Having difficulty getting pregnant?
Complementary therapies are often prescribed for unexplained infertility, as these techniques not only assist in regulating the menstrual cycle and invigorating sperm but also serve to enhance the whole body.
World Health Organization figures suggest that approximately 80,000,000 people worldwide experience infertility, with unexplained (idiopathic) infertility affecting approximately 10 to 15 per cent of that figure. Infertility is generally indicated after a couple have been unable to conceive or sustain a pregnancy within two years of regular (twice-weekly) unprotected sexual intercourse. The reasons for this inability can be physical or structural; ranging from endometriosis to hormone imbalance, sperm motility problems or blocked fallopian tubes. Unexplained infertility is diagnosed when no physical or structural reason for the couple’s inability to conceive is found.
Idiopathic infertility is a diagnosis that can become not just a physical difficulty but an emotional one as well, impacting on not only a couple’s relationship but also individual identity. People with infertility problems can experience a wide range of emotions from mild to devastating. It can impact on self-esteem and corrupt a sense of sexuality. So often associated with masculinity in the male and femininity in the female, fertility can have an effect on the core of who we are and how we imagine we are perceived. There is also the issue of control. When the decision to procreate or not is taken from us it can become a source of great distress, particularly when there seems to be no known reason.
While mainstream medicine suggests that patients with unexplained infertility fall into two groups — those couples who have no fertility problems but are simply unlucky and those for whom the reason for their infertility is so subtle it cannot be detected — there is emerging evidence to suggest that in many cases the cause for idiopathic infertility may be psychological or emotionally founded.
The stress factor
Stress is one of the most common factors in contemporary health issues with side-effects ranging from headaches, depression, back pain and aggressiveness to lethargy and a depleted immune system. Recent research also indicates that stress may be a major factor in unexplained infertility, particularly when it comes to the physiology of women. Work undertaken by psychologist Dr Alice Domar in the US has shown that women are affected by stress differently from men and that it impacts directly on their reproductive health.
"Stress is a response to a fight-or-flight situation that triggers a small explosion of hormones into our bloodstream," Domar explains. "It is a mechanism that is triggered every day for most women and whether or not it is in response to a real or imagined threat makes no difference to the impact on our bodies. For many women our bodies’ stress reactions become our ‘normal’ way of being and we no longer understand what our triggers are, therefore not really understanding our reactions.
"Now," continues Domar, "we recognise that excessive fight-or-flight harms not only our cardiovascular and immune systems but it can also disrupt women’s hormonal balance and dis-regulate our reproductive systems, contributing to many of our most common health problems."
While it may seem that falling pregnant is easy, as Domar’s research suggests, it actually requires a variety of factors to come together at exactly the right time. A woman is most fertile during mid-cycle ovulation. For women with a regular cycle, ovulation is quite easy to predict, but for women who do not have a regular cycle, fertility cannot be easily anticipated. If ovulation does occur, intercourse should be had for two to three days before as well as on the day ovulation is due to occur. On average, about two-thirds of a teaspoon of seminal fluid containing about 210 to 525 million sperm is expelled on ejaculation. Of this, one-quarter will be abnormal, leaving the rest to attempt the journey to the fallopian tubes and the released egg. Speed of movement is dependent on the acidity of the environment into which they are released.
If there is a problem at any of these moments in the process, conception will be prevented. The endocrine system is a sensitive one that can be altered by the pheromones of other women, illness, stress and diet among other factors. One of the most influential seems to be stress. In any case of infertility, stress is heightened as couples worry constantly about their chances of conceiving and doing everything right in each cycle. In cases of unexplained infertility stress is compounded by the lack of explanation and options.
"In the past and until quite recently," says Nicky Weston, author of Enhancing Fertility Naturally: holistic therapies for a successful pregnancy, "people had little real control over their fertility and couples who did not become pregnant when they wanted a family could do little but accept it. Nowadays, there is more hope for people in this situation, but with hope comes the prospect of treatment stretching out interminably, perhaps involving invasive, embarrassing, costly, damaging and humiliating procedures which may or may not work."
Complementary therapies are often prescribed for unexplained infertility as these techniques not only assist in regulating the menstrual cycle and invigorating sperm but also serve to enhance the whole body. There are many natural therapies, including aromatherapy and herbal treatments,that are recommended for the treatment of infertility in conjunction with other medical reproductive programs and as a source of hope when the infertility is unexplained. Acupuncture is one treatment that seems to be particularly effective in helping couples who may have given up hope or have baulked at the expensive, debilitating and sometimes destructive effects of mainstream infertility treatments.
Recommended by the World Health Organization as a treatment for infertility, acupuncture is a therapy that is at least 5000 years old. In its most basic form, acupuncture can be described as the insertion of very fine needles into the body at prescribed points to alleviate symptoms of illness and emotional distress. It is first recorded in the 4700-year-old Huang di Nei Jing, said to be the oldest medical textbook in the world, in which Shen Ning documents theories about circulation, the pulse and the heart over 4000 years before European medicine had any concept of them.
The treatment of infertility with acupuncture can be traced back as far as 11AD. As the basis of acupuncture, Shen Ning theorised that the body has an energy force running through it. This energy force, known as qi, drives all essential life activities including the spiritual, emotional, mental and physical aspects of life. A person’s overall health and wellbeing are influenced by the flow of qi in their body, so if it is insufficient, unbalanced or interrupted, illness may occur. To treat it, acupuncture helps to block or unblock the flow of qi through the meridians of the body. There are 14 main meridians and 12 organ meridians running up and down the surface of the body carrying the individual’s energy force. Acupuncture helps to restore the balance when it is disturbed.
While knowing that stress may be a significant factor in unexplained infertility, solving the problem is complex and long term. However, anecdotal and limited scientific studies suggest that acupuncture has been quite successful in treating stress and couples with unexplained infertility by aiding in relaxation, thereby creating an environment in which conception is more likely to occur. Research has also shown that acupuncture can directly affect hormone balance and uterine blood flow, enhancing fertility and therefore the chance to conceive.
Conception in Chinese traditional medicine depends on kidney qi (energy) in both the male and female. The kidneys store the "essence" responsible for reproduction, growth and regeneration. Essence is defined as the basic substance constituting the human body and maintaining its functional activities. Our essence comes from that which we inherit from our families and that which we get from food. Importantly, it is also aligned with the uterus, regulating menstruation and foetal nourishment. If the function of the kidneys is weak, irregular periods, amenorrhoea (no periods) and infertility will appear. The kidneys are also associated with controlling water metabolism, receiving energy, and the emotion of fear as well as capacity for sharp thinking and perception. A deficiency or obstruction in the kidney will hinder conception, particularly when caused by liver stagnation, as the liver is responsible for the storage of blood, the breakdown and elimination of hormones, digestion and, crucially for stress, evenness of temperament.
Doctor of Oriental Medicine in the US, Roger Hirsh, says irritability, depression and frustration are keys to liver qi stagnation. "Physical symptoms of irregular periods, PMS, dark-coloured blood with small clots, breast pain with distension, worry with frequent sighing and headaches often accompany the psychological ‘symptoms’.
"Infertility due to liver qi stagnation," he explains, "manifests mostly in women and is a frequent cause of unexplained infertility. Acupuncture at the right time in the menstrual cycle, in conjunction with a herbal formula and counselling, very likely can clear the congestion in several months." Acupuncture is, like many traditional Chinese medicine treatments, concerned with the individual as a whole being rather than just the physical. With this in mind infertility will be treated by your practitioner on many levels, incorporating dietary changes, emotional counselling, relaxation techniques and exercise. All these elements will heighten the effect of acupuncture and help you to maintain control over stress. The mind body connection is a significant one in overcoming unexplained infertility.
For one couple, acupuncture is proving to be an answer to their problems. Libby and her partner have been trying to conceive for two years without success. Libby has had surgery for endometriosis, suffers from an irregular and painful cycle with debilitating breast pain and is extremely stressed. "I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t stressed or anxious. I’ve tried lots of things to alleviate it but nothing worked. Just before I started the acupuncture therapy, I had a panic attack on my way to work. I hadn’t had one of those for years."
For Libby, hormonal problems had been ruled out and she was fairly sure her problems were associated with stress and anxiety. "I used to have quite clear signs of fertility, from ovulation pain to changes in cervical mucus, but I hadn’t experienced either of them for a few years. Libby had also been using a device to check when she was ovulating each month. "I had only once seen the changes in my saliva that would indicate ovulation over a period of about 12 months of use."
While acupuncture treatment for infertility is recommended over a period of several months to precipitate conception, Libby is ecstatic with the difference only three treatments have made. "I have a core of calm now," she says "and while I still get stressed and anxious I feel as if I have more control. The positive self talk works now and I recover more quickly."
Her first menses after her three treatments has also changed. "At 31 days I began menstruating without the physical pain I normally have. And," she continues excitedly, "I’ve ovulated!" Libby’s practitioner is also pleased with her client’s progress, but cautions that there’s a lot of work to do yet. Libby agrees: "I’m really pleased things are going this well, but I do understand I have a way to go yet to clear myself of stress and get a greater level of control over it. I also know we have to prepare properly for pregnancy, so embarking on a program of healthy eating, exercise and the like."
Like so many other women, Libby says she had taken her fertility for granted. But, while her friends and family seemed to fall pregnant quickly and without issue, Libby and her partner began to despair. "I went through a period of being very upset about it," confesses Libby. "I’ve not had a regular cycle for years but if I thought I should have had one and nothing happened, I’d convince myself I was pregnant; two days later my illusions would be shattered. It just had to stop before it impacted on my relationship with my partner. I went to my regular doctor to begin the process of figuring out what was wrong but didn’t really get a sense of confidence. It was not as if they weren’t interested but just that it was a process that had to be gone through that dealt only with our bodies and little else," Libby explains. "I felt that for my partner and me, things were not going to be as simple as a physical difficulty. It’s just a relief to know there is something out there for me that I can gain hope from."
Herbs can have a powerful effect on the body’s hormones and reproductive health but must be used with guidance and care. Some of the herbs that may be prescribed by your therapist for infertility include:
- Chaste berry — This herb stimulates the action of the pituitary gland regulating your menstrual cycle. It’s used to address hormonal imbalances and is recommended to restart the menstrual cycle for women coming off contraceptives like the pill.
- False Unicorn Root — Known as a tonic for the reproductive system of both genders, it’s often prescribed for women as it encourages the production of oestrogen. This herb is also used to treat weaknesses of the uterus and as a treatment for endometriosis.
- Motherwort — Used for the treatment of reproductive disorders where there are emotional issues attached.
- Saw Palmetto Berries — Particularly favoured for the treatment of male infertility, these berries are used to boost sperm count.
- Fleece flower Root — Another herb for the treatment of male infertility, fleece flower root is a Chinese herb also used to increase sperm count.
- Other herbs used to help treat stress as a symptom of infertility are Passiflora, Balm and Scullcap. These are best used as an infusion, in the bath, or taken as a tincture.
This natural treatment, which has been around for thousands of years, uses the healing properties of plants as well as scent to trigger a reaction. The best way to use aromatherapy oils is in massage, in an oil burner or in the bath.
- Rose — This flower has a balancing effect on mood and is recommended to regulate the reproductive system.
- Geranium — This flower is said to balance hormones and to have oestrogenic properties.
- Balm — Useful for menstrual problems particularly when combined with chamomile or rose.
- Chamomile — This is a well-known relaxing herb that’s also recommended for menstrual pain.
- Basil — A reviving oil that may help tone the reproductive system. It’s a strong oil that should be used sparing and infrequently.
- Stress treatments — Those oils perfect for relieving stress include lavender, bergamot, jasmine, neroli, sandalwood and ylang ylang.
If there’s a chance you may already be pregnant, avoid basil and chamomile as well as camphor, caraway, cedar, cinnamon, clary sage, clove, eucalyptus, fennel, hyssop, juniper, marjoram, myrrh, nutmeg, oreganum, peppermint, penny royal, pine, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme and wintergreen.
It is easy, particularly when it comes to mainstream medical treatments for infertility, for lovemaking and a couple’s relationship to become solely focused on the physical side of conception. Yet evidence would indicate that it’s important to maintain your connections with each other and nurture your body, mind and spirit in order to reduce stress and aid conception. Keeping the sensual part of your relationship alive under the pressure of infertility can be difficult, but with the help of natural therapies, conception can be achieved in a loving environment nourishing both parents and child.