Alternative medicine, such as homemade herbal remedies, have been used by many cultures for centuries. Now, even with the expansive research and developments within conventional medicine, it’s not uncommon for individuals to turn to alternative solutions — especially people with ovaries. Studies show this group is more likely to seek out alternatives because they don’t feel understood by their physicians or simply because, for many years, scientists left out the female anatomy in their research, leading to a lack of knowledge as to how certain conditions present in a female body.
While times are changing and physicians are adapting their approach to individual patients, it’s still common for people to seek alternative treatments when they feel western medicine has failed them. This is especially true for fertility, an area of science that is still very much in development and where solutions for infertility — while growing — remain limited.
The history of herbs for increasing fertility and libido
In North America, there is a recorded history of people using botanicals for all stages of reproduction dating back to 1492. The Indigenous people in North America had been using plants and herbs for centuries before this—however, access to records of these remedies and their uses is limited for the non-Indigenous community. Centuries ago, it was more common for a midwife or other women in the community to support someone trying to conceive and during their pregnancy, with the use of homemade remedies from herbs grown in their gardens. These practices are still present in some communities; writer Tara Westover shares her experiences from the 1990s with her mother, an herbalist and midwife, in her memoir Educated.
On the other side of the world, the use of traditional Chinese medicine dates back 3,000 years and is still practiced today — alone or in combination with more Western styles of medicine. Practitioners use Chinese medicinal herbs to treat gynecological ailments, including infertility. There’s even mention of fertility treatments in ancient Hindu writings and the Old Testament — long before in-vitro fertilization, medications like Letrozole, and other assisted reproductive technologies were introduced.
While there’s no doubt these different cultures have prevailed and continued to repopulate for centuries, the study of their remedies and their effect on human reproduction is limited in size and scope. Some of the research does show promise, but it is difficult to say what effect, if any, the use of herbs have on infertility and the likelihood of conception.
Which herbs have been best shown to help people trying to conceive?
A lot of the information around which herbs are best to support conception is anecdotal or not from controlled studies. However, there are several that are frequently mentioned in the available literature. Chaste berry, for instance, is most commonly used to regulate one’s menstrual cycle and resolve PMS by regulating hormonal imbalances. It’s believed to increase the strength of the luteinizing hormone surge, triggering ovulation. Black Cohosh is another herb used to stimulate ovaries and alleviate cramps. However, naturopaths or functional medicine practitioners advise it should only be used in the first half of a person’s cycle. This makes sense, seeing as the benefits of herbs are cycle-dependent and their effects — similar to medications like Clomid and Letrozole — are cumulative and only seen after at least two months of use.
Other herbs that may be prescribed to someone trying to conceive include: maca (an adaptogen that helps control stress and can also increase libido and fertility; cinnamon (thought to increase sperm quality and production, as well as balancing blood sugar and insulin response, which is helpful for people with PCOS); tribulus (an herb used in Chinese medicine found to be helpful in people with irregular ovulation, especially due to PCOS; with sperm motility, count and volume; and in couples both using the herb where levels of anti-sperm antibodies were high); red raspberry leaf (rich in calcium, iron, and B-vitamins, it’s also thought to regulate menstrual cycles and strengthen the uterine wall); alfalfa (a superfood high in vitamins C, E, and K that is also a phytoestrogen, meaning it blocks estrogen from its receptors, potentially regulating levels of estrogen in the body); and stinging nettle (used as a tonic to strengthen and tone the uterus with the hope that this reduces risk of miscarriage and also relieving stress).
Some other herbs that may come up in your research are evening primrose oil, red clover, fennel seed, and black seed oil. These are largely thought to have high levels of antioxidants and act as anti-inflammatories.
Can herbs really help overcome infertility?
With any fertility support, whether derived from Eastern or herbal medicines or from allopathic medicine, each body is different and what works for one may not work for another. If you’re interested in trying herbal remedies, it’s best to consult your regular physician — especially if you’re using any other prescription medications or treatments — as well as a qualified naturopath, acupuncturist, or functional medicine practitioner. Working with these professionals will also ensure you’re using herbs of the highest quality, as there are many counterfeit or tainted products on the market. There’s also the risk of taking too much of a specific herb because, just like pharmaceuticals, proper dosage is necessary.
There is some (read: limited) data that supports the idea that combining herbs with other fertility drugs improved a person’s chances of conceiving, especially through IVF. Right now, there are roughly 20 studies focused on the efficacy of herbs in treating infertility and they all have their own flaws by not controlling for age, medical history, and other factors important to reaching sound scientific conclusions. According to the Mayo Clinic, there’s “no evidence in medical literature that supports herbs or supplements as a treatment for infertility,” calling the current research inconclusive. They also note that it’s not known how herbs (or different combinations of them) react with conventional hormone and drug treatments.
With the study of infertility still a relatively new field of study, all things considered, there are more questions than solutions around different methods of treatment and how they interact with one another. So, in short, if what you’ve read about herbal remedies sounds appealing, it’s best to discuss with your physician or a fertility specialist.
Should I take herbal supplements if I'm over 40?
There is one study of a 43-year-old woman whose ovarian reserve was particularly low and who had several uterine fibroids turning to traditional Chinese medicine. Given her medical history, it was advised that she stop all IVF treatments but, still wanting to conceive, she worked with a Chinese medicine practitioner who designed an herbal formula that would improve her ovarian reserves and stop the growth of fibroids. She underwent this specific treatment for six months before conceiving and gave birth at 40 weeks. The study explains that the formula used was able to “balance yin and yang, nourish blood and invigorate blood circulation.” In medical science, it was described as restoring ovarian function by improving blood flow to reproductive organs, regulating hormones, and lowering inflammation. While this case offers a positive outcome and hope to other people over 40, it should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, it is one study of one individual. This isn’t to say it’s not an option worth exploring, but one to be done with cautious optimism and the support of trained doctors and Chinese medicine practitioners.
What the FDA says about herbal treatments
As with all supplements, the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate supplements (which includes herbs) in the same way they do pharmaceuticals. Manufacturers can make claims about these supplements without the backing of the FDA that might give people a false sense of security. While it won’t say outright whether any type of supplement can do what it claims, it is a risk averse organization and advises that any supplements should be taken under the supervision of a medical doctor.
The verdict is still out as to whether herbal remedies can treat infertility, but the answer is not a resounding no. Even though these are treatments that have been practiced for thousands of years, the Zhou Dynasty was not administering them in controlled settings — or at least, not to our knowledge — which is why it’s best to err on the side of caution and consult your doctor and a skilled naturopath or functional medicine doctor to determine whether herbal fertility treatment is an avenue worth pursuing.