Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
Q: I’m in my late 30s and pretty healthy. My partner and I would like to start a family, but we’ve been trying unsuccessfully for over a year. Any advice on how to enhance fertility?
—Doris L., Baltimore
A: Ironically, women living in developed countries are experiencing significantly fewer pregnancies than they did during our peak population growth. In the year 1800, there were only one billion people on the planet. Today there are 7 billion. So, declining fertility rates today are, in part, because of the shock of rapid population growth to the planet where we all live. But these statistics don’t change the disappointment for couples ready to welcome a child.
Chemicals and Pesticides Effecting Fertility in Men and Women
The world is more toxic since the advent and widespread use of industrial chemicals that can impair fertility in both men and women. Numerous studies, for example, link pesticides to fertility problems in both men and women. Lindane, a pesticide commonly used to treat scabies and lice, affects the protective outer layer of sperm, which effectively inhibits the sperm’s response to female hormones at the site of egg fertilization in the uterus. Glyphosate (the active ingredient in RoundUp) may be even more problematic. The well-documented decline in testosterone levels over the past 25 years coincides with the introduction of GMO crops and the corresponding increased use of RoundUp. The solution? Eat organic food whenever possible.
Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) Decrease Fertility
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were once used in electrical equipment, plastics, and adhesives, and have contaminated our fish, meats, and dairy products. PCBs decrease fertility by lowering progesterone levels, diminishing ovulation, and reducing estrogen clearance. Solution: Avoid most dairy products and eat only wild, young, non-bottom-feeding fish.
Women often seek medical advice for infertility because they have a shorter window for conception. But the problem is just as likely due to the man. Besides lower testosterone levels worldwide, many sperm donors who undergo semen analysis are being diagnosed with agglutination, a condition where sperm cells stick together and are less lively. This is usually due to inflammation in the prostate or urethra, generally caused by a sub-optimal diet including chemicals from processed food.
Dietary Solutions for Fertility
To combat the chemical stew in our environment, both members of a couple trying to conceive would do well to enjoy a 2–6 week period of detoxification and cleansing 1–3 times a year. This means eating a clean, fresh diet of mostly organic vegetables, good-quality fish, and eggs or organic nut-based proteins. Two or more servings per day (versus one or fewer per week) of low-fat dairy products have been associated with an 85 percent decrease in fertility.The protein component of dairy (casein) causes the problem, but these effects were only observed with low-fat dairy consumption. High-quality organic or grass-fed full-fat dairy actually seems to increase fertility.
Keep blood sugars steady by minimizing grains and completely avoiding processed foods. Drink mostly water, along with kombucha or herbal teas. Coffee is a vasoconstrictor (like nicotine) and will mess with oxygen delivery to all tissues.
And watch your weight. The risk of infertility rises with obesity, which is affiliated with PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome, which has many manifestations but basically inhibits ovulation). Inositol, a readily available supplement, is well documented to promote ovulation in women with PCOS.
Did You Know?
The risk of infertility rises with obesity, which is affiliated with PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome, which has many manifestations but basically inhibits ovulation). Inositol, a readily available supplement, is well documented to promote ovulation in women with PCOS.
Key Fertility Nutrients
Micronutrient deficiencies can inhibit a healthy pregnancy: particularly iron and folic acid. It’s easy to check your status with an inexpensive blood test (CBC). You can also check your ovarian reserves with a somewhat more expensive blood test called AMH (Anti-Mullerian Hormone).
For women, once you’ve determined that you’re ovulating (you observe mid-cycle egg-white stretchy mucous, and your ovulation detector confirms this is high-estrogen mucus, indicating fertility), try taking:
- Phosphatidyl choline (the myo inositol form is best)—1,200 mg three times daily to soften the ovary walls, until conception
- Vitamin E—800 IUs daily to boost ovulation
- High potency B complex—with 230–500 mg of B1 (thiamine) to promote ovulation
- Vitex (chasteberry)—in tincture or capsule form, taken on an empty stomach every morning. Work with someone knowledgeable of this herbal medicine.
For men, once a semen analysis shows that you do have live swimmers, you should avoid hot tubs, tight pants, and cycling. If possible, also avoid taking antibiotics, particularly the erythromycin group, which is known to reduce sperm production. Supplements that can help male fertility include:
- Vitamin E—400–800 IUs daily to boost sperm production
- Glutathione—500 mg daily to improve sperm mobility
- Zinc—50 mg daily
- Vitamin C—1,000 mg daily
Finally, consider GIFT (gamete intra fallopian transfer), which is significantly more natural than other assisted reproductive technologies. Many acupuncturists are familiar with special acupoints to both enhance fertility and to enhance the promise of a full-term pregnancy.
Related: 7 Foods to Help with Fertility
Miscarriage is another issue for many couples trying to conceive. Insufficient progesterone production is a very common cause of early miscarriage, especially in women over age 35 or so. Check your progesterone levels over the course of a full cycle. There are good saliva tests on the market, and many don’t require a doctor’s order. A single blood test for estrogen and progesterone cannot tell you anything about your cycle.
Thyroid insufficiency is another common risk factor for miscarriage. If you have a hard time losing weight, tend to be cold and/or constipated, and have heavy menses, low thyroid may be the culprit. Also rule out high prolactin levels. In non-nursing women, this is a sign of stress. Adrenal-supporting herbs such as licorice, ashwagandha, eleutherococcus, schisandra, and rhodiola can help. Also try daily meditation, journaling, or yoga to reduce stress.