Tracy Toon Spencer didn't expect to have trouble getting pregnant. Sure, she was in her late thirties, but she taught yoga, ate well, and had healthy habits. Yet it took her nearly two years to conceive her son. During that time, she took Clomid (a fertility drug that induces ovulation) and ultimately underwent several rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Though her efforts resulted in a healthy baby, "it was painful to deal with the monthly ups and downs," she recounts. "Even when you're doing all you can, there's no guarantee you'll get pregnant when you think you should, or even at all."
A recent study published in the British Medical Journal underscores Spencer's point: Researchers found that medical treatments such as Clomid and intrauterine insemination (IUI) may not increase pregnancy rates any more than not getting treatment does.
"What I hear from our fertility patients is that they feel disempowered," says Alice Domar, Ph.D., executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health at Boston IVF. Learning natural strategies to boost your chances of conception helps to "put control back in your court," she says. Work the following natural fertility tools into your treatment plan as you and your doctor see fit.
1. Reduce Stress
It's maddening to hear: Stress reduction promotes fertility, yet the infertility experience is inherently stressful. Stress likely has a direct physiological impact as well as a secondary effect by triggering lifestyle choices that reduce fertility, such as poor eating habits, smoking, and excessive drinking. "When women attend stress-management classes, pregnancy rates go up," says Domar.
To reduce your stress levels, consider finding a support group for women trying to conceive. "Communing with other women going through the same thing helps reduce the social isolation that many experience," says Domar.
Learning how to trigger your body's relaxation response can also help. Spencer, who changed her life-coaching business to focus on helping women navigate the road to conception, recommends that her clients commit to a mind-body practice for 20 minutes a day, whether it's yoga, deep breathing, or meditation.
2. Examine Your Diet
"Simple dietary changes can impact overall fertility," says Jorge Chavarro, M.D., lead author of The Fertility Diet, a book based on a study of 18,000 nurses trying to become pregnant. Food's impact on fertility has a lot to do with the hormone insulin; excessive levels in the body (caused by eating a lot of highly refined foods or having a condition known as insulin resistance) can cause a hormone imbalance that affects fertility. "Insulin increases blood levels of testosterone," says Chavarro. "Over time, this can hamper ovulation and make it less likely you'll produce a healthy egg in any given cycle." (Keep in mind, notes Chavarro, that dietary changes don't affect fertility problems caused by blocked fallopian tubes or other mechanical causes.)
The study members with the highest fertility rates ate diets high in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and low in animal protein. They avoided processed food, which often contains trans fats. In fact, the more trans fats they ate, the higher their risk of infertility due to ovulation problems.
One surprising fact emerged: Women who regularly consumed full-fat dairy products had a markedly lower risk of infertility than those who ate low- or no-fat versions. Although there's no scientific explanation for this, Chavarro and his team theorize that full-fat dairy may deliver reproductive hormones that get stripped out of skim and low-fat versions. If you enjoy dairy and your body tolerates it, Chavarro recommends adding one or two servings of full-fat dairy a day when you're trying to conceive. Subtract the calories from elsewhere in your diet, as maintaining a healthy weight also promotes fertility.
3. Try Acupuncture
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, infertility stems from an imbalance of vital energy, or qi. By nourishing qi and clearing energy blockages, acupuncture encourages normal reproductive function. From a Western medical perspective, it "increases blood flow to the uterus and ovaries and reduces stress," says naturopathic doctor Laurie Steelsmith, author of Natural Choices for Women's Health.
"I used to be skeptical," says Domar. "But I've seen the research and implemented acupuncture at my own clinic. Well-timed acupuncture can im-prove conception rates dramatically." Research has shown it to increase the number of births in women undergoing IVF when the acupuncture is administered on the day of embryo transfer. Studies have shown that acupuncture can boost ovulation and may also enhance male fertility, particularly when combined with Chinese herbs.
Seek out a licensed practitioner with postgraduate experience in infertility. Encourage your partner to get treatment, too. "You want to create optimal health in both partners," says Steelsmith, "and it's helpful to get both engaged in the healing process."
4. Consider Herbal Medicine
Herbalists and naturopaths use key medicinal herbs to promote patients' overall health and fertility. Kate Gilday, herbalist and founder of Woodland Essence teaching center in upstate New York, relies on a three-pronged approach: herbs that help the body cope with the effects of long-term stress (such as ashwaganda, eleuthero, and tulsi); herbs that play a specific role in promoting fertility (such as vitex, milky oats, and raspberry leaf); and herbs that cleanse the liver, which rids the body of excess reproductive hormones (such as dandelion, burdock root, milk thistle, and turmeric). "Keep in mind that herbal medicine is very personalized," says Gilday. "See a naturopath or a trained herbalist for best results."
Whichever natural therapies you incorporate, remember that while a baby may be the end goal, it's not the only benefit of your efforts, says Spencer. "Working with infertility teaches you how to research your options, find what works for you, and trust that what you're doing is enough -- all of which make great training for motherhood."