Many women think about taking supplements to help them prepare for IVF and may be tempted by advertisements for fertility aids.
It’s claimed they can improve sperm, increase the quality and quantity of eggs, and help the embryo to implant in the uterus.
When you start investigating all the vitamins, herbs, minerals and other products that claim to aid fertility, it’s dizzying – there are endless tablets, syrups and powders on the market. But do they work? Fact is, there’s no magic supplement that can make you pregnant, but some may be beneficial.
Of course, a good balanced diet, not smoking, proper exercise and maintaining your weight in the normal range (BMI 20 to 30) are the best preparations you can make. A fertility diet also consists of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, lean meats, seafood, dairy, nuts and seeds and healthy fats.
It’s a good idea to limit your intake of white sugar, white bread, white rice and processed foods, salt and saturated fats. Maintaining a good balanced diet isn’t easy, so certain prenatal vitamins may help.
As there are too many supplements to list here, we have concentrated on the most popular on the market and, based on the latest research.
Do be aware that fertility supplements can interact with other medications you are taking and have side effects, so do talk to your fertility doctor about what’s best for you and you may want to get advice from a recommended fertility nutritionist, too.
One thing to stress is this: if you are interested in any supplements, take them at least three to six months leading up to the start of your IVF treatment.
Don’t take them when you begin IVF as they may interfere in an unknown and unpredictable manner with the medications you are given by your clinician. Also, your body needs time to benefit from their effect.
Vitamin D – the sunshine vitamin
Recent research from Italy claims that women who do not have enough vitamin D are only half as likely to get pregnant as women who have the right amount. That’s a big claim to make! They tested 300 women who had IVF treatment and saw a big difference in pregnancy rates between women who had enough vitamin D and those who didn’t. They believe that vitamin D helps women to produce higher quality embryos, but it’s only one study. You can read the research here.
In other research from Austria, it has been shown that vitamin D may help to boost levels of the female sex hormones progesterone and oestrogen and regulate menstrual cycles so that conception is more likely.
A study of 67 infertile women by Yale University School of Medicine revealed that only seven per cent of them had normal vitamin D levels. If you live in a sunny climate, fifteen to twenty minutes of exposure to sun for three days every week is enough to satisfy your body’s vitamin D requirement. If you don’t live in the Bahamas, then you can find the vitamin in oily fish (wild salmon is best), eggs, mushrooms, orange juice, dairy products, cod liver oil and many other sources.
If you take one supplement before embarking on IVF, make it folic acid. When you are pregnant, demand for folic acid shoots up and most diets don’t provide enough of it. If you don’t have enough, this can affect the development of the nervous system of the foetus. Start taking it at least three months before your IVF treatment, but if you miss a few weeks, don’t panic. Just begin as soon as you can. Folic acid can be found in liver, lentils, asparagus, spinach and kidney beans. Folic acid may also help male fertility but the evidence is not yet conclusive.
Research in Israel has shown that when some women with low ovarian reserve had fertility treatment and a DHEA supplement, they increased the chances of conception. The trial carried out at Tel Aviv University also found those who did conceive were six times more likely to give birth to a healthy baby. The women took 25 mg of DHEA three times a day for 40 days prior to starting treatment.
DHEA is a steroid produced by the body. Diet can affect how much your body produces – white flour, sugar, caffeine, preserved and processed foods can cause DHEA levels to drop. Stress can also be a factor because it causes more adrenalin and cortisol to be produced and this affects ovulation and sperm count.
If you decide to take DHEA, it may be worth testing your blood levels before you start to see if your levels are below normal. Do take note that DHEA affects oestrogen production so if you have hormone-sensitive conditions such as endometriosis, fibroids, ovarian or breast cancer, don’t use it.
Researchers at Warwick University have shown that women who took special ‘conception’ vitamins were twice as likely to get pregnant than other women. Half of women were given a multivitamin and mineral tablet to take each day and half were given folic acid. Women on the vitamins were more likely to conceive and 60 per cent were still pregnant three months later compared to 25 per cent on just folic acid. Three quarters conceived on their first cycle, compared with less than one in five of those on folic acid.
The multivitamin used was Pregnacare Conception made by Vitabiotics but the company did not commission, fund or influence the study (it costs about £8-10 for a pack of 30).
Dr Allan Pacey, Senior Lecturer in Andrology at the University of Sheffield said: “This study is interesting but we should acknowledge that this is a relatively small number of patients and the study would need to be repeated in a larger trial before we could be certain of the results.
“I can’t help but thinking that for most people, just general dietary advice would achieve the same effect and a good basket of fresh fruit and vegetables from the greengrocer each week would have much the same effect if their diet was poor.”
Women of advanced maternal age can try taking anti-oxidants.
This is a controversial one. The theory is that if antioxidants can slow down general ageing, can they not slow down reproductive ageing too? But there’s no proof that fertility improves by using antioxidants.
The story goes back to the 1930s when a farmer noticed that his hens that ate wheat grass yielded 150 per cent more eggs and the egg quality was much better. Evidence for infertile women is anecdotal, but many people are keen on using it. Wheatgrass juice is alkaline and is said to balance your Ph. levels, which makes the eggs more receptive to sperm and improves the conditions for implantation. Spinach is just as good; in fact it has more nutrients.
Maca is a root vegetable that originates from Peru. It’s usually sold as a powder and added to fruit smoothies. It is high in iron, calcium and potassium and tastes slightly nutty. It’s claimed to boost sperm count and help women respond with increased regularity in zcycles and easier ovulation. It’s also supposed to boost libido! Black maca is reputed to be more beneficial than yellow maca.
If queen bees fed with royal jelly can produce a prodigious number of eggs, why wouldn’t it work for humans, too? That’s the theory. The jelly contains royalactin, a protein that helps the queen bee to be so fertile, as well as amino acids, vitamins, especially B-vitamins, and energy co-factors.
In animal studies, royal jelly decreased inflammation. If you have endometriosis, it may help to reduce the painful inflammation caused by the tissue that has detached from the uterus. It’s also claimed to help with menstrual problems which can hinder conception.
Some of Queen Elizabeth’s grandchildren are royal jelly babies as their mothers took it before they gave birth. Please note that some people are allergic to bee pollen and royal jelly. Speak to your doctor or allergist.
Co-enzyme Q (10)
CoQ10 is a strong antioxidant that’s found in every cell of the body and we produce it regardless of whether it’s in our diet or not. Fish, meat and vegetable oils are all rich sources of CoQ10. The amount we have in our body declines with age. It’s been claimed that CoQ10 increases sperm motility to make them better swimmers and protect cells from free radical damage to improve egg health. It is often given at a dose between 100 mg and 300 mg per day.
There are two forms of CoQ10, ubiquinone and Ubiquinol. CoQ10 is usually sold as ubiquinone and the body converts this to the more powerful Ubiquinol. As a woman ages, her body’s ability to convert ubiquinone to Ubiquinol declines. Ubiquinol is eight times more potent than ubiquinone. For women over the age of 35, a CoQ10 Ubiquinol supplement may help to improve egg health when taken for a few months.
Some sperm act like Usain Bolt, and some perform like Homer Simpson. One in three couples has issues with male infertility, usually low sperm count. Diet has a big impact on the health of a man’s sperm. It can take a couple of months from the time sperm is produced and swimming around to the time it’s ejaculated, so the earlier action is taken the better.
Increasing the amount of zinc in infertile men is believed to boost sperm levels and improve the quality of the sperm. Arginine is also thought to have a positive influence on the health and fitness of sperm cells. What can ruin sperm is smoking and poor diet, so it’s important to look at those first before spending money on supplements.
Cereals, soya beans, apples, bananas and nuts contain high quantities of arginine. Arginine should not be taken if you have herpes as it can trigger an outbreak.
Zinc is found in calf liver, oysters, beef, lamb, venison, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, yogurt, turkey, peas, and shrimps. Zinc can be damaged by cooking so it makes sense to eat some foods high in zinc that do not need cooking.
Solid scientific evidence is limited, but researchers in Australia found a two-fold increase in the likelihood of getting pregnant in a four-month period for women using traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) compared with Western medicine.
The study said the difference appeared to be due to the careful analysis of the menstrual cycle – the period when it is possible for a woman to conceive. It said ‘Assessment of the quality of the menstrual cycle integral to TCM diagnosis appears to be fundamental to the successful treatment of female infertility.’
There are a few supplements you can’t buy when you’re about to start IVF, but they work wonders — vitamin L (love and support from the people that matter), vitamin H (hope), vitamin P (persistence and patience) and Vitamin K (knowledge about the IVF process).