6 Steps I Took to Help Conceive Naturally

6 Steps I Took to Help Conceive Naturally (and overcome infertility due to short luteal phase)

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.)

uterus embroidery hoopImage 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

Complete Weaning

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)

supplements to support fertility

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.

Progesterone Cream

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.

Iodine Supplementation

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.

Further Reading

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.

Prepping My Body for Pregnancy #2

It was the spring of 2009. I sat down in my doctor’s office with trembling hands. Ben and I had decided we were ready to become parents. I’d stopped taking the Pill. I wanted to know what I should be doing to prepare my body for pregnancy.

My doctor listened to me as I explained my situation. She was silent for a few moments after I’d finished.

“Well,” she said. “You can start taking Materna.”

She thought a little more. It seemed like no one had ever asked that question before.

“I can test your blood to see if you need to renew your rubella vaccination.”

I agreed to it. I was just so relieved she wasn’t requiring a pap smear.

She took a vial of blood. I walked out. The next time I visited the grocery store, I picked up a bottle of those hard, pink tablets.

A year later, I still wasn’t pregnant.

By the grace of God, around that time I stumbled upon Natural Family Planning through my fellow marriage bloggers (I was writing for Project M at the time). I came across Naturally Knocked Up, which introduced me to the world of Nourishing Traditions and the Weston A Price Foundation – an upside-down world where saturated fats were good for you, whole grains were harmful unless soaked, fruits were overrated, and the best foods were alive with bacteria.

Through vigorous research, I learned and learned about my body. I got to know my cycles and learned to identify hormone problems just by observing cervical fluid. I discovered whole foods and herbal supplements and ancient wisdom about fertility and food.

I was becoming well-steeped in the knowledge of traditional foods when I finally, almost two years after that doctor’s appointment – to my heart’s exuberant joy — became pregnant and carried to term an extraordinarily healthy little girl.

* * *

Now that that little girl is running and jumping into toddlerhood, and my body is starting to return to its old rhythms, my mind is wandering to thoughts of Baby Number Two. This time, though, I’m in a whole new place.

I know how I want to prepare my body for pregnancy.

I am not, by ANY stretch, and expert on the matter. But a friend asked, and I thought I’d offer an overview of how I’m prepping my body for a second pregnancy. (For the record, that’s how little provocation it usually takes to get me to write about something. Just ask. Even if only one person cares, I probably will.)

I have no idea whether or not God will bless me with a second pregnancy. If he does, it might take years. His timing is not my timing, I have discovered.* But in the meantime, I want my body to be as ready as possible. I’m taking steps to make sure, in the event of a pregnancy, that my body is well-nourished and ready to support another life.

Here’s what I’m doing, and why.

(If you’re interested, you can follow my Future Babies pinboard, too.)

Step One: Re-Acquainting Myself with my Rhythms

Those who knew me when I was writing for Project M will remember all my posts about natural family planning or, as I prefer to call it, fertility awareness.

Fertility awareness helped me to identify low progesterone levels, which helped me to pinpoint what kind of supplements I needed to naturally improve my fertility.

Now that my cycles have been coming back, post-partum, I’m getting to know my body again — both to help me identify any problems and to help me and Ben to determine when would be the best time to conceive.

I will admit, I haven’t been all that vigilant with my observations and charting thus far. I’ve only been casually tracking – mostly because I’m not all that anxious to either conceive or postpone a pregnancy at this point (I’m fine either way), and also because I can tell my cycles aren’t quite back to normal yet. My little girl still nurses a LOT. And I used to rely on my basal body temperature quite a bit to identify my fertility peak, which is pretty much impossible when you co-sleep with a toddler who still wakes up a couple of times at night. But I’m becoming vaguely aware of what’s going on.

I’ll get more serious about charting when I get more serious about conceiving.

Step Two: Supplements

I’ve been doing some research about what supplements to take in preparation for a second pregnancy. Most of my decisions have been based on this post from Wellness Mama (as well as this one about morning sickness).

My two main concerns at this point are (a) making sure my baby would have enough of the right nutrients, and (b) preventing morning sickness.

(For the record, I didn’t have terrible morning sickness with my first pregnancy. It was bearable. I only vomited once. But so many friends had it way worse the second time around; I want to be prepared, if at all possible.)

The supplements I’ve started:

Folate

We all know how folic acid is important before and during the first trimester to prevent neural tube defects. Only, folic acid is very difficult for the body to assimilate. That’s why I’m taking folate, which, according to the bottle, is “body-ready.”

Magnesium

A number of articles (Wellness Mama, Mommypotamus, Modern Alternative Mama) suggest that morning sickness may be (among other things) the consequence of a magnesium deficit. Apparently most people are low on magnesium and could benefit from supplementation anyway.

It seems that magnesium can be hard to absorb when taken orally, though.  (Most of it passes through, which can cause diarrhea). So the best way to absorb magnesium is through your skin.

That’s why I bought Magnesium Oil and have been taking it transdermally for the last couple of weeks – in other words, I’ve been spraying it onto my skin. (Apparently, you can make your own magnesium oil, which is a lot cheaper.)

Just yesterday, I got my magnesium in liquid ionic formin the mail, so I can begin adding it to my food as well in tiny amounts (to avoid the whole diarrhea thing), and working up from there.

One thing that is supposed to make magnesium easier to absorb is Vitamin D. Which leads me to my next supplement . . .

Fermented Cod Liver Oil

I’d been reading about this stuff since I first got into the whole Nourishing Traditions thing. But I was reluctant to buy it because

(a) it’s dang expensive, and

(b) it sounds disgusting. I didn’t want to sink a bunch of money into something I’d never actually take.

But I’ve been SO CURIOUS for SO LONG, and I finally felt there was a little room in our budget, so I ordered a bottle.

I’d read it was amazing for boosting your immune system, so I wanted it in the house for the cold and flu season. It helped that I wanted to start prepping my body for pregnancy as well, because I knew that The Weston A. Price Foundation recommends it as a superfood during pregnancy for proper development of baby’s brain, bone structure and more.

Fermented cod liver oil is a great source of Vitamins, D & A and Omega-3s, which are all important to a growing baby’s development. And, like I said, Vitamin D is essential for proper absorption and use of magnesium in the body, which I’m also taking.

I got the butter oil/cod liver oil blend, in the flavoured gel form — cinnamon tingle. Dr. Price is quoted as having said that high-vitamin butter oil and fermented cod liver oil together “work like magic” to boost your immunity and help improve your overall health.

(I got most of my information from here, if you want to read more).

So you’re wondering how bad it tastes? Not bad at all! It tastes like slightly funky cinnamon hearts.

The trouble is the texture. Swallowing down a glob of gelatinous fat — cinnamon-flavoured or not — is inevitably going to be a little tricky. But I don’t have an overly-sensitive gag reflex, so as long as I chase it with a bit of coconut oil/cocoa/honey fudge, I’m OK. (The fudge doesn’t mask it or anything; it just acts as an incentive.)

* * *

OK, this post is getting ridiculously long. I’ll just say that I’m still interested in some kind of natural, whole-food multivitamin, in case I’m missing anything. But I feel like I’ve got the essentials nailed. I’m considering this homemade herbal multivitamin tincture. But I might still go with some kind of commercial capsule, if I can find a good one. (Nothing with synthetic vitamin A, though.) Any recommendations?

I haven’t even gotten started on diet — how I’m eating lots of healthy fats (mmmmm, butter) and protein, plenty of vegetables, cultured foods, raw milk and homemade bone broth. But I’m not changing anything in my diet — this is the way I always try to eat now.

What are your thoughts? Have you done, or are you doing, anything to prepare for pregnancy? Anything you’d like to learn more about?

*See the comments for an interesting discussion of whether God blesses us with pregnancies.

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