Natural Fertility Enhancement
Herbs for Fertility
Before the age of pharmaceutical drugs, herbs were relied upon throughout the course of history as “nature’s medicine.” However, with the dawn of modern age drugs, herbs temporarily took a back seat as a form of treatment. Nevertheless, holistic medicine has made a resurgence recently, perhaps caused by the either the affordability of health care, or the desire of patients to become more involved in their medical treatment options.
Whatever the case may be, the patient’s return to herbal medicine has brought about mixed reactions from the medical community. Perhaps the clinical research with St. Johns Wort and its effect on depression has led many in the medical community to think twice about the possible potency of herbs. But herbs remain a natural substance, not currently regulated by the FDA tests and the scrutiny of clinical studies, and because the potency of them can vary due to many factors, we can understand the medical community being hesitant to fully embrace the use of herbs.
What we bring to you in this compilation is our own research from multiple sources, cited at the conclusion of this text. What we attempt to do with this information is to mesh folklore with what is known in the reproductive field and what limited studies have shown about these herbs. Because clinical research is still lacking (and may well never be complete) we highly welcome comments to what is written here if there is better evidence to the contrary.
Who may benefit the most from herbal treatment?
Just like surgery is required for those with a “defective” reproductive parts (damaged tubes, mis-shaped uterus, etc.) herbs can only help those conditions where “medicine” could be administered. The most likely candidates who could benefit with herbal treatment include those with woman with annovulatory disorders, luteal phase defects, irregular cycles, men with “marginally low” sperm counts, and both men and women with unknown causes to their fertility impairment.
How do herbs “work”?
Herbalists have traditionally spoken in terms of “effects”, such as – that herb “tones the uterus, ” that herb is a “hormone regulator.” What we attempt to do with this work is to mesh the seen “effects” of known herbal activity with the knowledge we have of the human reproductive system, and what roles known hormones and drugs play in helping conception occur.
Research on actual constituents is still very scarce, but the “mystery” components of some are slowly being revealed (as seen in Saw Palmetto where it is now known that the active ingredient in it, beta-sitosterol, inhibits the alpha-reductase enzyme and this action keeps testosterone from breaking down into dihydrotestoserone.) A wide majority of “fertility-promoting” herbs, however, contain “hormone-like” constituents – organic compounds that look very much like the natural hormones found in our bodies. Some of these are so close structurally that they actually can trigger the action of the receptor sites, which were designed for the natural counterparts to fill. When a natural hormone is lacking, it is thought that these phyto-hormones thus trigger these sites and hopefully create the action that is missing in the normal scheme of things.
On the other hand, some herbs contain actual drug-like components (as seen in Black Cohosh, which actually contains salicylic acid – aka aspirin). The real power of herbs, however, is that they usually contain multiple components, and this is what gives the herbs a unique “synergistic” effect.
The list of the herbs that follows has been known throughout time to help promote fertility. Most of these herbs either act as phyto-hormones (hormone-like compounds) that can trigger multiple receptor sites throughout the body, or that can act on the reproductive system in other ways as discussed above.
Vitex Angus (Also known as Chaste Tree Berries)
Vitex was used by the Greeks over 2000 years ago. By far it is the most clinically studied herb that has been known to help regulate hormones in the woman. The research that has been done on the herb suggest that it works on the pituitary to help create a larger LH surge (similar to how the drug clomiphene citrate works), which should help to bring on ovulation. It also has components in it that bind to dopamine receptors on the pituitary. This action is thought to help help lower prolactin levels (elevated levels of prolactin can inhibit ovulation as well). It is particularly useful for women w/ annovulation, irregular cycles, long cycles, and luteal phase defects (low progesterone levels). Some of the many components that it contains and have been identified thus far include: glycosides, flavonoids, deta-3-ketosteroids, just to name a few. So far there have been no known interactions of this herb with other drugs but, as we note below, the use of this and all herbs should never be mixed with other fertility medications.
Black cohosh has a long history of use by Native Americans. Widely used now in hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women, Black Cohosh contains phyto-estrogens and has the ability to occupy estradiol receptors. It possesses anti-inflamatory properties, and possibly helps low/regulate LH levels. Among the many identified consitituents, it contains salicylic acid, formonetine, and isoflavone.
Dong Quai is an ancient Asian herb. Although not containing any known phyto-estrogens, Dong Quai does seem to act like an estrogen “modulator” which activates or suppresses estrogen receptors within the pituitary to even out the hormones that pulsate to the ovaries and bring on ovulation. Dong Quai is also believed to increase metabolism within the uterus and ovaries and has been attributed with helping to build a receptive uterine lining. Among its many active ingredients, Dong Quai also contains constituents that are thought to have immune enhancing and anti-tumor activity as well. However, due to its vasodialating effect, dong quai should be discontinued when a pregnancy is confirmed.
Native to the Mediterranean region and parts of Asia and cultivated worldwide, licorice appears to modulate estrogen, similar to dong quai. Licorice has anti-virual, anti-inflammatory, and glucose-balancing effects. Licorice contains saponins, a cortisone-like constituent, among a vast array of over 40 other constituents. Japanese study showed positive results in treatment of oligomenorrhea due to elevated androgen levels, as seen in PCO patients.
Precautions: A study in the Journal of Hypertension shows that a moderate amount of licorice, 50 to 100 grams, raises blood pressure about 5 mm of mercury. If your blood pressure is normal, this shouldn’t concern you, but if you have high blood pressure or a high cholesterol, this rise can increase your chances of suffering a heart attack or stroke. Licorice root contains a chemical called glycyrrhizic acid that has almost the same chemical structure as the hormone aldosterone, produced by your adrenal glands, that cause your body to retain the mineral, sodium and to lose the mineral, potassium,/ which can raise blood pressure. Some diuretics also cause your kidneys to lose large amounts of potassium. So, taking licorice with a diuretic can cause you to lose enough potassium to cause muscle fatigue and irregular heart beats. avoid if the patient has hypertension, kidney disease or during pregnancy.
False Unicorn Root
Although there currently is no clinical data on this herb, there is much folklore about it as a female and male fertility promoter. It is said to contain “precursors of estrogen,” which could be the premise behind it aiding both sexes. It has been claimed to be a uterine tonic, diuretic, and exhibit anti-inflammatory properties. It possibly also contains progesterone-like constituents, since it apparently is also useful to help prevent miscarriage, delayed periods, and painful periods.
Korean Ginseng contains over a dozen hormone-like constituents in it that have been known to help increase sperm formation, testosterone levels and sex drive in animal studies. It also has a tradition in helping female fertility as well.
This trademarked extract contains over 40 identified constituents and comes from bark of Maritime pine found on the coast of South France. It is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. It is one of the few clinically studied herbs and it has been shown that it helps extend the life of Vitamin C in the body, helps increase blood flow and restricts blood vessels. A smaller clinical study indicated that it helps improve morphology of sperm.
How do you take herbs?
Herbs come in many forms – capsules, tinctures (an extraction of the herbs, usually into an alcohol base) and teas. Most good herbal brands come with a recommended dosage that usually involves taking the herb 3 times/day for several months to keep consistent concentrations of the herb in the bloodstream. It is often hard to maintain this regimen of taking the herbs so often. However, a good regimen must be maintained in order to see optimum effects of the herbs. It is recommended to keep the herbs in a frequently visited spot (like the kitchen sink) and possibly another supply at work, if necessary.
Many knowledgeable herbalists and pharmacists insist on taking standardized herbs, that is, herbs that have a certain concentration of a give constituent in them. However, as we have seen above, the active ingredient(s) in many of the herbs above are still unknown. What is recommended in this case, is to use a brand of herbs that has been on the market for quite some time and has good credibility. Low price on an herb does not necessarily mean good or bad quality.
Precautions with herbs
As we are seeing more clinical data unravel regarding the medicinal properties of herbs, we need to respect the potency of them in return. Where a little of the herb may help, a lot may cause problems – always start off with recommended dosage and adjust slowly! Listen to your body’s response to the effects of the herbs. Using a journal to track how your body feels from day to day. It is also recommended that you learn all you can about the herbs on your own — side effects, etc. Advise your doctor of your herbal use, especially before you take them if you are on any other prescription medications. And by all means – Never mix herbs with fertility drugs!
In fact, all herbs should be discontinued upon the confirmation of a pregnancy. Finally, be realistic with your expectations of what herbs can do for you. Most herbs take 3-6 months to see maximum benefits. And remember – as much as we would wish it – there is no magical fertility pill!