People around the world have experimented with herbal medicine for centuries. Today, it's being increasingly used in the West to treat women and men who experience infertility. Still, the science is thin and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine suggests there is little evidence to support the notion that herbs can increase your fertility.
If you are considering herbal remedies for infertility, it is important to realize that time is of the essence with some causes of infertility, and depending on your age, you may not want to waste your time pursuing treatments that are not proven to work. Additionally, herbs can be toxic if over-consumed or combined with other herbs and prescription drugs. For this reason, it is vital that you consult with a medical professional first before taking any herbal remedies--this means your general practitioner or any other physician. Your fertility specialist should also be aware of any herbs you plan to take.
Herbs and fertility
Herbs originate from plants and plant extracts from a wide variety of natural resources, including plant leaves, bark, flowers, roots, and fruits and berries. Some practitioners will use a combination of herbs to create formulas that are based on your reproductive-related needs. Others may use them in concert with other fertility treatments, such as in vitro fertilization. It is believed--though not proven--that some herbs can:
- Normalize and boost the endocrine system, which secretes hormones throughout your body
- Reduce the risk of miscarriage
- Balance your hormones
- Regulate your menstrual cycles
- Increase your cervical mucus
- Strengthen the uterine lining
- Correct erectile dysfunction
- Improve sperm and egg quality
- Improve polycystic ovarian syndrome and endometriosis
What do studies say about herbal medicine and fertility?
Some studies claim Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) may be able to improve both a man and a woman's fertility. An article published in a 2011 issue of Complementary Therapies in Medicine reviewed previous studies on the topic and concluded that using CHM may improve pregnancy rates two-fold as compared to Western fertility therapies. Improvements seemed to stem from the herbs' ability to regulate a woman's menstrual cycles. Other studies on CHM suggest there might be benefits to using it in conjunction with in vitro fertilization.
For men, some studies suggest that CHM could improve sperm quality. One particular Chinese study showed promise for several herbs, including Korean blackberry, Japanese cornelian cherry and five-flavor berry as sperm boosters. However, the herbs were deemed toxic and counterproductive at higher concentrations.
Which herbs are used to treat fertility?
If you are given a herbal medicine formula, it may be based on a few factors including your age, general health and the specific fertility challenge you have. Here is a list of the most popular herbs used, as well as their "presumed" benefits:
Herbs for women
- Lady’s Mantle: Builds up the uterine lining and regulates menstruation
- Red Clover: Helps nourish the uterus and relax the nervous system.
- Raspberry Leaf: Restores hormonal balance
- False Unicorn Root: Restores hormonal balance and helps to stimulate the ovaries and encourage ovulation
- Stinging Nettle: Regulates the body’s hormones, ovulation and menstruation
- Chasteberry: Balances hormones, decreases prolactin and increasing progesterone. This is said to help regulate a woman's menstrual cycle, which can up her chances for conception.
- Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA): Increases a woman's sex drive
Herbs for men
- Ginseng: Increases testosterone levels, sperm count, and motility, and improves the quality of erections
- Astralagus: Improves sperm motility and concentration
- Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA): Helps with erectile dysfunction (ED)
- L-arginine: Stimulates blood vessels, thus improving blood flow and relieving ED
- Panax ginseng: Improve sexual functions
- Yohimbe: Helps sustain erections and relieve sex-related side effects of certain antidepressants
- L-carnitine, vitamin E, coenzyme Q10, folic acid and vitamin C: Helps improve sperm quality and movement
The Mayo Clinic specifically recommends against using gingko or horny goat weed, both of which are commonly used as ED solutions. Also, products labeled “herbal Viagra” may cause dangerous side effects, and often contain uncertain amounts of potent ingredients.
What are the risks associated with herbal remedies?
Just because herbal medicines come from natural plant sources does not mean they aren’t dangerous if taken incorrectly. Like traditional medications, herbal remedies can create a variety of reactions, and interact negatively with other herbs, prescription medications and over-the-counter drugs. Herbal remedies are not monitored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and may cause the following side effects to occur:
- Heart attack
- Dry mouth
- Nausea and vomiting
- Elevated blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat
It is important to seek out a qualified herbalist and to discuss all herbs taken with a physician or other healthcare providers. As with prescribed medicines, instructions for taking herbal remedies must be followed exactly, and any side effects should be reported to a physician immediately.
American Society for Reproductive Medicine. (2013). Optimizing natural fertility: a committee opinion.
Cao H, Han M, Ng EH, Wu X, et al. (2013). Can Chinese herbal medicine improve outcomes of in vitro fertilization? A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.
Njamen D, Mvondo MA, & Djiogue S. (2013). Phytotherapy and women's reproductive health: the Cameroonian perspective. Planta Med.
Kim SJ, Kim MR, Hwang SY, Bae WJ, et al. (2013). Preliminary report on the safety of a new herbal formula and its effect on sperm quality. World J Men's Health
Chasteberry. (2012). National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Pub No. D335
Luisa C. (2012). Chinese herbal medicine is twice as effective for infertility as conventional Western drug therapy. Natural News.
Ried K& Stuart K. (2011) Efficacy of traditional Chinese herbal medicine in the management of female infertility: a systematic review. Complement Ther Med.
Updated August 2014