Guest Post: 6 Fertility Tips Every Couple Should Know
Beth reached out to me when she moved back to Winnipeg for the summer asking why I didn't have any information on fertility on my website. Although I personally haven't dealt with it, I have many patients and friends who have. I know the importance of nutrition, stress management and movement on overall health and fertility, but I haven't addressed it directly on my website. Beth's story is inspiring so I asked her to write it up for me so I could share it with you. If you can relate and are looking for support, I have a group for you that meets once a month called, It Takes a Village. Now, enjoy!
At age 27 I had been married two years and decided it was time to start a family. Little did I know the next five years would bring hypothyroidism, infertility, miscarriage, insomnia and undiagnosed PTSD. Studies suggest I was far from alone – although I certainly FELT alone – as 12% to 15% of couples will not have a baby within the first year of trying. So chances are, even if you haven’t experienced infertility, someone close to you almost certainly has.
There were many moments along my fertility journey that I felt like giving up. I was afraid to get tests done, because I thought I might find out it was impossible for me to conceive. Sometimes I thought I would rather be left in the dark.
I didn’t give up. Instead, I became my own best advocate and brought three beautiful babies into this world. But the miracle of life doesn’t need to be such a mystery. I would have suffered less, and been less afraid and alone if the following 6 fertility tips I learned the hard way had been common knowledge.
1. YOUR HEALTH CAN BE WRECKED BY A “SUBCLINICAL” CONDITION
After almost two years of riding the roller coaster of hope and despair that is the infertility journey, I went to my Canadian doctor to get the standard fertility blood tests (I was a grad student in the US at the time). Despite repeated attempts to get the results, I was told by staff that “If there was a problem my doctor would call me,” and since I hadn’t received a call I should assume the test results were “normal.”
Over a year after that, and still no positive pregnancy test, I decided to pay out of pocket to see a fertility specialist in the US. He requested my lab results from Canada and immediately noticed that my TSH, an indicator of thyroid function (the thyroid is next only to the pituitary gland in the hormone chain and controls many essential bodily functions), was at a somewhat elevated 5.3. My undiagnosed hypothyroidism was causing my infertility.
By the current lab standards this was “slightly elevated” as it fell just outside the “normal” range of 0.5-5.0. By the older lab standards of still in use by many doctors, my hypothyroidism would be “subclinical”. Meanwhile, my physical symptoms clearly indicated I had hypothyroidism. I experienced
Extreme sensitivity to cold
Extreme tiredness and fatigue
Dry skin (no amount of moisturizer would help!)
Loss of memory and severe “brain fog”
I fought to get my “subclinical” hypothyroidism treated because it was literally ruining my life. The first doctor I saw said she only prescribed if the TSH was over 10!!! Finally, I was prescribed Synthroid, a synthetic version of thyroid hormone, and was able to conceive.
The lesson I learned is be proactive in seeking help, and don’t assume no news is good news.
I wish my story had ended there. But unfortunately,
2. DOCTORS, EVEN SPECIALISTS, MAY NOT BE UP-TO-DATE IN TREATING PRE-EXISTING CONDITIONS
I did manage to conceive about six months after my hypothyroidism diagnosis, about four years into trying. I distinctly remember the ob/gyn at my six week appointment going over my lab results and stating “Your TSH is 3.9, normal”.
Three weeks later I miscarried.
What I realized afterwards, to my undying horror and regret, is that 3.9, which was a near doubling in my TSH since the beginning of the pregnancy, is NOT considered to be “normal,” especially for those with hypothyroidism pre-existing the pregnancy. In fact, the lab sheet itself recommends TSH stay under 2.5 for pregnant women with pre-existing hypothyroidism! I still wonder if my doctor had actually read my chart and his own lab sheet guidelines, would my baby have survived? Many recommend those with hypothyroidism immediately increase their dose upon getting a positive pregnancy test.
At the very least, read every lab result yourself, and research the latest guidelines for normal ranges.
So far, I’ve left out a huge part of my story, which concerns a limitation of mainstream medicine:
3. YOUR BODY’S FERTILITY IS BY AND LARGE AN INDICATOR OF YOUR GENERAL HEALTH AND WELLNESS
That same American fertility specialist who had noticed my hypothyroidism had given me the standard holy trinity of fertility treatment options: 1. Clomid, a fertility enhancing drug, followed by (should that fail) 2. Intrauterine insemination (IUI), followed by (should THAT fail) 3. The Big Guns – In Vitro Fertilization (IVF).
Although many couples have benefited from these treatments, since our budget as graduate students was exactly zero and these treatments begin in the hundreds of dollars and end in the tens of thousands, I was dismayed to hear that these were my options.
I also wondered WHY my body had become infertile, and none of the options given addressed that question.
So, like a good (almost) millennial, I went online and consulted Dr. Google. Over the course of what would become thousands of hours of research on infertility, miscarriage, pregnancy and then birth, I completely transformed my body, my health and my fertility.
Initially, I followed The Fertility Diet and eliminated all foods known to inhibit fertility, and scarfed down the fats, carbs and proteins that were associated with increased baby-making abilities.
After my first pregnancy resulting in a live birth (I suffered what I believe were two entirely preventable miscarriages before that), I learned about the Paleo Diet, which cured my postpartum eczema and got me to finally drop the hypothyroid weight. My fertility also SKYROCKETED. If I were in the same shoes again, I would DEFINITELY go Paleo, and seriously consider adopting the Ketogenic or even Carnivore diet for fertility reasons.
The lesson? Don’t fall into the symptom-treating trap of modern medicine. Fertility is in essence holistic!
All of the above tips apply to men and women seeking fertility health. But women in particular should also do the following:
4. TRACK YOUR MENSTRUAL CYCLE AND LEARN HOW IT WORKS
Since making a baby involves an egg, maybe we should all become a little more literate in how that egg gets to be in a position to meet up with that sperm that results in a little thing called the miracle of life. A HUGE and invaluable part of my own fertility journey was learning about natural family planning, because I learned to track my cycle through biomarkers like basal body temperature and changes in cervical mucus.
And guess what? My NaProTechnology counselor was able to pinpoint various hormonal imbalances just by looking at the biomarkers I had charted, including low progesterone, from a too-short luteal (post-ovulatory) phase. Did you know a frequent cause of early miscarriage and infertility is low progesterone? Progesterone is essential for building up the uterine lining so that the embryo can implant days after fertilization. An insufficient uterine lining, indicated through a too-short luteal phase of less than 12 days, means the baby can’t implant, resulting in miscarriage. Supplementing with progesterone is an easy and safe way to boost your chances of carrying a baby to full term. I used a natural cream, and there are other options as well.
Other conditions that can be indicated simply through tracking biomarkers are:
Inadequate fertile cervical mucus
PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome)
Although tracking biomarkers of fertility can initially seem daunting, technology has vastly improved in the last decade and several fun, affordable and headache-free options are out there.
For the life of me, I don’t understand why this aspect of women’s health has been so neglected and I’m ecstatic to see it slowly changing.
So ladies, take charge of your fertility and track your cycle! Partners, please support them in this!
The other thing I learned from tracking my cycle?
5. FERTILITY IS CLOSELY CONNECTED TO MENTAL HEALTH
My NaPro counselor also noticed that my elongated cycle of over 40 days and a “double peak” around ovulation indicated elevated cortisol. Stress hormones are above the fertility hormones in the hormone cascade, and your body is less likely to bring life into this world if it thinks your very existence is constantly under threat by being in a perpetual state of fight or flight. And when I learned about the degree to which stress was affecting my fertility I was able to prioritize my mental health.
I suffered from undiagnosed PTSD after my miscarriages, so I know firsthand that infertility and miscarriage are among the most stressful experiences life throws at us. But don’t let your mental health take a back seat. Fertility, just like the baby-making act itself, is best approached as a mind-body thing, not just a body thing.
Seek mental health support early on in your fertility journey.
Last but not least:
6. ALTERNATIVE TREATMENTS FOR INFERTILITY ARE 100% WORTH LOOKING INTO
The gold standard of fertility treatment that modern medicine has to offer – IVF – has a success rate of 29% for achieving pregnancy, and just 22% for producing live births. That means well under half of the couples who shell out enormous amounts of money for these procedures will see it end their journey with infertility. Websites like Natural Fertility Info became my go-to to try to fill that gap with a more natural, holistic approach. And yes, it can take some experimentation and a little financial investment, but for many people it’s worth it!
Trial and error with supplements and alternative therapy such as acupuncture, energy healing or chiropractic is a great approach when results show promise and costs, negative side-effects and risks are low.
My main comfort after my experience with infertility came from using what I had learned to help others. If even a fraction of the above were to become part of common knowledge a lot of suffering could be prevented. I know we all experience moments where we would rather just bury our heads in the sand, and that the infertility life can be dark. But there is hope! As Homer said,
“The gods gave mortals hearts that can endure.”
In other words? You’ve got this!
Most importantly, you are not alone. So do your future self a solid and take charge of your fertility today.