a guest post by Dr. Fiona McCulloch BSc ND
Although I am a naturopathic doctor, around 30% of my practice involves working with patients who are going through In Vitro Fertilization (IVF). You might ask how I became interested in this, as it seems like such an unusual combination.
I began to treat infertility early in my practice 12 years ago with natural medicine, and over time I saw many challenging cases of patients who had gone through traditional fertility treatments before deciding to try the natural route. In many of these patients, natural medicine would be the key to success. And in others, the combination of natural and traditional fertility treatment was the answer.
As such, I became interested in the whole process of what I like to call “integrative fertility”, meaning traditional fertility treatments that are supported by natural methods. I became a physician advisor to IVF.Ca, one of the world’s largest IVF related fertility communities, and I began to notice that patients, when supported well with natural medicine, began to have greater success with their IVF cycles, with more follicles of better quality and greater implantation rates. The patients’ doctors began to notice too, and slowly, over time, I’ve seen more traditional fertility clinics open their minds to natural and nutritional methods to increase IVF success, and science is following suit.
It’s an exciting time—many studies have been released on the beneficial effects of natural methods that help with IVF outcomes, and there are many more to come
Firstly, I’d like to differentiate what I’m going to talk about in this article from what is known as “natural IVF” in conventional fertility medicine.
A natural IVF traditionally involves a medication-free or low-medication IVF cycle: The woman will first go through monitoring, and then egg retrieval without heavy drug stimulation. This results in one egg that is retrieved, which is is then fertilized and allowed to develop. Then, after either 3 or 5 days, the embryo is transferred into the uterus. One benefit of natural IVF is that the lower amounts of medications reduce the impact on egg quality for older women or women with diminished ovarian reserve. The downside is that only one egg is retrieved, meaning that the cycle can result in only one embryo.
On the other hand, I get a lot of patients asking me how to make their IVF cycles more “natural”. These patients are often natural-medicine-oriented, and for various reasons are planning to do a regular stimulated IVF cycle. They want to improve their egg quality, minimize the negative side effects of IVF, and go through their cycle with optimal nutritional status.
Women who are more “natural” in their preferences—who don’t like taking medication even for a headache, and who have always veered towards using natural medicine for their ailments—may feel that IVF is a quantum leap outside of their comfort zone, but there are many good reasons why a woman who would normally prefer natural medicine would need to do IVF.
In some cases, such as severely blocked fallopian tubes, IVF may be the only answer. In other cases, like very serious male factor, it also may be necessary, and there are a variety of other reasons why IVF might be needed. Infertility is a real disease: If you were at risk for a heart attack and required a medical procedure to unblock a crucial artery, would you not do it? Modern medicine does allow us to achieve many outcomes which were not possible in past years. Sometimes, IVF is the path to ending the suffering of infertility. And it’s important to remember, that even if you need IVF, you can still use natural medicine to protect your body, reduce side effects, and most importantly, improve your outcome during a medicated IVF cycle. The combination of IVF and natural medicine is indeed a powerful one.
One of the biggest points I want to make, is that the BEST way to have as natural of an IVF as possible, is to have as few IVFs as possible. Meaning, anything you can do improve your chances of success with IVF will result in less cycles, therefore minimizing the risks, stresses and side effects. So much of what I will focus on involves increasing the natural success rate of IVF, but also on making IVF a more friendly process to all of the natural mamas-to-be out there. The other thing I’d like to mention is that preparation for IVF is of the utmost importance.
Start 3 months ahead of time, if possible, preparing your body with high quality nutrition, supplements and stress reduction techniques. Your eggs go through a development process that lasts more than 6 months before ovulation time, so preparation really makes a difference.
Nine ways you can make your IVF more natural:
1. Get acupuncture treatments
It improves circulation, reduces stress and has been shown in multiple studies1 to increase the success rate of IVF.
I often do weekly acupuncture on my patients for 2 months before the cycle, if possible. During the cycle itself, I’ll typically do 4 acupuncture treatments up until and including the day of embryo transfer. Be sure to see someone highly skilled in acupuncture for fertility as the wrong protocols have actually been shown to decrease IVF success rates. http://www.thefertilesoulcefp.org is a great resource to find a skilled fertility acupuncturist in your area, as is http://www.aborm.org.
2. Take natural antioxidants to protect your follicles2.
A well-known supplement in this category is Coenzyme Q10: It has been found that women with high levels of oxidative stress have lower quality follicles3. Coenzyme Q10 is a major antioxidant that can reduce oxidative stress and improve the function of the mitochondria—the major energy producer of the follicle as it goes through its development during stimulation.
Other supplements that may improve IVF success include myo-inositol and melatonin. There are a variety of others that might be prescribed for you if you visit a naturopathic doctor who specializes in fertility.
3. Take a high quality omega 3 fatty acid
To be as natural as possible, choose one that is ethically fished, and third-party-tested for heavy metals and pesticides. Omega 3 fatty acids improve embryo morphology4 and lower inflammation.
4. Eat a clean and natural diet
A diet that’s full of whole foods, and avoid gluten, dairy and sugar. Eat organic foods whenever possible, especially those from the Dirty Dozen list .
5. Meditate or do yoga
The effects of yoga and meditation can be quite profound on stress, and being in as relaxed of a state as possible may actually improve the outcome of your cycle 5.
6. Avoid environmental estrogens in beauty products, plastics and other harmful chemicals
Check out the EDF’s Toxic Ten http://environmentaldefence.ca/reports/just-beautiful-personal-care-products-pocket-shopping-guide to learn about which beauty products have hormonal effects.
7. Try to keep your life in as normal a state as possible
Continue doing the activities you enjoy, and try not to spend excessive amounts of time Googling during the “two week wait”. Although your life is on hold in a way during your cycle, don’t let it get a hold of YOU. Socialize with supportive friends, laugh, and have fun.
8. Minimize estrogenic risks
High levels of estrogen are produced by the ovary during an IVF cycle, which can disrupt the natural hormonal balance of your body. Although the long-term risks of IVF still need more research and study results on cancer risk in IVF patients are conflicting, many patients are interested in preventing breast and ovarian cancer. Other risks of high estrogen may include increased growth of fibroids, endometriosis, or cysts. Genetic testing is now available for breast cancer genes, such as Estrogenomics by Genova Diagnostics.
Some foods may help to protect you from these risks post-IVF as well: EGCG, found in green tea, may inhibit the proliferation of breast cancer cells, Calcium D-Glucarate is a supplement that helps eliminate excess estrogen6, and Sulphoraphane, found in broccoli, can help inhibit the expression of estrogen receptors in breast cancer cells7.
**Be aware that taking these supplements is not recommended during the actual IVF cycle as they may interfere with hormonal stimulation. The exception to this is green tea; if you are supervised by a doctor who can ensure that you are taking sufficient amounts of the correct form of folic acid.
9. Protect yourself from ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, one of the most well-known risks of IVF
Around 30 percent of patients experience at least a mild case of OHSS. If you are a younger women, or a women with PCOS, be aware that you are at higher risk for OHSS and keep an eye out for the key symptoms of bloating and abdominal pain or nausea, and contact your fertility clinic immediately. A natural method you can use to prevent the dehydration associated with OHSS is to begin drinking coconut water around the time of retrieval, and have moderate amounts of homemade vegetable or organic chicken broth made with natural sea salt.
With the combination of great nutrition, and the relaxation techniques mentioned above, your IVF treatment can be an exciting and empowering time for you. You’ll be confident in the knowledge that you’re taking positive, proactive steps to improve your fertility, allowing natural and pharmaceutical medicine to work in harmony for the best possible results.
Bio: Dr. Fiona McCulloch BSc ND is a board-certified Naturopathic Doctor and the owner of White Lotus Integrative Medicine in Toronto, Canada. Dr. Fiona is an affiliate of The Fertile Soul, and is involved in writing and research in the world of natural fertility treatments. Her research-based blog includes articles she has published in leading naturopathic journals. Fiona struggled with PCOS herself, and is passionate about natural approaches to reversing reproductive disorders.