ANCIENT WISDOM, MODERN SCIENCE
Natural fertility support for men and women.
INFERTILITY is the inability to conceive after one year of unprotected intercourse. Women who are able to get pregnant but then have repeated miscarriages are also said to be infertile.
Infertility affects approximately 10% of people of reproductive age1, and 15% of couples. In 40% of infertility cases, the cause of infertility is the man; another 40% of cases involve a female factor; and 10% of the cases involve both sexes.
Healthy sexual function in men encompasses broadly two interrelated steps – spermatogenesis (formation of sperms), and performance of the male sexual act, which involves arousal leading to erection, orgasm and eventually ejaculation.
In men, hormone disorders, illness, reproductive anatomy trauma and obstruction, sexual dysfunction, oxidative stress and external factors (heat, chemicals, and lifestyle) can temporarily or permanently affect sperm and prevent conception.
Common male infertility factors include azoospermia (no sperm cells are produced), asthenozoospermia (decreased motility of sperm) and oligospermia (few sperm cells are produced). Sometimes, sperms are deformed or die before they reach the egg.
Many herbs have been shown to be beneficial in sperm production.
Herbs like Vanya kahu (Lactuca scariola), and Kapikacchu (Mucuna pruriens) are potent antioxidants, and reduce oxidative damage to sperm by preventing disruption in the membrane integrity of sperms2,3.
Kapikacchu has aphrodisiacal properties and is beneficial in oligozoospermia (insufficient sperm cells in the semen). Treatment with Kapikacchu has been shown to increase sperm count.
L-dopa, a precursor of the neurotransmitter dopamine, isolated from Kapikacchu4, has been shown to increase sperm production5. Kapikacchu also prevents male sterility and acts as a nervine tonic.
Protodioscin, an active principle from the herb Gokshura (Tribulus terrestris), is converted to DHEA (De-Hydro-Epi-Androsterone), which is a precursor of testosterone, and thus improves sexual desire and sperm production6.
While reduced sperm count and poor quality of sperm are significant factors in male infertility, adequate sexual performance is essential for the release of sperm and a successful mating of sperm with the egg. And this depends on achieving satisfactory erection and ejaculation of sperm into the female reproductive tract.
Erectile dysfunction, sometimes called “impotence”, is the repeated inability to get or keep an erection firm enough for sexual intercourse. When a man becomes aroused, his central nervous system stimulates the release of a number of chemicals, including acetylcholine and nitric oxide, which relax the smooth muscles in the penis, allowing blood to flow into the tiny pool-like sinuses and flood the penis.
Increased blood flow increases the pressure in the spongy tissue (corpus cavernosum) in the penis, causing it to become rigid. Studies show that adequate levels of testosterone stimulate the production of vasoactive substances like nitric oxide (NO), resulting in satisfactory erection7.
A study showed that treatment with Gokshura (Tribulus terrestris) increased the intracavernous pressure in the penis and enhanced sexual behaviour. This is possibly due to the herb’s ability to increase androgen (testosterone) levels and the subsequent release of nitric oxide from the nerve endings innervating the corpus cavernosum, resulting in improved blood flow to the penis and in turn improvement in the functioning of the musculature in the penile region8.
Finally, a healthy male reproductive tract is essential for enhanced male fertility. The male reproductive tract is controlled by a well-balanced hormonal system, in which hypothalamic, pituitary and testicular hormones (androgens) participate. Any disturbance of this hormonal system may therefore lead to testicular dysfunction and interfere with spermatogenesis9 (production of sperm).
Many other herbs used in Ayurveda such as, Bala (Sida cordifolia) and Salabmisri (Orchis mascula) have fertility enhancing functions.
Sida cordifolia is mainly used in nervous disorders, general debility and sexual inadequacy. The tuberous root of Orchis mascula has good nutritional value and is used as a tonic and aphrodisiac.
The most common female infertility problem is an ovulation disorder. Ovulation is necessary for the release of the egg from the ovary. Some signs that a woman is not ovulating normally include irregular or absent menstrual periods.
Other causes of infertility include blocked fallopian tubes (the tube through which the egg travels from the ovary to uterus), endocrine disorders, uterine fibroids, and anatomical defects of the uterus.
Several other factors such as age, stress, poor diet, athletic training, being overweight or underweight, tobacco smoking, alcohol, sexually transmitted diseases (STD), health problems that cause hormonal changes, can affect a woman’s ability to have a baby.
Herbs like Ashoka (Saraca asoca), Lodhra (Symplocos racemosa), Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus), and Kumari (Aloe barbadensis) are used in Ayurveda for the treatment of female infertility.
Saraca asoca is a small evergreen tree. Its bark contains an oestrogenic compound and has a stimulating effect on the endometrium (inner layer of uterus) and ovarian tissue.
It is useful in menorrhagia (excessive menstrual bleeding) due to uterine fibroids, leukorrhoea (white discharge) and in internal bleeding. It is well established for its effectiveness in menorrhagia and dysmenorrhoea.
It also has a stimulatory effect on the ovarian tissue and may produce an oestrogen-like effect that enhances the repair of the endometrium and stops bleeding.
Symplocos racemosa is an evergreen tree, with white to yellowish flowers, and purplish black drupes. Its astringent bark is given for the treatment of diarrhoea, dysentery and liver complaints. It is recommended in the treatment of menorrhagia and other uterine disorders.
The stem bark has anti-inflammatory properties. S. racemosa is used in Ayurveda for various female disorders. Studies have reported that S. racemosa stimulates and increases the levels of reproductive hormo-nes, FSH (Follicular Stimulating Hor-mone) and LH10 (Luteinising Horm-one). An increase in the ovary weig-ht was also found due to the observed FSH surge. These results are in concordance with the traditional use of this herb for female disorders.
Asparagus racemosus is a multi-branched, spinous under-shrub, bearing numerous succulent and tuberous roots. The plant contains triterpene saponins, which are phytoestrogen compounds.
The plant is demulcent, aphrodisiac and galactagogue (promotes secretion of milk). The results of a study suggests an oestrogenic effect of the herb on the female mammary gland and genital organs11.
A. racemosus is often used for infertility, threatened miscarriage, leukorrhoea and menopausal problems. It nourishes the ovum and increases fertility.
Aloe barbadensis is a coarse-looking perennial plant with a short stem, with crowded leaves that have spiny teeth on the margins. Aloes have long been in use for a host of diseases such as, digestive, skin and liver ailments.
A study on Aloes showed that the in-vitro production of oestradiol and progesterone by ovarian cells was significantly increased12 by it.
In another study, the leaf mixture of Aloe and other herbs induced a significant increase in ovarian and uterine weight as well as serum and ovarian oestradiol13.
These results clearly attest the direct effects of some chemical components of the leaf mixture on the production of reproductive hormones.
Infertility is a cause for concern. Nevertheless, for a substantial percentage of men and women with reproductive disorders, adopting changes in lifestyle, healthy exercise and dietary habits, reducing stress levels along with appropriate herbal supplementation can help overcome infertility.
1. “Frequently Asked Questions About Infertility”. American Society for Reproductive Medicine. 2006.
2. Tripathi YB, et al. Effect of the alcohol extract of the seeds of Mucuna pruriens on free radicals and oxidative stress in albino rats. Phytother Res. 2002;16(6):534-38.
3. Kim DK. Antioxidative components from the aerial parts of Lactuca scariola L. Arch Pharm Res. 2001;24(5):427-30.
4. Tomita-Yokotani K, et al. Distribution of L-DOPA in the root of velvet bean plant (Mucuna pruriens L.) and gravity. Biol Sci Space. 2004;18(3):165-66.
5. Minucci S, et al. Dopamine regulation of testicular activity in intact and hypophysectomized frogs, Rana esculenta. Experientia 1993;49(1):65-67.
6. Adimoelja A. Phytochemicals and the breakthrough of traditional herbs in the management of sexual dysfunctions. Int J Androl. 2000;23 Suppl 2:82-84.
7. Caretta N, et al. Erectile dysfunction in aging men: Testosterone role in therapeutic protocols. J Endocrinol Invest. 2005;28(11 Suppl bis):108-11.
8. Gauthaman K, et al. Sexual effects of puncturevine (Tribulus terrestris) extract (protodioscin): an evaluation using a rat model. J Altern Complement Med. 2003;9(2):257-65.
9. Weber RF, et al. Clinical laboratory evaluation of male subfertility. Adv Clin Chem. 2005;40:317-64.
10. Bhutani KK, et al. Effect of Symplocos racemosa Roxb. on gonadotropin release in immature female rats and ovarian histology. J Ethnopharmacol. 2004;94(1):197-200.
11. Pandey SK, et al. Effect of Asparagus racemosus rhizome (Shatavari) on mammary gland and genital organs of pregnant rat. Phytother Res. 2005;19(8):721-24.
12. Telefo PB, et al. Inductive effect of the leaf mixture extract of Aloe buettneri, Justicia insularis, Dicliptera verticillata and Hibiscus macranthus on in vitro production of estradiol. J Ethnopharmacol. 2004;91(2-3):225-30.
13. Telefo PB, et al. Oestrogenicity and effect on hepatic metabolism of the aqueous extract of the leaf mixture of Aloe buettneri, Dicliptera verticillata, Hibiscus macranthus and Justicia insularis. Fitoterapia 2002;73(6):472-78.