Infertility - it’s not a misconception!

by Michelle Edwards, Healthy Life Naturopath & Nutritionist

Making babies is easy, right? For many couples, this is not the case.

Australian research suggests that  15-18% of couples are infertile. Roughly half is attributable to male (sperm) problems and the other 50% attributable to the female.

While many may choose to go down the path of ART (assisted reproductive technology), there is much that can be done to help couples conceive naturally or improve their outcomes when using ART.

Dad’s to be

Numerous factors have been linked to decreased sperm quality, resulting in fertility issues.

Smoking It has been shown that smoking has harmful effects on semen quality. While one study showed little difference between smokers and non-smokers in traditional semen parameters (sperm concentration, motility and morphology), the sperm of smokers was found to have significantly higher levels of sperm DNA damage, which has been shown to increase the risk of miscarriage.

Diet and obesity Poor diet and obesity have also been shown to reduce sperm quality and quantity. Men carrying increased body fat levels were found to have more scrotal fat which results in a slightly higher testicular temperature, reducing sperm production and quality. 

Deficiencies Inadequate zinc intake can impair sperm development and may also impact on testosterone production, reducing sex drive. Lack of vitamin C from a diet low in fresh fruit and vegetables may cause the sperm to ‘clump’ together, slowing or preventing their movement.

Essential ingredients for healthy sperm A diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and pulses provides a variety of vitamins and minerals, essential fatty acids, antioxidants and phytonutrients beneficial to general and sperm health. 

Research shows vitamins A, C, E, B12 and folic acid and the minerals zinc and selenium are essential for healthy sperm. Deficiency in any of these key nutrients can impact on sperm production, count, motility, morphology and affect the integrity of the genetic material (DNA) being passed on.

Helpful herbs Traditionally, herbs such as tribulus, damiana, saw palmetto and horny goat weed have been used to increase a man’s ‘potency’ and fertility and may be beneficial for those who find their sex drive is lower than normal or in those of more advanced age (over 40).

Supplements, in conjunction with a healthy diet, can help boost your chances of a healthy pregnancy. However, as sperm production takes around 72 days, men need to work on optimising their sperm health for around three months prior to conception.

Mum’s the word

Unlike men who produce sperm 24/7, 365 days a year, the length of time a woman is fertile can literally be measured in hours per cycle, so this small window for fertilisation can be missed, particularly if your cycle is shorter or longer than average.

Menstrual cycles The herb chaste tree is particularly beneficial in regulating cycle length and may also be beneficial in reducing some of the other common symptoms associated with periods such as PMT mood swings, irritability, breast tenderness, cramping, premenstrual headaches, bloating and fluid retention. 

Increasing vitamin B6 through diet and/or supplements may also benefit, particularly in the second half of the cycle where it can also assist with stabilising moods, reduce breast pain and swelling and minimise fluid retention associated with hormonal change.

The traditional Chinese herb dong quai may also help with regulating cycle length and reducing PMT symptoms and is especially beneficial in women who have scanty periods but still feel exhausted or those that have copious and clotted periods.

Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) As with men, diet and lifestyle factors can negatively affect a woman’s ability to ovulate and sustain a healthy pregnancy. In women, the most common cause of infertility is PCOS, accounting for nearly 75% of infertility cases.

Diet and exercise Diet plays a very important role in the management of PCOS. Weight loss from as little as 5kg can help with regulating menstrual cycles and resuming ovulation.  However, weight loss for women with PCOS can often be difficult. The emphasis needs to be on stabilising and reducing insulin production through foods that require little or no insulin secretion, such as protein combined with low GI vegetables and fruits.

Exercise is a significant factor for general health and fertility. One major study found that vigorous exercise performed for 20-30 minutes three times per week increased fertility, even in overweight people.

What supplements can help? Chromium, magnesium, cinnamon and gymnema have proven beneficial in the management of insulin resistance and assist in the treatment of PCOS. Licorice and spearmint may also benefit in the management of PCOS symptoms. Research has shown they assist in reducing testosterone levels.

Despite having access to an abundance of good food in Australia, more than 50% of pregnant women fail to meet the recommended dietary intake levels of calcium, magnesium, iodine, iron, folate, vitamin D, vitamin E and Omega-3. As with sperm, the egg/ovum takes several months to develop prior to ovulation. An adequate supply of nutrients will ensure the best quality egg.

Use of a pre-natal multivitamin for three months prior to conception and for the first three months after conception reduces the risk of birth defects by a massive 70%.

More than 50% of pregnant women fail to meet recommended dietary intake levels.