Functional Medicine and the treatment of infertility
Infertility is widely defined as lack of pregnancy after one year of regular unprotected sex. There are many different causes and fertility problems can affect either partner.
In women, common causes of infertility include:
· A lack of regular ovulation – this may be due to hormonal imbalance such as polycystic ovary syndrome, being underweight, or due to a lack of eggs
· Abnormalities in the female reproductive tract such as scarred or blocked fallopian tubes.
· Endometriosis – where tissue that behaves like the lining of the womb (the endometrium) is found outside the womb
In men, the most common cause of infertility is poor semen quality.
In both sexes lifestyle and environmental influences can also play a role:
· Age – fertility declines in both sexes with age. Female fertility begins to decrease during a woman’s mid-30s. Although men remain fertile for much of their lives, sperm quality reduces as men age decreasing chances of conception and a healthy pregnancy.
· Body weight – being overweight or obese reduces fertility in both sexes. In addition, being underweight can cause a woman’s menstrual cycle to stop, impacting her chances of getting pregnant.
· Smoking – cigarette smoking can affect fertility in both sexes. In men, smoking is strongly linked with reduced semen quality.
· Alcohol – in men drinking too much alcohol can affect sperm quality. For women, there are links between high alcohol consumption and reduced conception rates. Given the risks of drinking during pregnancy, the safest approach for women trying to conceive is not to drink alcohol at all.
· Environmental factors – exposure to heavy metals, industrial chemicals, pesticides and other toxins have been shown to affect fertility, particularly in men.
· Stress – in men, stress can reduce testosterone levels, sex drive and in severe cases sperm production. In women, stress can also cause a loss of sex drive and may also affect ovulation.
· Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) – several STIs, including chlamydia, can affect fertility by causing damage to the reproductive tract.
· Excessive oxidation – oxidative stress is caused by an excess of free radicals (from toxins, pollution, inflammation, stress, obesity etc) and a lack of anti-oxidants. In women, oxidative stress is associated with an increased risk of miscarriage. In men, excessive oxidative can damage sperm and reduce semen quality.
· Methylation problems – One of the most important chemical reactions that take part in the early stages of pregnancy is methylation. If this process is compromised it can contribute to difficulty conceiving or maintaining a healthy pregnancy. Methylation can be affected by nutrient deficiencies as well as by genetics.
The standard treatment for unexplained infertility does not target a specific cause of infertility but instead uses costly medical technologies to become pregnant.
· Medications to induce ovulation such as clomiphene
· Artificial insemination techniques
· In-vitro fertilisation
Although these techniques have helped countless couples to become pregnant they are not without their risks, including higher chances of pre-term birth and birth defects compared to natural conception.
Functional medicine works to optimise all aspects of health. When it comes to improving fertility it can help to uncover underlying imbalances that are impacting on reproductive function.
Functional testing can identify nutrient deficiencies, toxins, biochemical abnormalities, and hormonal imbalances not normally detected by routine laboratory assessments. The results can then be used to create a personalised fertility program that includes a diet plan, supplements and fertility boosting herbs.
Dietary and lifestyle advice will centre around restoring hormonal balance and ovulation and maximising semen quality.
Where necessary additional support to manage stress, achieve an ideal body weight or tackle underlying conditions such as PCOS or endometriosis can be included.
Functional medicine can also be used alongside traditional fertility treatment to support both partners health through the treatment process and maximise the chances of a successful conception.