“My husband and I are suffering from infertility,” my patient tells me. “Does this have to do with things like lifestyle, or is it just bad luck? Is there anything we can do to reverse this situation?”
I’m sad to say today one in seven couples suffer from infertility, which researchers define as the diminished ability or the inability to conceive and have offspring, or more specifically, failure to conceive after a year of regular intercourse without contraception.
The questions becomes, why have infertility rates increased?
While there are no easy answers here, I don’t believe it’s coincidence that infertility has increased just like diabetes and obesity has. That’s because excess sugar and subsequent belly fat drive hormonal imbalances and create infertility.
In women, these imbalances manifest as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which is really a nutritional and metabolic problem that adversely affects insulin and other hormones.
PCOS symptoms include irregular or heavy periods, acne, facial hair, scalp hair loss, increased belly fat, and increased levels of testosterone. Studies show PCOS affects 8 to 12 percent of all women, which interestingly correlates with the number of couples who suffer infertility.
In men, infertility manifests as lower testosterone, which indicates other hormones like insulin are also out of whack. Among the consequences are bellies, breasts (or man boobs), low sperm count, and decreased sex drive.
While problems like PCOS and low testosterone need to be properly assessed, diagnosed, and treated to get your metabolism working again, you have far more control over infertility than you might realize.
Insulin: The Key Driver for Infertility
Many of these hormone imbalances are primarily caused by pre-diabetes. A diet heavy in sugar and refined carbohydrates increases insulin levels to create organ fat and belly fat, which drive infertility.
Our genetic code evolved at a time when we were eating 20 teaspoons of sugar a year. That means our insulin response can handle vastly lower levels of sugar than the 152 pounds of sugar and 146 pounds of flour, which converts to sugar, we eat on average every year.
Our bodies respond to this sugar overload the only way they know how: They keep pumping out insulin. Eventually we become resistant to all this insulin in our blood, just as we would become resistant to a drug, and your body needs more and more of it to do the same job it once did with far less.
So our insulin production system spirals out of control, pumping ever more into our bodies. All this insulin tells us we are starving (that’s literally the message our bodies get), so we crave foods with high-sugar content—the very same foods that caused the problem in the first place.
High levels of insulin do a number of other things to your body, and none of them are good. It tells your body to gain weight around the belly, and you become more apple-shaped over time.
Insulin, your fat-storage hormone, also drives more inflammation and oxidative stress, and myriad downstream effects including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, low HDL, high triglycerides, poor sex drive, infertility, thickening of the blood, and increased risk of cancer, Alzheimer’s, and depression.
Knowing all this, it should come as no surprise that the high insulin levels that pave the way for pre-diabetes can also cause impotence in men and infertility in women.
The good news is that you can implement some powerful lifestyle strategies to reverse pre-diabetes, balance your hormones, and reverse infertility and other issues.
Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard wrote about his research on infertility caused by pre-diabetes in The Fertility Diet. Researchers here studied fertility in 19,000 women from the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study. They found that a majority of infertility, which affects one in seven couples, might be treated effectively through diet, lifestyle, and supplements.
I have seen that happen time and time again with my patients like Lisa.
One Patient’s Story
Lisa desperately wanted children. After failing treatment with the best infertility specialists in the New Jersey/ New York area, she came to see me. Her doctors told her she had PCOS, which as I mentioned is primarily caused by pre-diabetes.
After pills and shots and hormone cocktails that pushed and prodded her ovaries to work properly, after multiple in vitro fertilization (IVF) attempts at $15,000 a pop, there was still no baby for Lisa.
Yet Lisa’s problem wasn’t her ovaries. It was her diet. Three months after she transformed her diet from processed to whole, fresh, real foods, started exercising daily, and began taking nutritional supplements that support normal blood sugar metabolism, Lisa got pregnant naturally.
A year later, I got a cute baby picture with a little note attached that said, “Thanks Dr. Hyman for getting me pregnant.” I wasn’t sure how to explain that to my wife at the time!
In fact, using the strategies in this blog, I have gotten many women pregnant, and my office wall is full of baby pictures.
A Different Approach to Infertility
I help people struggling with fertility by looking at the underlying causes and correcting them. Studies confirm addressing lifestyle factors – including nutrition, weight, exercise, psychological stress, as well as environmental and occupational exposure –could have substantial effects on fertility.
I fix these nutritional deficiencies by having patients take a multivitamin and other supplements and eating a whole food, low-glycemic-load, nutrient-rich, plant-based diet. Those strategies alone can have an enormous impact on fertility. In addition, Dr. David Ludwig found that a low-glycemic-load diet prevented preterm labor in over weight women.
While I ultimately encourage you to work with a Functional Medicine doctor to address and correct these problems, I have found these seven strategies can help anyone (female and male) balance hormones, reverse infertility, and create abundant health.
- Go low-glycemic. Take away processed and sugary foods and replace them with a low-sugar diet that includes plenty of good fats and lean animal protein. In my practice, I’ve found a high-fat, low-sugar diet becomes the best solution to reverse infertility. To detox from sugar, gluten, dairy, and other health-jeopardizing foods, try my The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet, which provides a comprehensive, easy-to-follow plan in just 10 days.
- Implement supplements. The right nutrients benefit both men and women by increasing sperm count and otherwise decreasing infertility risk. One study found nutrients like L-carnitine, vitamins C and E, N-acetylcysteine, zinc, and coenzyme Q10 could increase male fertility four-fold. Other good nutrients to reduce infertility include vitamin D, fish oil, and B vitamins. You can find these and other supplements in my store.
- Fix your gut. Researchers are discovering the wide-ranging roles gut microbes and optimal gut health contribute to obesity, PCOS, hormonal imbalances, and much more. Tend your inner garden with gut-supporting foods like fermented foods, as well as fiber and probiotics. If you suspect gut issues like leaky gut or IBS, work with a Functional Medicine practitioner to correct them.
- Exercise regularly. Studies show increased physical activity and other lifestyle modifications become a first-line approach to managing PCOS. Consistent exercise can have profound effects on balancing hormones, reducing sugar cravings, and otherwise improving fertility. Whether you’re a newbie or a pro, you can find an easy-to-implement, effective exercise plan here.
- Control stress. Among many other problems, prolonged, unremitting stress may lead to insulin resistance, diminished sex drive, and infertility. Many patients find my UltraCalm CD is an effective way to melt away stress and anxiety.
- Get sufficient sleep. Studies show sleep disturbances diminish women’s health and wellbeing and can contribute to infertility. Those are among the reasons why you want to aim for eight hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep every night. You can find 19 of my top sleep tips here.
- Reduce your environmental toxin exposure. Studies show environmental chemicals can knock hormones out of balance and contribute to infertility. Become more aware about how these chemicals impact you. For instance, if you drink bottled water, choose glass or clear, hard, durable plastic containers (versus soft, opaque, thin, easily bendable plastic). Soft plastics tend to release toxic chemicals, including phythalates and bisphenol A, which have been linked to hormonal disorders and infertility. Visit the Environmental Working Group’s page to learn more about reducing chemical exposure.
When many patients struggling with infertility initially visit me, they feel hopeless. Yet through the power of Functional Medicine, we can trace back what causes infertility and eventually reverse this condition.
If you have ever struggled with infertility, what strategies would you add to this list? Did you take a conventional or Functional Medicine approach to fixing it? And did you have success? Share your story below or on my Facebook page.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD.