Fertility and Herbal Medicine

Err…I’m pregnant!

Well, not me, that would be a miracle! A wonderful text message from a 43 year-old patient I treated for infertility in February 2020. This patient had no previous births and had been advised against IVF being told her chances of success were ‘not viable’. In such circumstances, turning to herbal medicine combined with acupuncture, seemed like an option worth trying. As a herbal practitioner it is always a privilege to treat patients, but the weight of hopes invested in treatment can feel daunting, especially in cases of infertility. At these times I try to step back and ‘trust the herbs’ with faith in the folk law and traditional uses upon which herbalists draw, and the current scientific evidence which guides our practice. In this case, this text came in the early weeks of the first unprecedented national lockdown, after just six weeks of treatment. I remember clearly receiving the text message, only hours before feeling an over whelming sense of surrealism, contemplating the implications of world suspended in a lockdown. It was a welcome reminder of the power of herbs!

Infertility (typically defined as the inability to conceive after one year of regular unprotected intercourse) is an emotive issue, estimated to affect approximately 1 in 7 couples according to NHS data. Infertility can be primary, meaning that a pregnancy has never been conceived, or secondary, meaning that previous conceptions have occurred, but there is an inability to conceive again. There can be identifiable medical reasons for infertility (organic infertility refers to a medical condition that causes infertility; or functional infertility which refers to an imbalance within the hormonal system). Unexplained infertility means no medical explanation can be found. When a cause of infertility is identified, treatment is often available (for example treatment for insufficient ovulation, endometriosis or blocked fallopian tubes) or assisted conception options, IVF or IUI.

Herbal medicine can offer an alternative and less invasive treatment path than assisted conception, and in some cases redress the causes of infertility. As with assisted conception, there is no guarantee of a successful pregnancy. The HEFA estimates that average birth rate for women of all ages using their own eggs is 22%. Although using herbs for infertility dates back to 200AD, there is no clear data on pregnancy outcomes, only case histories from herbalists.

Each herbal prescription is specifically blended for the patient following in depth consultation to establish the nature of the problem, its aetiology and significant factors. A google search for herbs to boost fertility will yield many results, but without a thorough understanding of the pathophysiology involved the herbs suggested may impede pregnancy and if pregnancy is achieved some herbs are contraindicated. By taking a case a history and examining test results if available, a herbalist can design a formula to specifically address hormonal imbalances, nourish the body and even address the underlying issue; for example PCOS or endometriosis. In addition, herbalists are trained in nutrition and are able to give advice on diet and supplements.

With this patient, it was clear that a main treatment goal would be to ‘relax’ her, reducing the tension and anxiety around getting pregnant and from a physiological aspect, to lengthen the menstrual cycle producing more substantial periods by increasing LH levels. Vitex or Chaste Tree with Tribulus were significant herbs in achieving the latter. Vitex, I believe was also a significant herb in the pregnancy of another patient I treated around the same time. She, however had sought treatment primarily for adult acne, but infertility (waiting to start IVF) and anxiety were also a feature of her presentation. Her prescription focused on anti-anxiety and hormonal balancing herbs, and for while I did not hear from her until receiving a message with a photo of a scan, stating that she was five months pregnant; the acne, anxiety and infertility all resolved!

For relaxants I used Verbena and Motherwort (Motherwort, primarily a heart tonic, is known as the ‘herb to mother mothers’ so I often use it to sooth issues around mothering). I also used the herbs Paeonia and Wild Yam to balance hormones; Black Cohosh as a uterine tonic and Liquorice to support adrenals. The combination of liquorice and Paeonia has been shown to improve fertility.

Within Chinese medicine, infertility is often seen as a condition of ‘cold’; the womb needs to be a warming and fertile ground for an embryo. This patient described herself as experiencing cold hands and feet, with her metabolic rate being slow and digestion sluggish. This would suggest the need to improve circulation and ‘warm up’ the constitution. Motherwort, being a heart tonic aided in circulation and I added a dash of ginger to her formula for stimulating warmth.

With fertility, it is pertinent to treat the male partner too. Her partner was given dietary advice and given a tincture of Tribulus, Eleutherococcus and Withania designed to improve sperm mobility and quality.

The patient gave birth to a healthy baby girl in November (during lockdown two) and sent a text announcing her arrival with the additional words ‘we can’t thank you enough for your care, your herbs and your positive words’. Even her doctors referred to the pregnancy as a ‘miracle baby’. These two texts stand out as the brightest words in lockdown!

I often describe herbalism as an ‘art and a science’. It is based upon traditional knowledge and current science, but it is indeed an art that involves treating the whole person, rebalancing the mind and body after careful listening to and observation of the patient. The formulating of a prescription, whilst informed by research and knowledge, is often creative and an art form; bespoke and individual. If you are interested in finding out how herbal medicine may assist with fertility or gynaecological issues, please contact me for a free initial discussion.