This week is National Infertility Awareness Week. The universally accepted definition of infertility is being unable to conceive after one year of unprotected sex with no birth control, regardless of cause. In the last 50 years sperm production has dropped by 50%. Recent research has showed an increase from 1 in 6 to 1 in 8 women who meet this definition and 1 in 10 men. So what has contributed to this increase in infertility and drop in sperm production?
Causes of infertility
From a naturopathic viewpoint, infertility is caused by a combination of toxicity and dehydration at cellular level. This leads to stagnation and hormonal imbalances. A study led by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health showed that making five or more lifestyle changes, can reduce the chances of infertility due to ovulation disorders by up to 80%!
So, let’s take a look at some of the factors that can contribute to this increased toxicity, dehydration and stagnation at the cellular level and how we can overcome them.
Our toxic environment
In today’s world we are bombarded with hormones and chemicals on a daily basis. They appear in our dairy produce, in our farmed meat and fish and in our water supply. Phytoestrogens such as unfermented and non-organic soy can mimic oestrogen. There is a whole host of research now showing that plastic packaging leaches oestrogen mimicking chemicals into our foods and drinks. Stimulants such as caffeine, cigarettes and sugar can also affect the balance of our hormones. So these statistics come as no surprise.
Add in the pollution in the air that we breathe in every day. And then add in the toxicity from heavy metals, moulds and the use of chemical products we use. We can start to see how toxicity can build up in the body and dehydrate us. It’s the liver’s job to break down both toxins and hormones and eliminate them. However, the world in which we live now is so far removed from nature that our poor livers are overworked!
So first we need to tackle hydration through clean water, staying away from those oestrogen mimicking plastic bottles! (See my blog post on water). We can add to this with fluids like linseed tea and soaked foods (such as nuts, seeds and grains). It is key is to remove anything in our control that may cause us to lose water, such as diuretics like tea and coffee, alcohol, fizzy drinks, gluten and dairy.
Stress also causes us to lose water so this is where learning some good stress reduction techniques can help. Techniques include yoga, breathing, mindfulness or a spiritual practice such as chanting.
If what we eat and drink makes us, our hormones, our blood, sperm, eggs, and so on. Then, obviously nutrition plays a crucial factor in our reproductive ability. Therefore, nutrition of course must be addressed first. We live in a world of fast food and processed foods which have little nutritional value and will not help us in our quest to conquer infertility.
So, a good pre-conceptual plan should look at moving someone away from processed and phytoestrogens towards a whole food diet. From there, you can gradually building up the amount of raw foods that someone can tolerate. Raw foods have a great cleansing ability for those who do not have digestive issues. (For anyone with digestive issues, fixing the gut first is key, so that we can obtain maximum nutrition for us and baby.) We can then start to use what we are eating, together with supplementation, to obtain the vital nutrients that are needed to be able to conceive. Once someone has transitioned over to a whole foods diet, we can then start to use certain foods and fluids to allow the cells to release toxicity.
In the pre-conception phase key nutrients include:
Which increases fertility in men and women by helping stabilise hormonal balance. It is also an antioxidant, helping prevent against free radical damage which can affect sperm, egg and also foetus. Other important antioxidants include vitamins A, E and C and selenium.
EPA and DHA
These are types of essential Fatty Acids critical for sperm production, hormonal balance and cell growth and repair. It should be noted that on a vegan diet EPA and DHA cannot be obtained from food. Also, some people have difficulty converting the essential fatty acid ALA found in plant based sources to EPA and DHA. So, any factors that inhibit the conversion such as trans fats, alcohol consumption, sugar intake and stress should be avoided. (See my blog about vegan sources of essential fatty acids.)
Zinc is essential for building healthy sperm and eggs, cell division necessary for reproduction and for allowing the egg to implant in the womb.
No doubt everyone has heard of folic acid in pregnancy. Folate is the natural, more bioavailable form and adequate levels of folate. It is important for the reduction of homocysteine, which has been shown to be high in women who have miscarried. Sources include spinach, broccoli and liver. A good supplemental dose would be 800mcg a day.
This is critical for healthy contractions and will help develop the foetus and can be started during the preconception phase, so as not to suddenly produce a cleansing effect on the cells during pregnancy. It can be found in leafy greens and nuts and seeds such as cashews, brazil nuts and pumpkin seeds. A good supplemental dose would be 2 x 100mg magnesium citrate capsules before bed.
These are vital for the production of healthy sex hormones and sprouting is an excellent way to introduce them into the diet naturally as sprouting exponentially increases the B vitamin content of what you are sprouting. For example, soaking and then sprouting mung beans increases their B vitamin content by up to 285%! Sprouts also provide us with live enzymes and that raw cleansing aspect.
Calcium and iron
Iron and calcium are also critical for the mother’s blood supply to the baby, so it’s a good idea to increase these naturally through foods. Calcium in particular is better delivered through vegan sources such as sesame seeds, tahini, almonds, hazelnut, kale, hemp seeds, buckwheat and sea vegetables and when we eat a good balanced diet high in these types of food there is no need for supplementation of calcium. Iron can be found in salmon, meat, seaweeds, soaked nuts and seeds, soaked whole grains, leafy green vegetables and avocados. (See my vegan blog for more information about getting optimum calcium and iron levels on a vegan diet).
Selenium, arginine and acetyl l-carnitine
These also help in the quantity, quality and function of sperm.
So a good idea, along with increasing these nutrients in our diet, would be to take a good quality multivitamin and mineral (see “Purposeful Supplementation”), a good omega 3 formula such as krill oil, 200mg magnesium citrate before bed, an antioxidant combination and 30mg zinc. However, everyone is individual, so it is best to work with a practitioner to decide exact requires for supplementation. Also, the rate at which supplements are introduced will depend upon how well someone’s liver is cleansing, which is established through a full case history, as throwing supplements at a situation can put further work on a sometimes already overworked liver.
Factors such as how much sleep we get per night is also crucial. For us to maintain optimum health and wellbeing we need to be getting rid of the toxicity we take in on a daily basis. Our bodies are designed to cleanse when we sleep and we do the most cleansing between 10pm and 3am, which is all the more reason for us to get an early night! Factors such as shift-working or the introduction of blue light into our retinas from TV screens, strip lighting, computers, ipads or phones, for example, can affect our ability to produce melatonin, our sleep hormone. This too can disrupt our ability to cleanse. Other lifestyle factors that can affect our ability to cleanse at night include how much natural daylight we get straight into our retinas (we need at least 20 minutes a day), exercise and fresh air.
Whilst exercise is of course essential to health and wellbeing, excessive exercise can be detrimental due to the fact that it can produce excessive endorphins which can interfere with the reproductive hormones. Jogging during a pre-conceptual plan can be detrimental for this reason, as can cycling in tight fitting man-made fibres which creates excess heat in the gynae area leading to increased stagnation there. Moderate to vigorous walking for half an hour 4 or 5 times a week is a great solution to exercise.
There is growing research on the toxic effects of electromagnetic frequencies on our bodies, yet wi-fi, Bluetooth and other wireless technologies that emit these strong fields surrounds us every day. People place their laptops or ipads on their laps and we keep our mobile phones next to our bodies, often near our reproductive area. Even x-rays and body scanners such as those in airports can have an effect on our systems. Microwaves are common place but the frequencies they emit denature the foods and fluids we place in them and render them toxic to the body, as opposed to nutrient giving.
Add in factors such as ongoing stress which disrupts our ability to absorb nutrients from our food, dehydrates us and inhibits the production of sex hormones and we have a perfect storm which then makes this increase in infertility unsurprising.
The pre-conception plan
So it is clear why building a great pre-conceptual plan is key and preparing the body to rehydrate and cleanse. Where time is of the essence due to age, a pre-conception programme should last for a minimum of around 3-6 months. However, the optimal time for this is two years. It is absolutely key during this time that the potential mum-to-be does not try to get pregnant, as cleansing is not advised during pregnancy due to the danger of toxicity releasing into the foetus and endangering its survival. It’s a good idea to keep things stable throughout pregnancy, so introducing cleansing foods and supplements should be done ahead of conception, not during.
So a good plan should look at reducing exposure to toxic substances and foods, improving our liver’s ability to detoxify by introducing naturopathic techniques such as liver packing and hydrotherapy techniques such as sitz baths to remove congestion in the reproductive system, improving lifestyle factors such as sleep, stress, fresh air, daylight and exercise and limiting exposure to electromagnetic frequencies as much as possible. And it should focus on the potential dad to be, as well as mum, as the ability to reproduce will hinge on both of their nutrient profiles, levels of dehydration and toxicity.