Despite infertility affecting both men and women, fertility is often considered a women’s issue. About 9 percent of men and about 11 percent of women of reproductive age in the United States have experienced fertility problems, according to the National Institutes of Health. The good news: There are ways to boost fertility. The problem is that they’re not regularly discussed. The topic of infertility is often stigmatized, which can impact a woman’s anxiety levels and mental health. This stigma exacerbates the problem by creating chronic stress—itself a leading cause of infertility.
Talking more openly about fertility issues as a society can help lessen this stigma and the chronic stress it creates. But on an individual level, boosting fertility should involve a whole-body approach that incorporates an understanding of the menstrual cycle and Ayurvedic practices.
Understanding the menstrual cycle
Having a better understanding of your menstrual cycle is important when you’re trying to conceive, says reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist Nidhee Sachdev, MD, FACOG. The cycle consists of two phases—the follicular phase and the luteal phase—and the length of first varies by individual. That’s why it’s important that those who are looking to increase their fertility understand their unique cycles. For example, people with longer menstrual cycles will have a longer follicular phase and ovulate later, making the “fertile window” land at a later point in their cycle.
The follicular phase
During the first phase of your cycle, a follicle—a sac within the ovary that contains an egg—grows over the course of 10 to 20 days (on average). As it grows, the follicle produces estrogen, which prepares the uterus for implantation. Ovulation happens once the follicle has reached a certain size and the resulting estrogen levels trigger a release of the hormone LH (luteinizing hormone). The “fertile window” consists of the days leading up to ovulation.
The luteal phase
Phase two of the cycle begins following ovulation, marked by a rise in the hormone progesterone, which helps maintain pregnancy. If pregnancy does not occur, progesterone slowly declines and results in a bleed (your period). This part of the cycle is about 14 days for everyone, regardless of the cycle length.
Ovulation is an often misunderstood aspect of the conception process, Dr. Sachdev says. Ovulation occurs at predictable intervals for individuals with regular menstrual cycles—but it’s not always that straightforward. Here are ways to help you identify when you are ovulating:
Ovulation predictor kits (OPK)
OPKs are urine-based tests that tell you how much LH, the hormone that triggers ovulation, is in your system. A surge of LH indicates that you are in the most fertile stage of your menstrual cycle, and that it’s an ideal time to have intercourse. Start testing around day 10 of your cycle in you have a 28-day cycle; if your cycle is irregular, start testing 4–5 days before that. Do the test between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. (using one first thing in the morning could lead to a false negative).
Basal body temperature (BBT) tracking
Take your temperature daily using a basal body thermometer first thing in the morning and keep a log of it. There is a subtle rise (about 1 degree) in your body temperature in the days following ovulation. Keeping track of your BBT over several cycles can give you a sense of when—and if—you’re ovulating.
Cervical mucus changes in the days preceding ovulation. The mucus becomes thin and stretchy in consistency, often described as “egg white” in appearance.
If, after a few cycles, it’s not clear when and if you’re ovulating, that’s OK. Reach out to your ob-gyn or a fertility specialist to discuss your situation. (It is also a good idea for men to visit their healthcare provider to get a semen count to ascertain if there are any issues.) Even if you learn that you are not ovulating regularly, try not to worry. There are ways your doctor can help.
How Ayurveda can help with infertility
Ayurveda, the ancient Indian science of life, brings the body and mind into equilibrium for optimal well-being. Ayurvedic wellness counselor and Vedic meditation teacher Kay Moore MBA, JD, notes that in Ayurveda anatomy, there are seven layers of tissue in the body: plasma, blood, muscle, fat, bones, nerves, and reproductive tissue. Collectively, these seven tissues are called the dhatus. “What we consume nourishes each of these tissues, one after the other, with the reproductive tissues being the last and most difficult to nourish,” says Moore.
In Ayurveda, the key component to digestion is agni (Sanskrit for “fire”). Agni governs the digestion, absorption, and assimilation of food. Having weak agni causes digestive issues, which can impact fertility. Poor digestion leads to the last of the dhatus, the reproductive tissues, not getting what they truly need. Incomplete digestion also leads to the accumulation of toxins in the digestive tract and throughout the entire body, says Moore.
Even if your food is of the highest quality, vital vitamins and nutrients will not be absorbed and used if your body does not process them appropriately. Fortunately, there are easy ways to encourage proper nutrient absorption and improve digestion:
- Eat ginger. Ginger is a highly revered spice in Ayurveda that stimulates digestive strength. Eating a thin, fresh slice of ginger (peeled) with a squeeze of lime and a pinch of Himalayan salt 10–15 minutes before a meal helps increase your digestive fire.
- Have your largest meal at lunchtime. Agni is at its strongest at the height of the day.
- Avoid overeating. Aim to be satisfied, not full.
- Consume warm foods and warm liquids. In Western culture, it is customary to have ice water or another cold beverage with our meals. But what happens when we toss cold liquid on a fire? It is extinguished. That is exactly what we are doing to our digestive fire when we consume cold drinks with our food. Instead, drink room temperature or warm beverages. When it comes to food, cook vegetables instead of eating them raw.
Lowering stress can also help you conceive
Properly digesting your food isn’t the only way to nourish your dhatus. It is equally important to digest your emotions, says Moore. Remember, chronic stress is a primary driver for infertility.
Chronic stress from anger, anxiety, depression, fear, resentment, and worry takes a toll on us physically, emotionally, and psychologically. The brain and the body are very intimately connected. When stress goes up, fertility goes down. Chronic stress keeps our brain in fight-or-flight mode, which is a constant state of alert. When a body has consistently high levels of cortisol, the endocrine system—which is responsible for reproductive hormones like progesterone—is severely weakened. Chronic stress can also shut down the pituitary gland, which is responsible for releasing hormones, including LH.
Pregnancy places additional stress on the body. If your body must choose between self-preservation and taking on pregnancy, it will innately prioritize self-preservation. This is tantamount to the oxygen mask rule given on airplanes; in case of emergency, you are always told to put on your oxygen mask first before assisting others.
For many women, our first inclination is to help others first and take care of ourselves last. Yet, if the desired goal is a healthy, viable pregnancy, we must do the inverse and decrease stress hormones. Here are two things that can help reduce stress and improve fertility:
- Ashwagandha. Ashwagandha (also known as Indian ginseng) is a powerful Āyurvedic herb with a plethora of health benefits. It is a calming adaptogen herb that notably increases the body’s resistance to stress. Ashwagandha improves the balance in the body while decreasing the stress hormone, cortisol, says Moore. Twice a day, about 30 minutes after eating, either take a 400–500 mg capsule of the herb or mix 1 tsp of the powder into a cup of warm milk or water (sweeten with honey to taste).
- Meditation. Introducing a regular meditation practice is also helpful. Meditating daily can significantly aid in reducing negative emotions alongside mental and emotional stress.
Anusha Wijeyakumar is a wellness consultant at Hoag Hospital in Orange County, California, and author of Meditation with Intention.