As reproductive specialists, part of our obligation is to improve a woman’s or couple’s ability to conceive in the most cost-effective manner, ideally through natural attempts at conception. While assisted reproductive technologies (ART) have provided impressive pregnancy rates across many diagnoses, including unexplained infertility, this advanced procedure comes with a significant financial cost to those without insurance and an emotional burden from the lack of a guaranteed outcome. Infertility procedures have minimal associated but potentially significant risks, most importantly multiple gestations. Contrary to popular belief, ovulation induction with intrauterine insemination (IUI) treatment has a greater risk of high-order multiple gestation when compared with IVF, given the inability of the former to control the number of embryos that may enter and implant in the endometrial cavity and the increased use of single embryo transfers with the latter. The specialist should evaluate the woman or couple for the basic issues of ovulation, tubal, and sperm function, as well as for lifestyle and environmental factors that can impede reproduction. As a result, “one size fits all” should not apply to patients, specifically those with infertility. This month’s column will present the detrimental effect of environmental and lifestyle factors on the goal of enhancing fertility through natural cycles of urine luteinizing-hormone timed intercourse.
Often overlooked in the infertility evaluation, an optimal diet improves fertility for both partners. Processed meat has been associated with reduced sperm quality. In ART, red meat has been associated with decreased embryo blastocyst formation. Lower trans fatty acids and higher omega-3s may improve fecundity. Considered one of the best overall diets, the Mediterranean diet consists of plant-based foods, such as whole grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices. Olive oil is the main source of added fat whereas fish, seafood, dairy, and poultry should be eaten in moderation. Fatty fish, such as mackerel, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to improve fecundity and IVF success, and have a positive association with blastocyst embryo development.1-3
The emotional effect of an infertility diagnosis has been demonstrated to be equivalent to a diagnosis of cancer and other major medical morbidities.4 Whether stress causes or is a result of infertility has been a longstanding debate.5 Nevertheless, stress is the number-one reason patients discontinue fertility treatment.6 As fertility specialists, we must be cognizant of the devastation endured by infertility patients and maintain an open dialogue, as well as provide resources for coping strategies and counseling.
One popular method of improving mental health and fertility has been acupuncture. Initial enthusiasm originated from one of the first studies to explore the use of acupuncture during IVF. This was a prospective randomized study that showed treated patients had an approximately 100% improvement in clinical pregnancy rate. Unfortunately, there was no appropriate control group, just untreated controls.7 A subsequent study by the same investigator added a placebo acupuncture control group and did not show a statistically significant increase in pregnancy rates.8 Finally, a meta-analysis and reanalysis did not demonstrate any improvement in pregnancy outcome, whereas three of the studies analyzed suggested a possible reduction in pregnancies; placebo acupuncture was shown to have a higher success rate.9-11 While acupuncture is relatively safe, there appears to be only a placebo effect that may be helpful.
The effect of stress on reproduction has been addressed in one of my previous columns.