand and around the world in making sure these pollutants aren’t used in our daily products.”
Sandra believes avoiding non-essential pharmaceutical medicines and recreational drugs like marijuana are also healthier options to boost fertility, as well as reducing caffeine intake from coffee or black tea.
Her advice is aligned with Olivia’s when it comes to exercise, nutrition and stress reduction. Sandra says regular, moderate exercise, and nutritious, less processed food are beneficial, along with weight management (being overweight or underweight can impede ovulation, she says).
And she says stress reduction is important because stress affects the endocrine system, which needs to function properly to produce the hormones needed for conception. She suggests mindfulness and plant medicine to reduce stress and cortisol production (cortisol is often known as the stress hormone).
“That’s where that self care idea comes in - you’re not waiting to get well, you want to have a fence at the top of the cliff and plant medicine is really helpful for that.”
Sandra also emphasises the importance of dealing with health issues promptly, rather than waiting for them to resolve themselves.
She and Olivia both say seeking help early – from a GP or specialist - is essential for couples struggling to conceive.
“We know it takes 85% of fertile couples about a year to conceive and 95% about two years to conceive,” Olivia says. “But when we add the age of the woman into the equation, the message we’re trying to get out there is to come and seek advice earlier as opposed to waiting. For a 30 year old woman, she should be thinking about seeking advice after about 12 months of trying, compared to a 38 year old woman where after trying for six months it would be more appropriate for her to seek advice sooner.”
And she adds there are many treatment options available, including in vitro fertilisation, intra-uterine insemination, donor treatments, and clomiphene and letrozole tablets (for ovarian stimulation).
Resources and further reading:
Fertility NZ - a charity that provides information, support and advocacy to people experiencing fertility issues..http://www.fertilitynz.org.nz/
Natural Fertility NZ - Natural Fertility New Zealand, a national association fertility educators who have undergone an extensive training programme in natural family planning methods - http://www.naturalfertility.co.nz/
Articles about infertility from Kiwi Families: http://www.kiwifamilies.co.nz/topic/pregnancy/infertility/
Find a fertility clinic in your area: https://www.health.govt.nz/your-health/certified-providers/fertility
This article isn’t intended to substitute for medical advice. Consult a health practitioner for help with infertility.