Fertility fixes

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Natural options for enhancing your fertility health can help you conceive — and calm your emotions

gETTING PREGNANT seems like the most natural process in the world, until you go several months — or wears — without conceiving. Then the struggle to Become a parent quickly becomes an emotional and physical ordeal. Many couples visit fertility experts who often recommend fertility drugs or invasive medical intervention. "Reproductive technology is overused," says Christiane Northrup, M.D., an advocate for women's health and author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom (Bantam, 2006). "There is so much you can do naturally to enhance fertility. Technology should be a last resort."

Natural methods including stress reduction (which can help rebalance hormones) and acupuncture (which can help increase the flow of blood to the uterus) have proven effective in clinical studies. What's more, drug-free methods strengthen your immune system, improve mindfulness, and help you get more in touch with your body — all of which improve the overall quality of your life and health.
change your diet

"Ovulatory infertility can be prevented and potentially reversed through dietary and lifestyle changes," says Jorge Chavarro, M.D., a Harvard School of Public Health Research fellow in the department of nutrition and coauthor of The Fertility Diet (McGraw-Hill, 2007). Chavarro led the diet analyses in the Nurses' Health Study II, a landmark health study that in 1989 began looking at the habits of more than 123,000 female nurses — 18,555 of whom were trying to become pregnant. From this study (fertility results were published in 1994), researchers learned that junk foods can harm fertility if they contain trans fats — also known as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fat — typically found in commercially produced baked goods, fried foods, and processed snacks. Chavarro believes that such fats derail ovulation by interfering with a cell receptor that controls inflammation, glucose metabolism, and insulin sensitivity.

ELIMINATE OR REDUCE WHITE SUGAR AND FLOUR "Eat foods that keep your blood sugar balanced," says Northrup. That means reducing or eliminating all white sugar and white flour products (the Nurses' Study showed more pregnancy success for women who followed such diets) including baked goods (doughnuts, muffins, and cake) and pasta, white bread, white potatoes, many breakfast cereals, and white rice.

BUY ORGANIC To reduce your exposure to pesticides, stick to organic foods. Many pesticides contain estrogen-mimicking endocrine disrupters and other reproductive toxins, says Julia Indichova, author of Inconceivable (Broadway Books, 2001) and The Fertile Female (Adell Press, 2007).

Shop for organic versions of foods that normally have high levels of additives or residual pesticides, like meat, poultry, rice, oats, vegetables (especially onions, potatoes, celery, spinach, and green beans), as well as fruit such as strawberries, peaches, apples, grapes, and bananas.

GET ENOUGH PROTEIN Eat at least 2.5 ounces of protein a day, says Jill Blakeway, acupuncturist at the YinOva Center in New York City. Protein contains amino acids essential for egg production and vital for producing fertility-promoting hormones, LH and FSH, she says. Look for it in meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, lentils, beans, brown rice, quinoa, and sunflower seeds. "I tell my vegetarian clients to eat protein with at least two meals a day," says Blakeway. "But I don't give strict orders, because it's important for them to stay relaxed."

EAT SOME FAT A small amount of fat is important for your body to make fertility-related hormones, says Blakeway. Eat a handful of nuts and seeds for unsaturated fat and a small amount of polyunsaturated fat from fish each day, she suggests. You'll find essential fatty acids in oily fish, cod liver oil, flaxseed oil, eggs, pumpkin seeds, leafy green vegetables, and soy products. You can also try Ultimate Oil softgel tablets from Nature's Secret, says Blakeway; a blend of cold-pressed organic oils, they offer "a good balance" of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

TAKE A FERTILITY SUPPLEMENT Perhaps the beststudied supplement for fertility is FertilityBlend for Women (fertilityblend.com), made by the Daily Wellness Company. The formula contains a long list of fertility boosters, including the antioxidants vitamin E and selenium, as well as folic acid and L-arginine, an amino acid that stimulates and improves circulation in the reproductive organs. FertilityBlend was tested as part of a 2005 Stanford University clinical trial (published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine) involving 30 women ages 24 to 46 who had tried unsuccessfully to conceive for six to 36 months. After five months, five of the 15 women taking the supplement became pregnant compared with none in the placebo group. (Note: Since one ingredient, Vitex, may not be therapeutic for all reproductive disorders, check with your doctor before using FertilityBlend.)
eating better: one woman's experience

For Lynda Passa, a jet-setting model since age 16, skipping meals, smoking, and using only "diet" products (like artificial sweeteners) were just part of the job. But when Fassa approached age 30 and wanted to start a family, she knew she'd have to change her ways. At only 115 pounds and 5?9½", she had rarely menstruated since her teens — a sign she wasn't ovulating. Fassa threw out her cigarettes and switched from a diet of Doritos, sodas, and cappuccinos to regular meals of wholesome organic foods including fruit smoothies, hummus and pita sandwiches, and plenty of vegetables. In a month, Fassa gained eight pounds and her period returned. Within four weeks of her first cycle, Fassa was pregnant; she gave birth to a baby girl in 1993 and has remained focused on healthful eating and living ever since. She is now the author of Green Babies, Sage Moms: The Ultimate Guide to Raising Your Organic Baby (New American Library, 2008).
try acupuncture

According to a 2003 study by doctors at the Weill Cornell Medical Center (published in Fertility and Sterility), acupuncture can improve your chances of becoming fertile by increasing blood flow to the uterus. It also helps to normalize the hypothalmic-pituitary-ovarian axis, the control center for hormones. In the language of Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture works by improving the circulation of qi, or life force, opening blocked channels and reducing stress. In Western terms, acupuncture is known to cause a reflex response, says Bruce Gilbert, M.D., Ph.D., a urologist in private practice in Long Island, N.Y., and clinical associate professor at Weill Cornell Medical College. The prick of the needles sends an electrical signal that runs from the sensory nerves to the spine and back out along motor nerves, he explains, eventually stimulating blood flow to the reproductive organs.
using needles: one woman's experience

At age 46, Stephanie Plummer Osman and her husband decided they wanted to have a child. When she mentioned the idea to her acupuncturist, she half expected him to laugh. But the acupuncturist took the request to heart, noting that in Chinese medicine, fertility is governed more by the state of the body than by chronological age. He added fertility-enhancing acupuncture positions — targeting the uterus through various "pressure" points on the body — and within only two or three sessions, Plummer Osman was pregnant. In August 2007, she gave birth to a baby girl.
learn to relax

Anyone who's ever had trouble conceiving has probably had a neighbor, relative, or complete stranger say to them, "Just relax and you'll get pregnant" — and an attendant spike in blood pressure in the not-yet-pregnant person. What seems well-meaning can feel like a hex. Still, "the more you stress about not being able to conceive, the more likely you won't be able to," says Northrup. Because of the rich connections between the frontal lobes of the brain (where our logical mind and our thoughts originate) and the hypothalamus (the part of the brain that translates our thoughts to our hormonal system), negative thoughts produce stress hormones that interact with those hormones that have a direct influence on fertility.

Interested in breaking this negative feedback loop, Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., founder and director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Waltham, Mass., took 185 infertile women and divided them among three groups. The first attended an infertility support group; the second concentrated on relaxation therapies like yoga and meditation; the third group was given fertility medication only. After one year, more than half the women in the first two groups conceived, compared with only 20 percent of the women in treatment alone. (Domar's landmark study was published in 2000.)

PRACTICE MIND-BODY ACTIVITIES Try restorative yoga or meditation, Both use mindfulness training and breath work to reduce the stress that can block fertility.

JOIN A SUPPORT GROUP As Domar's study shows, communing with others in a similar situation can provide solace. Consider joining RESOLVE, a nonprofit national organization that provides emotional and educational support to those facing infertility. It also runs support groups through its local chapters (resolve.org). Fertility retreats are another good way to find support from like-minded people (see naturalhealthmag.com/fertility).

MAKE SPACE FOR A BABY YinOva's Blakeway worries when she sees women using their BlackBerrys to send e-mails to their office or otherwise multitasking while on her table undergoing acupuncture. "You have to tell your body there's room in your life for a baby," Blakeway explains.

CONSIDER HYPNOSIS Hypnosis can encourage a powerful connection between mind and body, says Helen Adrienne, L.C.S.W., a consultant for the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis and private practitioner of hypnosis and psychotherapy in New York City. It can also help you deal with despair, low self-esteem, and roller-coaster emotions, she says. Hypnosis can remove emotional "blocks" that are very particular to an individual, adds Elizabeth Muir, a clinical psychologist and fertility specialist in London. "Your subconscious mind may not support the idea of a baby for its own reasons," she says. "You may fear childbirth or be ambivalent about becoming a mother. These issues can be overcome." (To find a hypnotherapist, visit asch.net, the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis website.)
If at first you don't conceive…

TAKE YOUR TIME: Before attempting to "treat" infertility, naturally or not, make sure you and your partner are being realistic about the amount of time it takes to conceive. "I recommend that a couple attempt conception for at least nine months before pursuing evaluation," says Scott Walker, M.O., clinical assistant professor of OB-GYN at the Alpert Medical School at Brown University and private practitioner. "The average time for conception in a healthy couple is three to six months," he adds. "The overall statistics on getting pregnant are that 85 percent of couples will conceive within a year of trying. Of the is percent who do not conceive in the first year, 50 percent will conceive in the second year."

CET A DIAGNOSIS: If you're still trying to conceive after a year, see an endocrinologist to find out why you're having trouble. Common causes of Infertility include lack of ovulation, damage to the fallopian tubes, hormonal imbalances involving the thyroid or pituitary glands, and, for men, poor sperm quality, says Walker. Smoking, by either partner, can also block fertility. Diet and lifestyle changes can help with several issues, but not all, says Jill Blakeway, acupuncturist at New York's Yinova Center. "Get a hormone test from an M.D.," she says. "If It looks as if you should be able to get pregnant, start with something like acupuncture before taking more invasive measures."
Maintain a healthy weight

Results of the Nurses' Health Study suggest that women who are overweight or underweight have more difficulty conceiving. Calculating your body mass Index (BMI), which is based on your height-to-weight ratio, can give you an idea of where you stand. Try the online calculator at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (nhlbisupport.com/bmi) to measure your BMI. If you have a BMI of 20 to 24, you're in "the fertility zone," says Chavarro.

LEARN MORE: For more on fertility health, including information on fertility retreats, finding an acupuncturist, using hypnosis, and other resources, see naturalhealthmag.com/fertlity.
Pick one natural treatment, not ten

Don't try all these natural approaches at once, says Randine Lewis, Ph.D., author of The Way of the Fertile Soul (Beyond Words, 2007). "The body perceives effort as stress," she explains. "Women who pack their lives with stress-reduction techniques can actually begin to feel overwhelmed by their new commitments and add to their stress levels." So go easy, and choose a method that makes sense for your body.

PHOTO (COLOR): Give your hormones extra support with supplements like Ultimate Oil tablets (brown), and Fertility Blend.

PHOTO (COLOR): Acupuncture boosts your chances of getting pregnant by improving blood flow to the uterus and reducing stress.

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By Marie Myunc-Ok Lee

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