Fertility & Subfertility

Subfertility is a relatively common problem but, because it is one that strikes deep into the psyche of couples who experience it, it is often concealed, so that it is far more common than is generally realized. It is estimated that as many as one in six couples have difficulty in conceiving the number of children they want when they want them.

In the past and until quite recently, people had little real control over their fertility and couples who did not become pregnant when they wanted a family could do little but accept it. Although it was undeniably hard for them, they had no alternative and they could not reproach themselves for it or for not doing more to overcome it. Nowadays there is more hope for people in this situation, but with hope comes the prospect of treatment stretching out interminably, perhaps involving invasive, embarrassing, costly, damaging, and humiliating procedures which may or may not work. Of course, if the treatment is successful it will all seem worthwhile, but it may be harder to carry on in hope -- with tantalizing possibilities always arising however minimal the success rate -- than it may have been in the past. The end point can stretch ever further into the distance, with people being unable to accept their situation unless every possibility has been investigated.

One of the aspects that people who have had difficulty in conceiving dislike most is their feeling of lack of control. They also complain of feelings of isolation, depression, and an inability to tell others about their situation or discuss it with them. They find that, when they do, people make comments that seem unhelpful. They are vulnerable and may perceive medical help as being their only way forward. They may feel that there is little that they can do to help themselves, their only chance of parenthood depending on having their condition medically assessed and diagnosed and accepting medical or surgical treatment.

Many people are helped in this way and are grateful to their doctors for assisting them. However, around a quarter of couples who have not become pregnant after twelve months of unprotected intercourse (the definition of subfertility) will find that there is nothing apparently wrong with either of them and, as far as diagnostic tests currently available are concerned, the results of their tests are normal. In such cases of "unexplained" or "idiopathic" or "functional" infertility, couples may be advised that nothing can be done to help them. In fact, in some cases where there is an apparently overwhelming and insurmountable barrier to fertility, such as blocked tubes, there are effective steps they can take to overcome their problems. These measures, some of which involve simple changes in lifestyle, and others which involve the use of alternative or complementary medicine, can give control back to couples and improve their health and general well-being, and may help them to have a baby. For example, it has been proven that relatively moderate caffeine consumption both delays and reduces a woman's chances of conception. Although women who drink a lot of coffee, tea, and cola do become pregnant, those with borderline fertility may not.

Moreover, alternative therapies have helped many couples to have the children that they so wanted. Because infertility is such a sensitive subject, many couples who have used these methods successfully prefer to keep it to themselves. For this reason, combined with the lack of published research on infertility and complementary medicine, its efficacy may be either unknown or underestimated. However, as the stories in this book show, plenty of couples feel that it has been effective for them. They believe it has worked by restoring them to health generally so that they started to function well and became fit for pregnancy or fatherhood. Specific imbalances or areas of ill health were corrected so that their entire bodies became stronger, rather than particular organs being targeted and forced into action in isolation (as may occur, for example, when drugs to induce ovulation are employed).

Drug prescription, even when effective, removes conception from the intimate relationship between partners and means that it is to some extent beyond their control. Besides this loss of control, there are drawbacks and disadvantages to all forms of medically assisted conception, and some of them have potentially serious long-term effects. Many couples would prefer to avoid these risks -- if they realized they had a choice, or knew alternatives were available. Several women who describe overcoming infertility with the help of alternative therapists went to them because they had been offered drugs to induce ovulation but were reluctant to take them when they learned of the possible side effects. Several were not told, despite asking the prescribing doctor, and it is undoubtedly true that some fertility drugs are given to women without careful provision having been made for monitoring their response, as recommended by the manufacturers of the drugs.

Disturbing reports are also emerging about the long-term as well as short-term disadvantages of assisted conception. Increased miscarriage levels and premature and multiple births are not only very distressing but have considerable cost implications, both personally and generally. Babies born prematurely, or as one of twins or more, are at a disadvantage from the start, but there are also some reports of increased rates of ovarian cancer in women who have taken fertility drugs and of cancer in the babies of mothers who have had ovulation induced by drugs.

The numbers involved are tiny and doubtless many couples are prepared to take this and many other, more immediate, risks in order to have a baby. They may not, until now, have realized that there were any other paths to pursue. Fortunately, for couples with unexplained infertility -- and others -- there are alternatives.

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A personal view

I am fortunate enough to have several children, most of whom were conceived without difficulty. Therefore, you may not think I am qualified to write about infertility. It is true that I have no personal experience of primary infertility. Yet, although it may be even less discussed than primary infertility, many couples suffer from secondary infertility, defined as being unable to have the number of children that you want. There is also a subdivision, known technically as infecundity, which is defined as failure to have a live birth and due in my case, and that of many others, not to an inability to become pregnant, but to stay that way until the baby stands a chance of life.

I had recurrent miscarriages for five years and remember, although I would prefer not to, those awful days of despair, rising hope being dashed yet again and a strong feeling that no one had the remotest idea of how I felt. Easy assumptions about being over it, or that it was unimportant, because we already had children, and other such heedless comments or actions went deep. In common with other women who miscarry, especially if it is more than once, I felt it would just about be tolerable if I knew everything would finally be all right, even if it took a long time to happen. It was the uncertainty of our ever succeeding, together with putting life on hold, not starting a new career and always thinking that I could not take on anything very challenging because we might soon have another baby that means I do have some idea of what it is like. Moreover, I was offered inappropriate drugs and investigations and finally told to go home and come to terms with it. I felt no one looked at my case with any real thought or offered any hope.

As a result of our experiences, a colleague and I started a bereavement group for parents who lose babies either during pregnancy or shortly after birth. Quite a few of the people who attended had lost a baby that had taken months or years to conceive. It is a particularly bitter fact that couples who do not conceive easily may experience a higher rate of miscarriage when they do. Yet among those couples are some who have improved their fertility by using alternative therapies. Several of the group members who had had one, two or more miscarriages eventually had the baby they wanted after hearing my story, and consulting a medical herbalist.

Herbal medicine, I felt, was the end of the line for me -- I was even reluctant to try it in case it failed. Nothing else had worked. However, three months' treatment together with self-prescribed iron supplements did the trick. Despite fairly hefty stress levels, I became and stayed pregnant and eventually gave birth to a beautiful daughter. Two years later and without any additional treatment, we had a lovely son, born two and a half weeks late at home.

Enhancing Fertility Naturally by Nicky Wesson. This article is excerpted from the book

Enhancing Fertility Naturally: Holistic Therapies for a Successful Pregnancy
by Nicky Wesson.

Reprinted with permission of Healing Arts Press, a division of Inner Traditions International. ©1999. Visit their website at www.innertraditions.com.

For info or to order this book.

About The Author 

NICKY WESSON is a member of the Association for the Improvement in Maternity Services, a National Childbirth Trust teacher, and the author of Natural Mothering: A Guide to Holistic Therapies for Pregnancy, Birth, and Early Childhood and Labor Pain : A Natural Approach to Easing Delivery.



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