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Natural Approaches to Improve Fertility

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Natural Approaches to Improve Fertility

Feb 16, 2017

Today, couples have many options to increase their chances of getting pregnant, including many natural approaches to improved fertility. Women’s health expert Dr. Kirtly Parker Jones speaks with Dr. Joe Stanford, a professor in the department of family and preventive medicine, about what couples can do to naturally improve, or hurt, their chances of getting pregnant. If you're planning a family and want to improve your chances of pregnancy naturally, learn about some things you can do.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Jones: So you're having trouble getting pregnant. It's been six months and you really want to have a baby, but you know that fertility therapy can be very expensive and involved. Is there another way? And what's the difference between taking different kinds of ways to getting your baby? This is Dr. Kirtly Jones from Obstetrics and Gynecology at University of Utah Health Care, and this is "Making Babies" on The Scope.

Announcer: Covering all aspects of women's health, this is "The Seven Domains of Women's Health," with Dr. Kirtly Jones, on The Scope.

Dr. Jones: Most of us want children and we'd like to have children in a timely manner. But if you're not getting pregnant in the time that you want, we always have said, "Well, go to your doctor or your family doctor, and then if you're not getting pregnant, come to see a specialist." But are there ways that you can actually enhance your own fertility without intervening with medications or interventions, at least for the start?

Today on The Scope studio, we are talking with Dr. Joseph Stanford, professor in the Department of Family and Preventative Medicine. And Dr. Stanford has a special interest in natural, procreative technology. And we're going to be talking about that, how to make yourself as fertile as you can be using natural methods. Thank you for joining us, Joe.

Dr. Stanford: Thank you, it's a pleasure.

Dr. Jones: So can you tell me about what is natural restorative or reproductive medicine? I'm a reproductive endocrinologist and everything that I do is not very natural. I do some really big hormones, and we do some really big procedures, and we do help people get really pregnant. But maybe there's something on the way to coming to me that actually might be very successful. So go with it.

Dr. Stanford: So natural procreative technology actually has a spectrum of things. The entry level is for couples to understand their fertility better, to understand what factors improve it, what factors are detrimental. And make lifestyle changes and also understand when the best times are for having sex.

Dr. Jones: Okay. What things make it better? What makes your fertility better?

Dr. Stanford: Adequate sleep, good diet. These are things you probably tell patients just as much. Moderate amount of exercise and weight that is not too high or too low, especially for women but also for men.

Dr. Stanford: Okay. And what things make things worse? All those converses meaning, an unhealthy lifestyle, not getting enough sleep, alcohol, and cigarettes smoke and unhealthy weight for men and women?

Dr. Stanford: Right, other drugs, marijuana, all those things.

Dr. Jones: Right. And then not enough sex?

Dr. Stanford: Well, not appropriately timed sex. That's one of the myths, is that you have to have sex either every day or every other day. But for couples with infertility, it's often the case that the fertile window is narrower for the woman. It may be three days instead of five or seven. It may be one or two days, the days that are functionally most likely for conception to happen. Couples can learn to track that and know when those days are with fertility awareness or natural family planning as one component of the natural procreative of technology.

Dr. Jones: Okay. So, education about things which enhance your fertility in your own body and timing and appropriate frequency of intercourse. And then you mentioned that was one. So what's two?

Dr. Stanford: So number two for natural procreative technology is really very similar in some ways to a medical . . . We do a full medical history exam for the woman and the man. We're trying to identify underlying factors that may be inhibiting fertility. I think we could both agree that a healthy woman, healthy man, healthy couple that didn't have any health issues, part of their healthiness would be being able to reproduce when they're in their reproductive age range.

So if there is not fertility at a normal level, something organically, physically is wrong. And usually, in our research with looking at this with couples, there are usually multiple underlying contributing factors. So what we're trying to do is identify all of those contributing factors and make them better to the extent we can. Some of them are lifestyle issues, some of them are medical issues. It may be thyroid, it may be polycystic ovary syndrome, it may be an endometriosis it may be a varicocele. It may be other things affecting semen quality. So we were trying to identify all of those things and find whatever we know that we have in our toolkit currently to correct and restore the possibility of natural conception.

Dr. Jones: So let's take endometriosis for an example. In my world, if we think someone has endometriosis and maybe we can feel it. Maybe someone's had a look inside their tummy, and they saw it, we feel an abnormal ovarian cyst and we can tell on ultrasound it's endometriosis. In my world, we operate on that and say, "Now we've restored your pelvis, at least for a little while, to its better fertility so go for it."

Dr. Stanford: I would I would applaud that. I think that the only definitive treatment we currently have for endometriosis is good surgery. And when I say good surgery, I mean surgery that's not just removing it but also minimizing the risk of subsequent adhesions. So adhesion-free surgery. I don't personally do surgery, but I have a short list of surgeons that I trust to refer to for patients that need that. So I think surgery can be part of the restorative process. And in endometriosis, it's what we currently know we have for that. I hope down the road, we'll find some other ways to reverse endometriosis or prevent it without surgery, but we're a ways away from that.

Dr. Jones: So for guys, if we have a gentleman who comes to us at the Utah Center for Reproductive Medicine and he has maybe half the numbers of sperm that he should or less. He has less than 20 million sperm per CC, and they don't look right, we move right away to . . . maybe we'll look for a varicocele, but we might do inseminations or might move to IVF. What do you do for guys to enhance their fertility? Do you go back to the lifestyle and the health issues?

Dr. Stanford: Definitely start there because that's kind of the foundation and it's a rare man that doesn't have some lifestyle issue, right? We definitely start there, but there are also some limited trials, some of the supplements that have been done for antioxidant and other types of supplements. And I think, in many cases, it's worth the trial of those with a follow-up semen analysis to see which way things are going, paying attention to the fact that semen analyses have a natural fluctuation as well.

Dr. Jones: So here's the problem that I face often here in Utah. And that is, and it can happen anywhere, and that is a young couple, they're 25. They've been trying six months. They haven't become pregnant. They want to be pregnant yesterday. And they want to immediately jump to my toolbox. And I don't even want to open . . . I don't even go looking for my tool box yet because they haven't tried long enough and hard enough for. . . And if I tell them I think they should try for another year using, actually, things that you're recommending, sometimes they walk out of my door and walk into my partner's door. So maybe if I send them to you, you'll keep them in your arms until you decide they need to come back to me?

Dr. Stanford: I would certainly do my best. And I think we have a reasonable track record. One of the things we find from studies of infertility treatment is that there's a high dropout rate from all types of fertility treatment. IUI, IVF, also the natural procreative technology, we all struggle with the keeping the couples engaged enough to say, "You really can succeed if you give it the full try." And couples often give up before we think they should, medically.

But, having said that, I do think that what I do is a lot different than just saying, "Okay. Try for another year," or, "Learn how to time it, and then try for another year." We're actively managing the cycle. What I mean by that is we track it with the woman's fertility tracking, charting biomarkers. We're looking at the mucus score. We quantitate the quality of the cervical fluid or cervical mucus production. We look at the bleeding pattern, including little bits of spotting making us nervous. We look at that. I usually just do a single [inaudible 00:08:21] hormone level seven days after ovulation.

So we're looking at these parameters and their timing of intercourse to look at 12 optimized cycles, not just trying for a year, but let's get 12 cycles where we can document that the cycle looks optimized for conception, based on the woman's charting, based on the timing of intercourse, based on the hormone levels.

Dr. Jones: So after that, what do you do if it's been 12 cycles and they haven't conceived, and you haven't either found a reason, or you found a reason, but they still haven't conceived. Where do they go from there? Do they get to decide about where the next steps are?

Dr. Stanford: They certainly always get to decide, but my recommendation to them at that point is, "We've done a full course of treatment, I can't promise you anything further. If you want to keep going, because that's what you want to do, I'll support that, but I'm not recommending that in the sense that we have done a full course of treatment. And you can look at other options, whether that's other fertility treatment or adoption or accepting your childlessness with saying you've done what you wanted to do." So those are always the couple's choices. So, for me, a full course of treatment is those 12 optimized cycles after having corrected all the underlying issues that we can.

Dr. Jones: Right. Well, I think most of us who do this want people to have the family that they want and we don't want any kind of therapy dragging on for too long because the clock is ticking, especially for women. But in the fertility business, I would say, I think it's important not to intervene with the big guns too soon, but not to avoid the big guns, meaning in-vitro fertilization, if it's something that's a choice for them.

And I think that what you've done, I've seen many of your patients over the years be pretty happy and successful with doing their own fertility once you've ruled out . . . you wouldn't . . . Somebody with no sperm, no eggs or no tubes, you would probably send them on pretty quickly.

Dr. Stanford: Right. If they don't have a possibility for natural conception because their both tubes are blocked, I'll certainly advise them of that upfront. This approach, I think, is a viable approach for the vast majority of sub-fertile or infertile couples, but there are a few that have absolute reasons that they can't conceive naturally.

Dr. Jones: Right. So I think both of us want the same thing in the end. I don't want to over-treat young couples that might get pregnant on their own with either specially adapted cycles to look at their own peak natural fertility or just time. And you probably don't want people jumping into high-tech fertility before it's time for them as well.

Dr. Stanford: Definitely, I agree with that. And I think that one of the things that are a little different about the restorative approach is we, ourselves, are also trying to take a longer view. Not just getting them pregnant, and I know that you would agree with this too, we want a healthy baby. We want a full-term life, ideally singleton baby. In other words, not twins when we can avoid that because of the risk. Not because we don't like twins, but because they just have more risks to the mom and babies. And we want that baby to grow up healthy, and we want the mother to be healthy later in her life. So I think the idea is to look at the overall health picture and not just, "Do you get pregnant next month?"

Dr. Jones: Great. Okay. Well, so for people who are attempting to get pregnant and are still young, of course, 45-year-olds might get a different approach, our goal is to do the right thing at the right time. And both of us are planning on doing that. And call us if you need us and thanks for joining us on The Scope.

Dr. Stanford: Thank you.

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