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Increase your odds of conception with a few lifestyle changes

Considering the size of the U.S. population, it may surprise some people to learn that infertility is a growing problem in this country. But to couples with fertility issues, it's a frustrating and glaringly apparent fact. Why are 10 to 15 percent of couples having trouble conceiving?

Infertility is typically defined as the inability to get pregnant after one year of unprotected intercourse. There's a broad range of factors that contribute to infertility among men and women, some of them resulting from the way we live in this highly developed culture. Fortunately, improving lifestyle habits and looking to herbs and other supplements may increase the odds of conception without the high cost and potential side effects medical procedures (including in vitro fertilization). First, let's take a look at the sources of the problem.

fertility frustration?
It's been estimated that 6.1 million people in the U.S. (about 10 percent of the reproductive age population) are infertile. Roughly speaking, about one-third of infertility cases can be attributed to male factors, and about one-third to factors that affect women. For the remaining third of infertile couples, the causes are on both sides or are unexplained.

Infertility among women is often due to ovulation problems, including failure to ovulate. Other female infertility factors are: blocked fallopian tubes, pelvic inflammatory disease, endometriosis and genetic defects in the reproductive system. The ovulation-related problems can also be brought about by failure of the hypothalamus, thyroid and pituitary glands which produce hormones, egg retention, irregular or absent ovulation and sexually transmitted diseases. Other potential troublemakers include heavy metals and toxic trace elements in food. Cadmium, mercury, lead and arsenic are toxic trace elements that may limit fertility.

The most common male infertility factors include: azoospermia (no sperm cells are produced) and oligospermia (few sperm cells are produced). In rare cases, infertility in men is caused by a genetic disease, such as cystic fibrosis or a chromosomal abnormality.

Male fertility can be impaired by cigarette smoking, which reduces sperm number, sperm movement and even its DNA code, notes Helen Caton in her book The Fertility Plan: A Holistic Program for Conceiving a Healthy Baby. Smoke causes oxidative damage and loads the body with hundreds of chemicals and carcinogens that deplete protective antioxidants. Sperm, like other body cells, are subject to free radical damage and need antioxidant protection to function normally.

According to Chris Meletis, N.D., author of Better Sex Naturally, oxidative damage to sperm as a result of high free radical activity in the male reproductive tract is thought to contribute to many cases of infertility. Exposure to air and water pollutants, pesticides, household and industrial chemicals, solvents, herbicide, radiation and heavy metals including lead and mercury increase free radical burden and sperm damage.

Additional lifestyle factors that can compromise male fertility include high stress levels, insufficient sleep, alcohol and marijuana use, and activities that increase scrotal temperature (hot tubs, hot baths and showers, saunas) and wearing tight fitting clothes (jeans, briefs), notes Meletis. Even exercise can decrease sperm counts due to the jarring effect and increase in scrotal temperature.

fertility-friendly living
Now, for some good news: Men and women can increase their odds of having a baby by making healthy lifestyle choices. Meletis cautions men against drinking alcohol, which can damage sperm DNA. Women should consider avoiding caffeine, minimizing stress and being tested to make sure they're not folic acid- or iron-deficient.

Diet plays a big role in reproductive and overall health, as well. A diet high in omega-6 polyunsaturated fats and low in antioxidants (common in the Western diet) results in sperm cell membranes that don't function optimally, Meletis explains. He recommends avoiding the following:

saturated fats (including animal fats, coconut and palm oils)
trans-fatty acids (produced when heating and frying with cooking oils, and in margarine and other oil-based spreads)
partially hydrogenated oils (found in most processed foods like chips, cookies and crackers)
cottonseed oil (gossypol, a natural toxin present in the cotton plant, proven to decrease sperm function)
Oils high in essential fatty acids (EFAs, including omega-3 and omega-6s) improve sperm quality and function, as the EFAs are one element of sperm cell membranes. Borage, black currant, flaxseed, evening primrose oil and fish oils are among these beneficial fats.

A diet high in antioxidants from fresh fruits and vegetables (especially organic) is the best. Eating more whole grains, good fats and less refined and processed foods also sets the stage for an optimal conception environment.

necessary nutrients
Arginine. Supplemental Larginine, an amino acid, can improve fertility in men and women. This amino acid is essential for sperm formation, and it increases sperm count, as well. (Those suffering from herpes or other infections should use this very cautiously because it promotes cell replication.) To improve fertility, a typical dosage is 10-20 grams a day.

L-camitine. Another amino acid, carnitine, plays a crucial role in sperm function. Metabolized, it's important for proper sperm movement and also has a protective effect that improves sperm survival and, therefore, fertility. Hypomotility, slow sperm movement, is thought to be due to L-carnitine deficiency. Dosage is 500 mg to 2,000 mg daily.

Coenzyme Q10. This popular antioxidant is found in high levels in semen and is directly related to sperm count and movement. A higher concentration of CoQ10 in sperm cells helps protect sperm membranes from free radical damage. Doses as small as 10 mg per day for a few weeks may even be enough to improve sperm count and movement, although this can be increased to 200 mg.

vitamins and minerals
We know how important antioxidants are to general health, and reproductive health is no exception. Antioxidants protect against the damaging effects of free radicals on sperm movement.

Vitamin B-12. This vitamin is needed for optimum sperm movement and total sperm count. Studies have found that 400-1,000 mcg of vitamin B-12 dramatically improved sperm counts. Those with anemia should take no more than 10 mcg each day.

Folic acid. Folic acid prevents neural tube defects, urinary tract and cardiovascular defects and decreases limb deficiencies and other problems in newborns, but that's not all. Periconceptual multivitamin supplementation with folic acid improved fertility and the rate of twins in one recent double-blind, placebo-controlled Hungarian study. Meletis notes that adequate folic acid intake ensures optimal sperm formation, as well. Usual dosage is 400 to 800 mcg daily.

Depleted levels of vitamin C may contribute to the demise of the corpus luteum, the mature ovarian follicle that ruptures to expel a potential mature ovum, or oocyte, in females. It also increases sperm count and helps them stick together less. Vitamin C is helpful to infertile smokers as well. Dosage is 1,000 to 3,000 mg daily.

Vitamin E protects sperm from byproducts of free-radical damage, damage to the external membrane of sperm. In one study, men with this condition (called asthenospermia) who took oral vitamin E had fewer problems with sperm movement. A typical dosage is 400 IU.

Selenium
Selenium is a trace element that has antioxidant properties. It has been shown to increase sperm motility in clinical studies. Take 50 to 200 mcg.

Zinc
Zinc is a major player in growth, sexual maturation and reproduction. In fact, infertile males tend to have lower levels of zinc than do fertile males, and subnormal levels of serum testosterone have also been linked to low zinc levels. Zinc may work by scavenging free radicals produced by defective sperm in semen after ejaculation, according to some study results. It is also crucial in maintaining the prostate and testicle tissue. Dosage is 25 to 50 mg a day.

Herbs
Several herbs are notable for boosting fertility, too. One is dong quai (Angelica sinensis), which has been used in China for more than 2,000 years and is referred to as the female ginseng, due to its tonic effects on the reproductive system. It is still taken to alleviate PMS, painful menses and menopausal symptoms. Dong quai is nutrient-packed and contains plant sterols that balance estrogen levels in women (much more gently than animal-based estrogen). It may also increase uterine contractions during sex. Meletis considers this herb one of the most important for improving fertility in women.

For men seeking better fertility odds, Meletis recommends ginseng, which increases testosterone secretion in both men and women. This ancient, adaptogenie herb has been shown to increase fertility in numerous animal studies, as noted in Better Sex Naturally (2000). Siberian ginseng appears to be the least likely to cause any side effects. However, people who bleed excessively (nosebleeds or heavy menstrual periods), have high blood pressure, extra heartbeats, rapid heart rate or muscle tension should avoid it. Don't use ginseng within four hours of bedtime if you have sleep problems. Dosage is 100 mg once or twice a day.

focus on fertility
An experienced practitioner can help couples find the best combination of these to suit their needs. Meletis suggests finding a licensed naturopathic physician or holistic physician who is committed to working with you in finding and addressing causes for lowered fertility. Ask the doctor what his or her approach is and how s/he will determine your needs. Also, find out if the doctor runs tests, an important step in determining health status before devising a plan to improve fertility.

some helpful resources:
RESOLVE, The National Infertility Association
1310 Broadway, Somerville, MA 02144
Main phone number: 617-623-0744

Founded in 1974 as a national, non-profit consumer organization. "RESOLVE can help you find answers to your questions about infertility by assisting you in making decisions relating to treatment, coping techniques and insurance issues." Website: www.resolve.com

National Helpline phone: 617-623-0744; Helpline hours: Monday-Friday; 9 am -- 12 noon and 1-4 pm (EST); Monday evenings; 5-9 pm.

American Society for Reproductive Medicine;
1209 Montgomery Highway, Birmingham, AL 35216-2809
Main phone number: 205-978-5000

Fax: 205-978-5005

Web site: www.asrm.com

Myths and facts about infertility
Myth: Infertility is a woman's problem

Fact: False! Infertility is a male problem in about 35 percent of the cases, and a female problem about 30 percent of the time, a combined problem in about 20 percent of the cases and "unexplained" about 10 percent of the time.

Myth: It's all in your head! Why don't you just relax or take a vacation. Then you'll get pregnant.

Fact: Infertility is a clinically diagnosable disease of the reproductive system, not a psychosomatic condition.

Myth: Don't worry--it just takes time. You'll get pregnant if you're just patient.

Fact: Those who don't seek out help "become pregnant" in only five percent of cases after a year of infertility. One-half of people who seek out professional help are said to achieve success.

Myth: Maybe you two are doing something wrong!

Fact: Infertility is a medical condition, not a sexual disorder.

[Source: RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association]

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By Liz Brown

Illustration by David Pollard

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