When it comes to enhancing fertility with herbs, the claims and possibilities seem endless. It can be frustrating and sometimes difficult to figure out which herbs might be most appropriate and people often end up taking expensive supplements that may or may not be helpful. If possible, it’s wise to work with a qualified practitioner such as an Acupuncturist, Naturopath, or Functional Medicine Doctor to help you discover which herbs are ideal for your case. If you don’t have access to one of these professionals though, that’s ok too. Keep reading! Let’s explore some of the more common and effective herbs that affect fertility and how they may work to give you a more informed perspective and targeted care.
First, let’s be clear that there isn’t one supplement or herb that is going to be helpful for everyone when it comes to fertility. That being said, incorporating targeted herbs in your comprehensive fertility plan can sometimes boost fertility enough to help some couples conceive.
Here are some common herbs that are readily available and can potentially enhance fertility:
Vitex (Chaste Tree Berry)
A popular herb for balancing the menstrual cycle and resolving PMS, it likely acts on the pituitary gland in the brain, increasing the strength of the Luteinizing Hormone (LH) surge, which triggers ovulation. This in turn can strengthen ovulation and progesterone production in the luteal phase. It has also been shown to decrease abnormally high prolactin, thus improving hormone balance and ovarian function . This herb helps women with ovulation problems and women with luteal phase defect who have a short luteal phase or low progesterone production.
Maca (Lepidium meyenii)
Maca has been in use for thousands of years as a libido and fertility enhancing medicinal. It is indigenous to the Peruvian Andes and is a tuber (like a turnip). It acts as an adaptogen, helping the body cope during times of increased stress, but it may also affect androgens (testosterone) in both men and women. It is unclear if it affects actual levels of testosterone or just the receptor, but it has been shown in both male and female mice to affect fertility positively. In light of the effects on testesterone activity, however, this supplement may not be helpful for women with PCOS, which is associated with elevated androgens.
Interestingly, something as simple and common as cinnamon can improve fertility in both men and women. In Chinese medicine, we use cinnamon bark (the spice) to warm the interior and nourish yang energy, which must be abundant for fertility. Science has caught on to the benefits of cinnamon and a recent study showed a positive effect on sperm production and quality in men. Studies have also demonstrated that cinnamon affects blood sugar balance and the insulin response, so it can be helpful for metabolic syndrome and women with PCOS too.
Also used in Chinese medicine, the herb Tribulus can be helpful for both male and female fertility. In women with irregular ovulation, especially due to PCOS, Tribulus may help normalize the cycle and create predictable ovulation. One study showed it also increased conception rates (when both partners took it) in couples that had high levels of anti-sperm antibodies. That same study saw an improvement in the male’s sperm parameters, including motility, count and volume.
We have discussed a few Chinese herbs already, but it is worth mentioning that the Chinese herbal approach is one of the most sophisticated herbal systems in existence. Chinese herbs are rarely taken as single herbs, but are rather prescribed as balanced, targeted formulas to address whole body health and in turn, fertility. A meta-analysis found that the appropriate use of Chinese herbs increases fertility two-fold within a four month period. There are thousands of herbs in the Chinese pharmacy and each formula is typically customized. It is important to understand that the real value and effectiveness comes from being properly diagnosed and taking the appropriate herbal formula through working with an experienced Doctor of Chinese medicine, licensed Acupuncturist or other qualified practitioner.
Herbs can be used as a stand-alone treatment or in combination with other techniques such as acupuncture and Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART). Emerging data is revealing a potential benefit to combining appropriate herbal formulas with gonadotropins and other fertility drugs. One study showed that a specific herbal formula given to women with the same Chinese medical diagnosis significantly improved the outcomes of their IVFs including live birth rates and follicular fluid quality. There is emerging evidence that combining Chinese herbs with IVFs can yield higher pregnancy and live birth rates, but more studies are needed to verify and understand this.
Many Reproductive Endocrinologists (RE) prefer their patients to discontinue herbs and supplements once they begin fertility drugs. IVF cycles are typically costly and the protocols are extremely controlled and based on the latest data from research. Most REs prefer to have as few variables as possible. I find clinically, however, that if a patient has done several rounds of IVF without success, both the RE and patient are willing to try the addition of herbs, which sometimes leads to a better result. As more studies come out demonstrating the benefits of combining these two approaches, it may become more commonplace.
It is important when choosing herbs and supplements to ensure you are purchasing high-quality and pure products. Many herbs can be contaminated, falsely labeled or too dilute to be effective. Working with a qualified professional will help ensure that your herbs are pure and without additives, fillers, or chemicals like pesticides or heavy metals. The FDA does not regulate supplements like they do drugs, so inconsistencies happen. Many of the best brands are only available through licensed professionals, but good brands do exist on the market. Look for standardized extracts with labeled percentages or work with a professional who can make recommendations on brands and specific herbs for your unique case.