Shortly after getting married, Sharon Cambridge had a miscarriage. The 33-year-old from Airdrie, Alta., was devastated — and became obsessed with motherhood. “My whole focus turned to getting pregnant,” she says. “And every month that it didn’t happen, my obsession got worse.” After losing another baby at 10 weeks, Sharon was desperate. A trip to a fertility clinic with her husband, Derek, revealed she had high levels of follicle-stimulating hormones. It meant she was less likely to get, and stay, pregnant and would need in-vitro fertilization (IVF). But the $6,000 price tag was too much for the couple, who were already struggling to manage a mortgage. So Sharon took a friend’s advice and made an appointment with an acupuncturist. After four sessions, she was rewarded with a positive pregnancy test. Her acupuncturist immediately put her on a “miscarriage prevention” program that included needles and Chinese herbs designed to strengthen her uterus. And although she constantly worried about losing the baby, Sharon found the treatments painless and soothing. “Acupuncture was just so healing for me, emotionally and physically,” she says. In March, her daughter, Mackenzie, was born — and Sharon plans to resume the treatment when she tries for baby number two.
While Canadian fertility clinics help about 3,000 people a year become parents, many couples find conventional treatments like IVF, intrauterine insemination (IUI) and ovulatory drugs too invasive, too stressful or way too expensive. Like Sharon and Derek, some are seeking alternatives, whether it’s acupuncture or exercise, to boost their baby-making odds. “I think acupuncture, exercise therapy, counselling and yoga are all very positive,” says Seang Lin Tan, the doctor who launched the Montreal Reproductive Centre last year. In response to requests from patients, his offerings include acupuncture, yoga, nutrition counselling and other alternative approaches to fertility. “Anything that can reduce stress will improve success rates,” he says. So if you’ve had to put your nursery planning on hold because of fertility issues or simply want to increase your pregnancy odds, here are four alternative treatments that have successfully helped other people become parents.
Fertility booster 1: Diet and supplements
Lisa Brown* knew getting pregnant was going to be tough. The 38-year-old from Toronto has polycystic-ovary syndrome (PCOS) — a condition that leads to unbalanced hormones, ovarian cysts and fertility problems — and she gets her period only a few times a year. Before two frustrating years of trying to get pregnant on her own, she got a prescription for the ovulation-stimulation drug clomiphene. She tried it for a month but didn’t get the results she’d hoped for and was bothered by the side effects. “I had horrible cramps, I was emotional — it was awful,” she says. Lisa ditched the drug and told her troubles to Judith Fiore, a Toronto-based naturopath who devotes her practice to couples trying to conceive. Fiore put Lisa on a gluten-free diet (explaining that gluten could be triggering inflammation in her body and affecting her ovaries), as well as supplements containing healthy oils high in omega-3s, such as flax seed and sesame, to help balance her hormones. Right away, Lisa started feeling strong and energized. “I felt great,” Lisa recalls. After eight months, she became pregnant with her son, Anthony, who’s now two.
So how does what you eat affect fertility? In an attempt to find out, Harvard researchers looked at data from the Nurses’ Health Study, which followed over 18,000 U.S. nurses for eight years. Researchers discovered those who ate a diet high in whole grains, plant-based proteins and full-fat dairy products and low in trans fats had fewer fertility problems. The authors think this healthy diet (with regular exercise) lowers insulin levels, which in turn helps balance hormones to ensure regular ovulation. The study inspired the book The Fertility Diet, which offers suggestions on how to eat better for a future baby, such as cutting down on red meats by ditching beef for beans, checking for trans fats on labels and keeping your body mass index (BMI) in the “fertility zone” of between 20 and 24.
To give a fertility-friendly diet a further boost, Fiore has her clients over age 35 take a daily dose of the co-enzyme Q10. This antioxidant works on the cellular level to improve egg quality, which is often a problem for older moms-to-be. Many naturopaths also recommend supplements with royal jelly — a liquid secreted by bees that enables a bee to transform into a healthy queen. (As a bonus, animal studies link the supplements to longevity, lower blood pressure and better energy levels.) Meanwhile, there’s some evidence for the fertility-enhancing powers of the natural hormone DHEA (which you can buy in supplement form) in boosting egg production. Tan recommends it to many of his patients. “There isn’t enough data yet to prove its usefulness, but it appears to be helpful and cause no harm, except for some minor side effects like acne, hair loss or stomach upset in a small proportion of women,” he says. The general rule of thumb is the higher the dose, the greater the chance for side effects, so make sure you take it while under the supervision of a medical professional.
Because getting pregnant is a two-person job, men also benefit from paying attention to what they put in their bodies. Fiore uses an IV drip to give guys a vitamin cocktail of C, B6 and B12, zinc and other nutrients once a week for 10 weeks — all to enhance sperm health. Also on the supplement shelf for would-be dads are omega-3 fatty acids, which one study from the University of Illinois shows can help male fertility, and the amino acid L-arginine, which boosts sperm count and quality.
Fertility booster 2: Acupuncture
Like Sharon in Alberta, Quebec pop superstar Celine Dion was struggling to get pregnant. At age 41, she’d undergone five rounds of IVF and had just had a miscarriage when she heard about Montreal acupuncturist Aina Zhang and her work with women undergoing fertility treatments. Dion flew Zhang down to Florida (where her eggs were retrieved) and then to New York (where she had her egg transfer) for daily acupuncture sessions. Zhang then continued to treat her weekly for the next few months to help protect the pregnancy. We all know the end of that well-publicized story: Healthy twin boys Nelson and Eddy were born that October.
Acupuncture has had more than anecdotal success: A 2007 review of seven trials found it improved IVF success rates. But, as with many alternative fertility treatments, the research tends to be contradictory. (Another review in 2010 by the British Fertility Society concluded acupuncture didn’t change pregnancy rates.)
Albert Yuzpe, doctor and co-director of the Genesis Fertility Centre in Vancouver, often refers IVF patients for acupuncture — not necessarily because they’re more likely to end up with a baby, though. “The patients who do it feel better, and that’s good,” he says. Despite contradictory evidence on the science side, and skepticism from some mainstream medical professionals, Zhang estimates she’s helped more than 400 women get pregnant over the last three years using acupuncture on its own or in combination with IVF. “Even when doctors can’t find a problem and someone has unexplained infertility, using traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture can often help improve the chance of pregnancy,” says Zhang. She uses the practice to work on energy channels in the body and harmonize those that are weak with those that are working too hard. “We try to balance out the organs so they cooperate better to help get you pregnant,” she says. According to Zhang, acupuncture also increases blood flow to the uterus (making it a more hospitable home for a fertilized egg) and can help men with sperm quality and quantity. A study of 28 patients in China found five weeks of treatment led to more (and better) sperm in men with diagnosed fertility problems.
Fertility booster 3: Therapy
When you’ve decided you want a baby and suddenly find yourself faced with the prospect that it may not happen, it can be highly stressful and emotionally devastating. That stress often triggers a physical chain reaction in your body that may make having a baby even harder. “Chronic stress depletes your body of nutrients,” says Fiore. “It can really compromise a woman’s fertility.” In 2009, Swiss researchers analyzed 21 previous studies and concluded that treatment for mental-health problems, such as depression and anxiety, increased pregnancy rates for couples. Toronto fertility counsellor Cecile Barington is so convinced that a healthy state of mind is a prerequisite to procreation that she works almost exclusively with couples trying to conceive. Barington’s therapy combines talking, exercise and meditation. “The focus of the program is to help women regain a sense of control over their lives and to get happy,” she says. “When we do that, things start to work better.” Barington sees only women who’ve been trying to have a baby for years, and yet she charts a 65-percent pregnancy rate. She attributes the success of her program to the fact that it makes her clients healthier by relieving their stress and giving them power to take better care of themselves. Plus, she says, women tend to have more sex when they feel good.
Fertility booster 4: Qigong
Sischa Maharaj had painful periods her whole life, but it wasn’t until she struggled to get pregnant at the age of 28 that she learned she had endometriosis. A fertility doctor in Toronto adjusted her diet, put her on medication, booked her for laser surgery to reduce her endometriosis — and had her enrol in Jean Lie’s qigong (pronounced chee-KUNG) fertility program. Qigong is a form of exercise that resembles tai chi, but with fewer movements. “The idea is to get the body moving so you can clear out whatever your blockages are,” says Lie. When you lift a blockage — just as in acupuncture — you restore health. Lie starts classes with simple movements like lifting the arms overhead in an arc. Students repeat the moves many times with eyes closed. When it comes to targeting fertility, this very simple practice is done daily for five to 10 minutes at a time. Lie says she cured her own pelvic-health problems with the exercise, so she draws women with similar health concerns to her classes. About a quarter of her clients have fertility problems — and about 25 percent of them get pregnant following the program.
“One thing that happens to these women is they do the practice and they feel better,” Lie says. “They also have more energy and start making changes that are effective, such as eating better and going to bed earlier — and that helps too,” she says. Sischa started attending Lie’s qigong fertility class in August 2008 — and she had her reservations. Sometimes she’d open her eyes to see the other women making strange movements and wonder if she was doing it wrong. Then, one day, she was suddenly struck with a terrible pain — the kind she got during her period. “You will get pregnant, I feel it,” Lie told her as she helped her work through the pain. Sischa began to love the practice — it made her feel calm and she started doing it at home every day to help her relax after a hectic day. Then, 12 weeks into the classes, right when she was about to undergo another insemination and just weeks before her scheduled endometriosis surgery, Sischa discovered she was pregnant. Shyla is now two and Sischa and her husband, Raymond, had a second baby, Kaila, who’s six months old. “For me, doing qigong taught me that getting pregnant is a lot more than just the physical parts of semen and uterus and tubes,” says Sischa. “It has a lot to do with your energy, having a positive attitude and a healthy approach to preparing yourself for pregnancy.”
Five fertility tricks you can try at home
1. Cut out the vices: Alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine reduce male and female fertility — and they’re not healthy for a fetus either. Even second-hand smoke is linked to fertility problems and miscarriage.
2. Have sex: No, really. Many clients who have had fertility treatments for years find “sex isn’t on the radar anymore,” says Cecile Barington, a Toronto-based fertility counsellor. Regular sex doesn’t just increase your chances of getting pregnant; one study found men who ejaculate regularly have healthier sperm.
3. Make it hot: Research shows men may ejaculate 50 percent more sperm when they are having a good time — and when women orgasm during sex, it puts sperm closer to the cervix, increasing the chance of conception. If your libido is lagging, pick up some racy videos or sex toys or consult a couples therapist for help.
4. Check your juices: Some fertility experts discourage women from charting their body temperatures to find out when they’re ovulating: It’s a time-consuming process that isn’t always accurate. Instead, check the discharge in your vagina every day. (When it’s clear and slippery and looks like an egg white, you’re fertile, and it’s time for sex.)
5. Prioritize sleep: Your reproductive system is on a cycle linked to your circadian rhythm, so logging more hours between the sheets is important. (One study found shift workers have a higher miscarriage rate due in part to their disrupted sleep patterns.) To ensure longer, better sleep, keep your bedroom totally dark, turn off the CrackBerry and go to bed at the same time every day.
Do you know someone who has had success with alternative fertility treatments? Please share your stories here.