I’ve discovered one benefit of not conceiving as planned: you have the opportunity to get to know your body really well.
Other couples decide they want a baby, go off the Pill, and BLAM: within a few months they’re pregnant. Without ever having really had a chance to learn about their bodies, or really understand how the whole process happened. Which is great, and I envy them; but it also means a bit of a missed opportunity.
Things are different when it takes you almost two years to conceive a much-desired baby — TWICE — and you’re a pathological researcher.
After three and a half combined years of reading, researching, charting, and making lifestyle changes in attempts to get pregnant, I’ve had the chance to learn a LOT. About the female body in general, and also about my body in particular.
I am currently pregnant with my second baby after 19 months of trying (and lots of reading in the meantime). I thought I’d share a few of the things I’ve learned along the way.
Over the last five years, I’ve learned all about the reproductive system and how different hormones interact within the female body. I learned how to track my fertility signs via the fertility awareness method, so that I was familiar with my body’s monthly rhythms. I knew when I ovulated and when I hadn’t. I learned about how environment and food can play a part in all of it. I also learned about my body’s very specific strengths and difficulties.
And through gradual lifestyle changes, both times I was able to conceive naturally, without the help of drugs, surgery, or hormones.
I thought I’d share some of the steps I took, in case there are other women suffering from similar fertility issues, and could benefit from some of my research and experiences.
Please note that I am NOT a qualified expert, and that I have absolutely no scientific proof that any of these steps actually helped me get pregnant. It may have been none of them; it may have been all of them combined. It may have been luck or a miracle from God. I have no way of knowing. I just thought I’d share a few of the things I learned and tried. I hope it might act as a jumping-off place for your own research.
Also note that I was dealing with a very specific problem, which I identified through practicing fertility awareness. If you’re having trouble conceiving, it is very important that you learn the cause of the problem (if possible). This may require the help of a medical doctor or other fertility expert. Your problems could be completely different from my own, and so the steps I took might not be helpful for your situation. (The first step I would recommend, if you haven’t already been doing this, is learning fertility awareness.)
Image courtesy of Hey Paul
My Specific Problem: Short Luteal Phase
After several months of reading and charting, I began to recognize that my problem was that I had a luteal phase deficiency. In other words, I could see that I was ovulating every month, but my post-ovulatory phase — i.e. the luteal phase — was too short. This didn’t give the fertilized egg enough time to make it to the uterus before my uterine lining began to shed (i.e. before I got my period). (It usually takes the egg at least 10 days to travel down the fallopian tube into the uterus; my body was only giving it 6-8 days before initiating menstruation.) It was like a super-early miscarriage every month.
So I began to dig deeper into this very specific problem. I began to focus on the interaction between estrogen and progesterone, the two key hormones involved in the luteal phase.
Here’s a basic breakdown of the process: during the luteal phase, the ovarian follicle that released the egg — now the “corpus luteum” — starts releasing progesterone, which causes the uterine lining (endometrium) to thicken and sustain itself — to prepare for the implantation of the fertilized egg — until the corpus luteum disintegrates. But if it doesn’t release enough progesterone, the lining will start to shed prematurely, preventing implantation of the fertilized egg. Which means pregnancy can’t happen.
So in other words, a short luteal phase — which makes pregnancy impossible — is associated with low levels of progesterone. Fertility doctors frequently treat the condition with progesterone supplementation. I tend to be wary of medical intervention unless absolutely necessary, so I went searching for ways to increase progesterone levels naturally.
I learned from Marilyn Shannon’s Fertility, Cycles and Nutrition that low progesterone levels are usually associated with high estrogen (known as “estrogen dominance”). So part of increasing progesterone levels involves lowering estrogen levels. Many of the steps I list below have this in mind.
B vitamins and diet play a role in regulating estrogen and progesterone levels. As Shannon explains, “If B vitamins are lacking, the liver cannot effectively inactivate estrogen, and estrogen rises” (p. 69). Vitamin B6 in particular can elevate progesterone levels, which works synergistically with magnesium and zinc, among other nutrients.
SO. Having all that in mind, here are some of the things I did to help naturally balance my hormones to lengthen my luteal phase and encourage a natural conception.
Steps I Took To Help Conceive Naturally
I was still nursing my firstborn past her second birthday, when I started to get really anxious about having another baby. I really wanted her to have a sibling, but it just wasn’t happening.
Of course, LOTS of women get pregnant while breastfeeding, especially if breast milk is not the child’s primary source of sustenance (which, at two, it definitely wasn’t). But since I already struggled with low progesterone levels, I guessed that continued nursing wasn’t doing me any favours. Lactating inhibits the development of the corpus luteum, which can lead to low progesterone levels and short luteal phases.
So I decided to completely wean my daughter as a step towards being able to conceive again.
Put on Some Weight
I am a naturally skinny lady. It’s just the way I was built, despite the fact that I love to eat. Extended breastfeeding (see above) also prevented me from gaining weight. And body fat is essential to a healthy pregnancy.
Plenty of slender women have no trouble getting pregnant, but my charts seemed to indicate that perhaps a low BMI was partly responsible for my low progesterone levels. According to Marilyn Shannon, if you have a low BMI, delayed ovulation (i.e. you don’t ovulate until Day 20 or later), along with a short luteal phase, you may be slightly underweight and could benefit from gaining a couple of pounds (p. 108).
Obviously, this was the most enjoyable step as it meant homemade ice cream or buttery stovetop popcorn every night, with the justification that is was “so Lydia can have a sibling.” I also began to put on more weight once I stopped nursing. I knew I was on the right track when my thighs started touching.
Supplementation: Optivite PMT and Vitex Agnus (Chasteberry)
As I mentioned, Vitamin B6, along with magnesium and a host of other vitamins and minerals, are essential to healthy progesterone levels.
I could have tried taking all these vitamins separately, but I discovered a multivitamin (again, via the great Marylin Shannon) that emphasizes these vitamins and is specifically designed balance estrogen and progesterone: Optivite PMT. I took it for several months both times I tried to conceive. It’s not ideal in that it’s a tablet, but it’s reasonably inexpensive and contains all the vitamins in the proportions I was looking for. I got mine directly from the manufacturer, here. (Don’t be weirded out by the format of the site. They delivered directly to my home for a low shipping rate.)
I also took Vitex Agnus (Chasteberry) in capsule form, an herb that is believed to affect many hormones that regulate women’s reproductive cycles. It is gentle, slow-working, and considered extremely safe. Some studies have suggested that it can increase progesterone (Shannon, p. 74). It is also fairly inexpensive and easy to find at your local health food store.
Supplementation: Transdermal Magnesium
I’d read that magnesium is essential in the production of progesterone; however, oral magnesium is very difficult for the body to assimilate. Many health gurus recommend taking magnesium transdermally — i.e. through the skin. It’s much more effective that way.
So I started using magnesium oil. I made my own, using magnesium flakes, and began applying it after showers and before bed. I would toss some Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) into my bath or the floor of the shower to soak some in.
Reducing All Phytoesterogens and Xenoestrogens in my Environment
As I mentioned, low progesterone levels are associated with elevated estrogen levels. And our environments today are incredibly high in phytoestrogens and xenoestrogens — that is, estrogen-mimicking chemicals that can build up in our bodies. These estrogen-like chemicals are found in plastics; body products like shampoo, makeup, deodorant, lotions, etc; and soy products. And they can wreak havoc on our hormones. So I got rid of all of them. I worked to reduce the number of estrogens I was exposed to on a daily basis.
I ditched shampoo in favour of the no-poo method. I started making my own deodorant and lotion. I bought all-natural soaps and ditched all fragrances. I started storing my food in glass instead of plastic. And I cooked from scratch, since soy has a habit of hiding in the most surprising places in pre-packaged food.
I had already done these things with my first pregnancy, but when I found myself unable to get pregnant a second time, I tried to see if there were any more changes I could make. I switched out my homemade laundry detergent, which used Borax (and might contain estrogen-like properties), and started using soap nuts.
When none of the above steps seemed to do enough, I finally gave in and started using over-the-counter progesterone cream. I went with Progestelle Progesterone Oil, since it only contains bioidentical progesterone and coconut oil. (Ironically, many progesterone creams contain xenoestrogens!). I applied it to my skin every cycle during my luteal phase, and continued to use it throughout my first trimester when I finally got pregnant.
My progesterone oil came with a booklet from the Women’s Therapaeutic Institute. In it, the authors suggest that iodine deficiency is often implicated in estrogen dominance. They recommend supplementing iodine. The cheapest and most effective way to take iodine, they suggest, is by applying it to your skin.
I bought a bottle of Lugol’s iodine from my local pharmacy and began applying one drop to my skin a day. I slowly increased this over the next 3 months to 15 drops a day. It stained my skin yellow wherever I applied it and made my laundry smell like iodine; but this is a small price to pay if it did indeed help me to conceive.
Fertility, Cycles and Nutrition – Marilyn M. Shannon. An invaluable resource for learning how to correct menstrual and fertility issues through diet and lifestyle.
Taking Charge of Your Fertility – Toni Weschler. My absolute favourite book on fertility awareness.