Complementary and Alternative Approaches to Boosting Fertility
Getting pregnant, or even thinking about getting pregnant, can be one of life’s most thrilling—and stressful—experiences, particularly if you’re trying to get a handle on your fertility. Jill Blakeway—a clinical herbalist and doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine—helps her patients at the YinOva Center in New York City navigate the many lifestyle, dietary, complementary, and alternative approaches to supporting reproductive health. (She’s also the coauthor of Making Babies: A Proven 3-Month Program for Maximum Fertility.)
Blakeway’s primary mechanism for providing holistical support for patients and their partners is identifying potential roadblocks to conception. It’s highly individual; and some paths are supported by biomedicine research and some by more anecdotal evidence. But in her two decades of experience, Blakeway has identified a toolbox that every woman can pull from to optimize reproductive health—and sanity throughout the process. Blakeway reminds her patients that you don’t have to be stress-free to get pregnant (no one would ever be pregnant if that was the case). So, “Don’t stress about being stressed,” Blakeway says. “Give yourself permission to do one thing a day to get you’re mind off of getting pregnant!”
We rounded out Blakeway’s advice with some of the resources and apps that goop staffers have found helpful pre-pregnancy.
Lifestyle and Dietary Approaches
I approach diagnosing each of my patients through the lens of Chinese and holistic medicine. It’s important to identify the specific issues of each individual coming in, in addition to looking at their significant other. When I meet with a couple, I try to identify any imbalances or lifestyle issues that are stacking up against them. There are a few things that can be beneficial for anyone wanting to boost their fertility, such as:
- Pre-mester program: One of the first things I address is cleaning up patients’ diets and lifestyle to support a healthy, natural conception and pregnancy. We developed a pre-mester program, which I liken to a “fertility bootcamp,” based on your “fertility type.” I’ve identified five overarching types: dry, tired, pale, stuck, and waterlogged. I ask patients and their significant others to take an online quiz to determine which of the five fertility types they fall under. Based on where they land, and other individual factors, I give them their own unique program.
- Weight: Maintaining a healthy weight is essential. I always explain to my patients that there’s a broad range of healthy weights. According to the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, roughly 12 percent of infertility cases can be traced to weight problems—under and overweight—in women. In my practice, we’ve seen that a moderate weight adjustment—either losing 10 percent or adding 10 percent of your body weight—often does the trick.
- Excess weight can cause women to produce too much estrogen, which is made and stored in fat cells. The more fat cells, the more estrogen, and having too much makes you less likely to ovulate. Often times, being overweight can contribute to irregular cycles, which can make you miss your ovulation. In addition to estrogen increase, women who are overweight often have a surge of the male hormone androgen, which can also stop ovulation.
- Being underweight can also interfere with conception. It can lead to a condition called hypothalamic amenorrhea, which is when your periods stop. Similar to women who are overweight, those who are underweight often don’t produce enough estrogen. I encourage underweight women to put on a small amount of weight—two or three pounds can make a difference—in combination with using Chinese herbs. This program can help jump-start their periods.
- Food: When patients are having trouble getting pregnant, I ask about their diet. I’ve often found those who are dieting are missing major food groups, which can contribute to infertility. You need fat and carbs to make a baby, so it’s not good to refrain from certain food groups.
- Eat: whole grains, colorful fruits, alkaline foods (i.e., plenty of veggies), healthy fats, protein, and plenty of water (women who are dehydrated produce less fertile cervical mucus and their vaginal mucus often tends to be too concentrated and acidic).
- Avoid: processed foods, refined sugars (blood sugar fluctuations effect hormones), and heavy metals (mercury in fish like tuna, and cadmium in fish like shellfish). If I suspect a patient has a heavy metal contamination, I send them to an MD for testing. In addition to following the pre-mester program, I suggest cutting back on eating fish, or sourcing fish products with lower mercury levels. I also recommend detoxifying herbs that assist the liver and kidneys detox from heavy metals, which typically return to healthy levels within 3 months.
- Caffeine: Limit yourself to one normal to small-sized cup a day. Drinking too much caffeine—even decaf—can be a problem because it can decrease blood flow to the uterus and interfere with implantation. Also, because of its acidity, it can make fertile cervical mucus too acidic.
- Alcohol: Although alcohol research in fertility is a little mixed, I always remind people that the French get pregnant perfectly happily, as do the Italians. You don’t need to completely give up alcohol. Drink in moderation. I suggest limiting yourself to five drinks a week (or less) is okay.
- Smoking: Quitting smoking is a big component of our pre-mester program. According to studies, in comparison to non-smokers, heavy smokers are 3.4 times more likely to take more than a year to get pregnant, and they have a greater risk of miscarriage. Nicotine and other toxins in cigarette smoke deplete blood flow to the uterus and the placenta, which can cause implantation problems and miscarriage.
- Exercise: Regular and moderate exercise (three to five times a week) is good, but it’s important not to overdo it. Don’t exercise to exhaustion. Intense exercise can affect your weight and period. If you’re looking to conceive, avoid impact exercises after ovulation. Swap the treadmill for the elliptical.
- Medication: Both prescription and over the counter medications can impede pregnancy, so be mindful of what you’re taking. Consult your doctors to make sure any medications you’re taking aren’t impacting your fertility. For example, antihistamines can dry up cervical mucus and prevent the sperm from being able to reach the egg. Other potentially problematic medications include anti-inflammatory medications, which can disrupt ovulation, and blood pressure medications, which in men can lower sperm counts.
- Western testing: In addition to holistic methods, there are many Western methods for assessing fertility that can be helpful. Such tests include ultrasounds, HSG test (hysterosalpingography, which tests for blocked fallopian tubes), genetic testing, testing for any blood clotting issues that may stop implantation, immune testing, and many others which I describe more fully in my book.
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
Chinese herbal medicine and other supplemental therapies have proven successful for women trying to conceive. Chinese medicine has been used for over 2,000 years to enhance fertility, and for a good reason—it works! I use acupuncture in conjunction with Chinese herbal medicine and various other methods to prepare women to conceive. It’s important to remember that while these methods can be very helpful, there is no single, sure-fire way to get pregnant.
- Acupuncture: This ancient technique is a popular method, with strong scientific evidence supporting its benefits. It brings blood to the ovaries, improves circulation to the uterus to promote good uterine lining, balances hormones, reduces inflammation, can offset the effects of stress on hormones, and increases the efficacy of assistive reproductive techniques. I remind people that it’s important to also find an acupuncturist who specializes in fertility issues.
- Chinese herbal medicine: Typically used alongside acupuncture, CHM can be extremely useful. I caution those interested in using it to consult a board-certified herbalist before starting. People often come to me after having taken an herbal preparation that they found on the internet, believing it will increase their fertility. Unfortunately, there’s no specific fertility herb; rather, different herbs used to help address different issues. The proper use of Chinese medicine requires a sophisticated and individually tailored approach for each patient, depending on their patterns and where they are in the cycle. Specific herbs can help reduce inflammation, build uterine lining, prepare people for IVF, or solve specific problems in a cycle. (For example, when there are imbalances in a patient’s basal body temperature chart, herbs can be extremely helpful.)
- Supplements: Similar to Chinese herbal medicine, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to supplements. We suggest a variety of supplements in our clinic. I think everyone benefits from taking a good prenatal, essential fatty acids, a probiotic, vitamin D, and possibly B-vitamins and CoQ10.
- Massage: We have Mayan fertility massages at the clinic and teach patients self-massage techniques.
- Pelvic physical therapy: This can be particularly helpful for patients who are experiencing blocked tubes or clipped uteri.
- Hypnotherapy: If I sense a patient has a psychological impediment to getting pregnant—such as a fear of having kids—I sometimes refer them to a hypnotherapist.
Resources and Support
Getting pregnant can be very stressful, especially for women who are struggling with infertility. Because of that, support during this time is essential. Many of those who are struggling remain quiet about their issues, and may not even tell even their families or close friends. A lot of the women we see at the center are also struggling with issues of perfectionism. We remind them that they don’t have to be perfect—no one is—and we coach them through it with love.
There are a variety of ways a patient can be supported during this time. For example:
- Support groups: Infertility often puts people’s marriages or relationships under pressure, so having a support system is critical. This might be a therapist or a support group, like the one we host at YinOva Center.
- [Editor’s Note: We love LOOM and Pure Nurture. Resolve (The National Infertility Association) is another great resource.]
- Websites: You can check the success rates of doctors and reproductive endocrinologists on the CDC website. It’s important to find a doctor you like, who makes you feel comfortable, addresses your concerns, and who takes the time to explains things.
Techniques and Tracking Fertility
Tracking your fertility on apps or with devices can be extremely helpful in conceiving. I’m a fan of using basal body temperature, and I’ve found that apps that track your discharge can also be helpful.
- Basal body temperature: I use this diagnostic tool a lot in my practice. A BBT thermometer records your temperature in smaller increments, compared to a traditional thermometer, and produces a basal body temperature chart. The patient takes their temperature at the same time daily, and the thermometer keeps track of this information. This chart gives us key information about the patient’s ovulation cycle, when they’re ovulating, and how long the luteal phase of their menstrual cycle is. I look at my patients’ charts weekly, checking for any deviation in temperature. If there is any deviation, I use herbs, acupuncture, or lifestyle interventions to rebalance.
- Discharge app: It’s important to have sex at the right time of the month. Learn to recognize the different types of mucus depending on where you are in your cycle. A lot of my patients are having sex at the wrong time. Your most fertile day is your last day of egg white cervical mucus (i.e., fertile cervical mucus) which occurs before ovulation. This occurs about two weeks before your next expected period, or between days eleven and twenty-one of your cycle. The mucus has a higher water content, so it looks a bit like uncooked egg whites; on dark underwear, it tends to make a little circle rather than a spread out oblong. Teaching my patients to identify cervical mucus has been the single most helpful intervention in my practice.
- [Editor’s Note: We like the Clue App .]
- Ovulation predictor kits: These test the luteinizing hormone. When you see a positive on an ovulation predictor kit, you’ll probably ovulate within 24 to 48 hours. It’s important to have the sperm there ahead of the egg, so it’s best to have sex the day you see the sign or the day after.
- [Editor’s Note: We’ve heard great reveiws of MyFLO app.]
Male fertility is an issue and discussion that often goes unaddressed. It’s important to explore since a male’s lifestyle choices can have a big impact on a patient’s chances of conceiving.
- Pre-mester: Have your partner take the quiz to determine their fertility type. Both men and women may benefit from the pre-mester program before conceiving.
- Sperm: Men make new sperm every day that come into fruition in seventy-two days. This means, they can change their reproductive status quickly depending on their lifestyle. It’s harder for women to affect egg quality in the same way.
- Avoid alcohol: It’s toxic to sperm and drinking too much can reduce sperm quality and motility. Men who drink a lot often have lower testosterone. Reduce drinking to nine or fewer drinks per week.
- Smoking: Smoking can decrease sperm counts and make sperm more sluggish.
- Exercise: Similar to women, men benefit from exercise in moderation. So long as it’s not taken to extremes.
- Electronic devices: Research shows men who sit with laptops on their knees increase the temperature in their testicles by 2.8 degrees centigrade. Evidence from the American Society of Reproductive Medicine Conference in 2006 also suggested that men who use their phones for more than four hours a day have lower sperm counts and more abnormal sperm. If your partner does either for extended periods of time, it’s worth suggesting to him that he swap to a landline periodically.
Emotional and Psychological Approaches
Many women who are struggling with infertility experience stress. Even before patients start to try to get pregnant, they may already feel pressure from outside sources asking when they’re going to have a baby, etc. Given the heightened feelings and anxiety often involved in conception, getting the emotional support you need is key. As previously mentioned, support groups or therapy can be extremely helpful. When searching for a therapist, try to find someone who understands the pressures of infertility.
And give yourself permission to do daily activities that reduce your stress and are fun. Acupuncture is a method that’s proven very helpful in decreasing stress for many. Try to pick up one stress-relieving activity a day, whether that’s yoga, meditation, walking, or whatever helps take your mind off of it. Remember, we’re all a little stressed, so don’t get stressed about being stressed! You don’t have to be completely stress-free to get pregnant. That said, we are programmed, from an evolutionary perspective to have fewer babies in times of famine and war. Sadly, we mimic those conditions in our modern lives too well, so reducing stress can be very helpful.
Jill Blakeway, LAc, DACM, is an acupuncturist and clinical herbalist who specializes in fertility and Chinese medicine. In 1999, Blakeway founded the YinOva Center, an alternative health service for women in New York City, where she remains the clinic director alongside her husband. Blakeway is the co-author of Making Babies: A Proven 3-Month Program for Maximum Fertility and The Fertility Plan: A Proven Three-Month Programme to Help You Conceive Naturally. Prior to developing her own practice, Blakeway worked in hospitals and founded the acupuncture program at the NYU Lutheran Medical Center. In addition to her practice, she teaches gynecology and obstetrics at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies. They are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop. This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.