What is infertility? What are the causes for infertility in both males and females? And what are the options for natural treatment of infertility? These are all questions I answer in this article so stay tuned!
I often support women who are looking to improve their health and lifestyle in preparation to start a family. In some cases this is women who just want to get healthier and learn how to take care of themselves. Women who want to learn how to nourish their mind, body and soul as they grow another human. For other ladies, the situation is more complicated and they are looking for support due to infertility.
What is infertility?
The majority of couples, that is around 84%, are able to fall pregnant within one year of having regular having unprotected sex. But unfortunately this is not the case for everyone. Infertility is when a couple cannot conceive, despite trying. Infertility is thought to affect around 1 in 7 couples in the UK. There can be many causes for infertility which can be due to the woman, man or both. Infertility can occur due to problems at any of the 4 main stages of conception:
- Ovulation i.e. the release of a mature egg from the ovaries
- Fertilisation of the egg by a viable sperm
- Transport of the fertilised egg to the womb
- Implantation of the fertilised egg into the womb lining
Problems with any of these processes can result in infertility and problems conceiving. Around a third of cases of infertility are attributed to female infertility and a third is due to male infertility. The remaining third is either due to both the male and the female or unknown causes of infertility.
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What is primary vs. secondary infertility?
Primary infertility is the inability to conceive in a woman who has not given birth previously. Secondary infertility is when a woman has already given birth to at least one child. Often people wonder if fertility can be genetic. The answer is yes, approximately 50% of infertility cases are thought to be genetic. The remaining cases are caused by a combination of environmental and lifestyle factors.
What are the causes for infertility in females?
The menstrual cycle, which is responsible for female fertility, is regulated by a complicated symphony of chemical messengers aka hormones. An imbalance in these hormones can impact ovulation either by making ovulation irregular or stopping ovulation altogether. Other physical factors can affect the transport and implantation of a fertilised egg.
Female infertility can be due to a number of causes:
- Physical – Hereditary problems, damage or trauma can lead to infertility by affecting the functioning of a woman’s reproductive organs
- Reproductive disorders – Conditions such as PCOS, endometriosis, hypothalamic amenorrhea and hypothyroid are all associated with reduced fertility in females
- Hormonal imbalance – High stress, excessive exercise, poor nutrition and other lifestyle factors can lead to imbalances in the female reproductive hormones
- Contraception – Use of certain contraceptives such as the pill or implant can lead to temporary infertility after stopping the contraception
|Ovulation||Hormonal imbalance, contraception, PCOS, hypothalamic amenorrhea|
|Fertilisation||Low sperm quantity or viability, timing of sex, ineffective mucus|
|Transportation||Blocked fallopian tubes, endometriosis|
What are the causes for infertility in males?
The quantity and quality of sperm is absolutely necessary for the second stage of conception, fertilisation to take place. Male fertility is usually assessed by checking the sperm count, mobility and viability as well as the volume of sperm produced.
Male infertility can occur for a number of reasons:
- Physical – Damage to the testicles or structural problems can lead to reduced sperm count or affect transport of sperm
- Impotence – Stress and other lifestyle factors can affect a man’s ability to achieve or maintain an erection
- Contraception – Males who have been sterilised previously may experience reduced fertility even after reversal of the vasectomy
Risk factors for infertility in women and men
There are several factors which affect both female and male fertility:
- Age – A woman’s fertility starts to decline after the age of 35 as the number and quality of her eggs decreases
- Lifestyle – Factors such as poor nutrition, smoking, alcohol, stress can reduce fertility by affecting a woman’s ability to conceive and a man’s sperm quantity and quality
- Body weight – Both obesity (BMI >30) and underweight (BMI (<18) are both associated with lower rates of fertility
- Environmental – Excessive exposure to pollutants such as pesticides, fertilizers, PCBs and other toxic chemicals can affect fertility in both genders
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Can infertility be treated?
The answer to this one is, it depends! As we have seen, infertility can be caused by a wide range of factors. Some of which can be treated and others which cannot. If you are struggling with infertility and you are unsure about the reason, it is a good idea to visit your GP for testing. This is the best way to find out the potential causes and your options for treatment.
In some cases, medically assisted reproductive procedures such as IVF may be the best path to take. In other cases, it may be possible to improve your fertility using natural methods. This includes improving nutritional status and other approaches described below. Natural methods of fertility treatment are particularly beneficial if no structural or hereditary conditions are present.
There is significant research to demonstrate the benefits of nutrition and lifestyle changes on fertility, however nothing is guaranteed. The good news is that natural approaches to improving fertility have no negative side effects and offer many other holistic health benefits. Even for couples who decide that medical intervention is the path for them, natural fertility methods are complementary. Healthy lifestyle changes support the couples health and wellbeing throughout this process and increase the chances of success.
Natural approaches to infertility
Natural approaches to fertility are holistic and varied. Here I will focus on the areas of my training which is nutrition, holistic lifestyle practices and menstrual cycle awareness. Other natural approaches you might want to research includes Traditional Chinese Medicine, Herbal Medicine and Acupuncture. I will be sharing more on this topic in the coming weeks and months. For now, here is a summary of the three main areas I focus on with my clients:
Menstrual cycle awareness
Despite what we were told in school, it is not possible to fall pregnant at any time but rather only at specific times in a woman’s menstrual cycle. Improving timing of sex to align with ovulation can improve chances of conception from 2-4% to 20%! This means getting to know your cycle and observing your natural hormonal rhythms and signs of fertility. These are signs such as your body temperature and cervical mucus consistency. Not only will this improve your chance of conception, it also helps you to become more connected and in tune with your female body. This will support you throughout your pregnancy, birth and life in general.
Research shows that a healthy, balanced and varied diet improves fertility in both females and males. This includes ensuring you are taking in the right amount of energy and macro-nutrients. You need energy to support optimal functioning of your metabolism and reproductive system. A nutrient dense diet with plenty of fresh produce, adequate protein, complex carbohydrates and high quality fats promotes natural fertility. Similarly, reducing consumption of alcohol, caffeine and other stimulants improves chance of conception.
There are also specific nutrients which promote healthy egg maturation and boost your fertility naturally. You want to ensure you have these nutritional bases covered via your diet or through targeted supplementation. It is helpful to check nutrient status to determine potential causes for infertility and the appropriate nutritional strategy. Pregnancy requires a large amount of nutrients and without adequate stores can leave a woman depleted. Eating a healthy nutrient-dense diet during conception can also help to reduce the chances of deficiency post-partum.
Stress and mental health
Ensuring your overall lifestyle is supportive of your fertility is another key part of natural fertility treatment. This includes managing your stress levels and incorporating rest and relaxation into your daily routines. Stress alone is one of the causes for infertility in females and males so it is important for both partners to managed their stress!
Holistic health also incorporates maintaining a positive mindset towards your body and your fertility. Infertility can be a distressing experience therefore maintaining good mental health care throughout the process is important. Learning holistic health strategies prior to conception is also a great way to prepare for pregnancy and motherhood. Then you will need to take care of yourself and baby!
Natural fertility treatment also involves ensuring that the amount and type of exercise you do is appropriate to ensure optimal health and hormonal balance. A healthy amount of moderate exercise improves fertility but excessive exercise can lead to problems with ovulation. Over-exercise is one of the causes for infertility amongst athletes who otherwise seem very healthy. It is that you want to find that sweet spot of the right types and amount of exercise for hormone balance.
Finally, reviewing the products that you are using is important. You want to avoid exposure to potentially toxic or hormone disrupting chemicals that could impact your fertility.
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