Archive for the ‘Alternative Medicine’ Category

The importance of selenium for NZ infertility patients

Saturday, October 23rd, 2010

It’s a known fact that New Zealand soils are seriously deficient in selenium, a trace mineral our bodies need. When I went to see a fertility naturopath, she immediately put me on a bunch of supplements including Vitamin E with Selenium. Apparently eating two Brazil nuts per day will provide you with enough Selenium, so it’s considered generally sensible advice to either eat those or take a supplement.

Here’s another angle on the selenium connection from a kiwi woman from a farming family:

I have had a couple of people PM me about using selenium and I thought others may be interested.

Firstly I make no promises, this is completely unscientific and I dont want to give people false hope.

We are described as unexplained infertility. Our fertility specialist has always said there is no medical reason why we cant conceive naturally. Of course 5 years later, 6 IVFs and lots of heartache you stop believing this. Though we did manage 3 pregnancies that ended in miscarriages following IVFs.

So a few months ago after our last miscarriage my mother sat me down and said I needed to take selenium. I am not one to take things without good reason so rolled my eyes and said ‘yeah yeah thanks mum’. However she told me a story about how 20 years ago on her sheep farm she was told to put selenium on her pastures. (My mother farmed for years on her own after my father died so everyone was keen to tell her what she should do). She says that as a direct result of that her lambing percentages increased by up to 15%. There is plenty of research out there to say NZ soils are selenium deficient and selenium assists in animal health and fertility. Anyway I did some research about selenium assisting human fertility and couldnt find anything other than assisting in male fertility (which has never been a problem for us).

Anyway we both started taking it (I thought we had nothing to lose) and the rest is history. We were about to start our 7th and last IVF, and had our names on the egg donor list when I discovered I was pregnant….naturally. Unbeleivable. Never before had this happened. And touch wood it is still going okay.

So read into this what you want. Who knows if the selenium was the factor that changed things. It might be just luck!

Interestingly since we have started to tell some of our farming friends about our pregnancy we have had a few tell us about how they use selenium for their animals’ fertiltiy.

I suggest if anyone wants to take selenium you should check with your fertility specialist (I didn’t, but then I never thought it would work either). I have since mentioned to my fertility specialist, fertility nurses, midwife and obs and all have given me that ‘yes well we’ll let you believe that’ look! There being no research doesn’t help but who knows…worth a try anyway.

We took 100mcg of Red Seal Selenium ACE purchased from the supermarket for about $12 for 40 tabs and took one a day each. Just a note of warning that selenium is very poisonous if you take too much.

Interesting, huh? Food for thought – and possibly food for fertility!

We all know there are no silver bullets in this game, but it many ways it’s about trying to get all the stars aligned so we have the best possible chance. So, here’s one more star that couples struggling with infertility might bring into alignment to see if it helps eliminate one more obstacle. Another for the “won’t hurt, might help” file.

What is DHEA?

Friday, November 27th, 2009

DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone) is a naturally occurring hormone in our bodies which depletes as we get older. Here’s some info quoted from a UK site (<– click the link for more detailed info):

Description: DHEA, also known as “the mother hormone”, is produced by the adrenal glands and is the most dominant hormone in the body. The body converts DHEA into whatever hormone it needs (i.e. estrogen, testosterone, progesterone, and coriconsterone) In both sexes, blood levels of DHEA peak at 20. Thereafter, the levels steadily decline throughout aging, more dramatically with child bearing and with menopause. By eighty years old, the body only has 5% of the DHEA levels it had at 20! Many age-related conditions appear associated with lower than average levels of DHEA.

OK, so what’s all this got to do with infertility?

Dr Norbert Gleicher and colleagues at the Center for Human Reproduction in the States stumbled across the idea when a poor responder over 40 patient of theirs started having better and better responses to IVF – she had been secretly taking DHEA. Since then they (and others) have conducted some randomised trials and have seen some promising results in poor responders.

Here is a CBS News video of Dr. Gleicher, that older patient of his and a couple of other doctors talking about DHEA.

Want more info? Here are a few useful links to some of the research (you can find more through Google Scholar):

OK, sounds like a miracle cure – should I take it?

It does sound amazing, but the reality is that it doesn’t help all poor responders. In fact, the poor responders I have spoken to over the years have seldom had such obvious beneficial effects. Also, it does have some downsides for some people. Here are the ones I’ve become aware of:

  • Anyone who has higher than normal androgen or DHEA-S levels should definitely NOT take it because it can exacerbate these issues. Be especially cautious if you have PCOS or PCO, or any facial hair issues. Make sure you get DHEA-S and androgen levels measured first by your doctor and discuss the idea with him/her thoroughly to decide together whether it’s right for you. You have to do this anyway because it is only available on prescription in New Zealand. And even then, you can expect it to cost about $75/month.
  • If you’re under 40 then your DHEA levels may already be normal, so you wouldn’t benefit from it. It’s really only useful for those whose levels are seriously depleted.
  • Anyone who has a history or risk of ovarian cancer should not take it.
  • Some women have experienced hair loss and wacky cycles after taking DHEA.
  • Some women get too high levels of testosterone after taking it, and can end up with facial hair and deeper voices.
  • It can cause sleeplessness, especially if you launch straight into a high dose. If your doctor does agree and prescribes it, ask to start on a lowish dose (like, 25mg), take this in the morning (not the evening), and let yourself get used to it for a week or two before increasing the dose.
  • If you are taking Dexamethasone during your stim cycle to enhance response or help with implantation, the general advice is to stop DHEA before you start Dex because they apparently work in opposite ways.

So, are there any upsides? I took it myself for a couple of years, and had some upsides (also reported by others). The flipside of the sleeplessness thing is that it can make you feel like you have more energy. I also found it seemed to increase my metabolic rate, so I lost a couple of kilos while on it. But did it help my response to IVF? Well, not obviously, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

To sum up, the jury’s still out on this one. Do your research, talk to your doctor, get your DHEA-S levels tested first before agreeing to try it. Dr. Gleicher says that he sees many spontaneous natural pgs among women taking it while waiting to start IVF, so don’t wait until you start cycling. Many say it takes about 4 months before the effects really kick in. If you notice any adverse effects, talk to your dr straight away about whether you should stop it or reduce the dose. Make sure your DHEA-S and androgen levels are retested regularly to make sure they aren’t going too high.

Choosing a good acupuncturist

Monday, October 12th, 2009

When I started ttc over the age of 40 and was gearing up for IVF, I decided I should start acupuncture to help maximise my chances. Boy, have I learned a few things since then!

How to tell if your acupuncturist is NOT a good choice:

I initially chose an acupuncturist who was quite close by, whom I eventually decided wasn’t a good choice. To help others choose a good one, maybe it would help to describe what made me think so …

  1. Didn’t ask me what day of my cycle I was on when I went, and didn’t alter acupuncture points according to where I was in my cycle.
  2. Did not have a clear understanding of IUI/IVF, i.e. what happens at different parts of the cycle.
  3. Didn’t seem to have a clear understanding of what happens in a natural cycle, e.g. when implantation occurs (7-10dpo).
  4. Wasn’t able to explain clearly what my Chinese medicine diagnosis was, or the rationale behind the treatment plan. [This wasn’t an ESL issue – the person was a born and bred kiwi.]
  5. In hindsight, seemed to be trying to treat so many things in one acu session (loads of needles; I was a total pincushion) that I started wondering if some of the points used were actually cancelling out the effect of others.
  6. Wasn’t actually formally trained in acupuncture. [I know, I know, what was I thinking?!]

When I switched to another [competent] acu, the difference was just night and day on ALL the above points.

Acupuncture Qualifications and Credentials

The New Zealand Register of Acupuncture has a list of those acupuncturists who are members of the NZRA. If someone is NOT a member of NZRA or another relevant professional association, you should certainly raise an eyebrow. However, the fact that someone is a member of one of these NZ ‘registers’ is NO guarantee of quality. The acupuncturist I mentioned above, who had NO formal qualifications in acupuncture, was (and is) a long-time member of NZRA. Current requirements to join NZRA include a “qualification that meets the NZRA’s criteria” and some form of clinical assessment, but it would appear that several acupuncturists with no formal qualifications appear to have been “grandfathered” into the association early on and not subject to these requirements.

So, who IS a good acupuncturist?

For those of you looking for an acupuncturist, here’s a list of people who come highly recommended by fertility patients around the country (note that I can’t vouch that they really ARE brilliant since I’m not a Chinese medicine dr myself, but am just sharing what others have said). The following interpretation guide should help:

**Absolutely raved about ALL the time by patients (including those who’ve had success!) AND I’ve also heard endorsements from at least one credible expert source
*
At least one or two patients have spoken positively about them AND I’ve also heard endorsements from at least one credible expert source
[no asterisk]
Have been recommended by patients, but I haven’t also heard any expert endorsement about their competence, nor any concerns

Auckland

  • Dr. Vitalis, Mairangi, North Shore, 09 486 5111 **
  • Laura Bradburn, Acudoc, Auckland Central, 09 626 7120 (but she’s apparently on maternity leave in late 2009)
  • Lisa Houghton, Acudoc (above) and the Motherwell Clinic, Mt Eden, 09-630-0067
  • Bessie Lu, Village Acupuncture, Mt Eden, 09 630 3168

Hamilton

Napier

Wellington

Nelson

  • John Black, Nelson Chinese Medical Clinic, 22 Nile Street, Nelson 03 546 8733 *
  • Paddy McBride, Acupuncture Richmond, 40 Oxford Street, Richmond, Nelson 03 544 0411 *

Christchurch

  • Dr. Tracey Bourner (Ph.D. in research), Riverside Acupunture and Chinese herbs, Opawa, 03 981 1683 *
  • Georgia Bryant, Acupuncture for Health, South Brighton, 03 388 7346 *
  • Eleanor Marks in St Albans 03 960 9702
  • Suzy Tapper, Ferrymead Acupuncture, 03 384 8589

What should I ask a prospective acupuncturist before agreeing to work with them?

Whether or not a prospective acupuncturist is on the above list, it’s always a good idea to ask them a few questions before you agree to work with them. Here’s a list of questions to help get you started:

Where did you train? What acupuncture or Chinese Medicine qualifications do you have? Have you done any advanced training or courses since then? Are you a member of the New Zealand Register of Acupuncturists or some other professional association? [The ‘gold standard’ would be a bachelor’s degree in acupuncture from a reputable school in China or elsewhere PLUS some advanced training (master’s degree or other), preferably specifically in acupuncture and Chinese medicine for fertility PLUS some sort of certification that actually evaluates competence. Note that being “registered in New Zealand” simply means being a paid member of a professional association and is no guarantee of competence.]
[Assuming this is at a first/introductory appointment:] What is my Chinese Medicine diagnosis? Please explain (in lay terms) what it means and what your treatment approach would be. [Just my view, but if someone can’t explain what they are doing in understandable terms, that’s a good indicator they don’t REALLY have a good understanding of it themselves.]
How would my treatment differ before vs. after ovulation in my cycle? [Wrong answer: It wouldn’t. A good answer might include explanations like: The follicular (pre-O) phase usually emphasises kidney yin treatment, whereas in the luteal (post-O) phase we typically treat kidney yang. Also, points used after O should be those that would support a pregnancy; some of the ones used before O are good for that phase of the cycle but not safe if you might be pregnant.]
How would my treatment differ during an IVF/IUI cycle vs. during a natural cycle? [Wrong answer: It wouldn’t. A good answer would show some thoughtful logic such as: You’d generally tend to use less aggressive acupuncture treatment while someone’s on stims – you don’t want to make their ovaries blow a gasket!]
What successes have you had with women/couples of a similar age and with a similar Western diagnosis to mine/ours? Please describe one or two recent success cases. [Obviously, more success cases similar to yours are better. But keep your ears tuned too for evidence of the kind of systematic detective work a good practitioner would use to ‘listen’ to how the body responds and tweak the treatment. A fertility-challenged body is like a squeaky old violin that needs to be worked with carefully to make it sing the sweetest tune it possibly can.]
What professional associations are you a member of? Which Chinese Medicine-related conferences and seminars do you regularly attend? How else do you keep up with new developments? [You want to make sure you are working with someone who understands Chinese Medicine as not just an ancient tradition that you get trained for once and that’s it, but as a growing discipline that creates new knowledge all the time. If your acupuncturist isn’t making an effort to keep up with the field, that’s not a good sign.]
What would you say are the two or three most important advances in Chinese Medicine for the treatment of infertility in the past few years. Do you have a copy of a good recent article I could look at? [If your prospective acupuncturist can’t rattle off a few really interesting recent developments that are relevant to your case, that’s a sure sign he/she isn’t keeping up with the play. And beware of someone who doesn’t want to give you an article “because you probably won’t understand it” – first, they may not actually have any relevant articles because they don’t keep up with the field, and second, that’s a hint that they don’t see you as an intelligent and active partner in your own treatment.]

If the choice is not clear cut after asking the above questions, I’d suggest doing a session or two with each possibility and seeing which one seems like a better fit for you. Even the raved about acupuncturists on the list above have some patients who just don’t ‘click’ with their style. So, make sure the person you choose feels right for you.

· Where did you train? What acupuncture or Chinese Medicine qualifications do you have? Have you done any advanced training or courses since then? Are you a New Zealand registered acupuncturist?

[see Qualifications and Credentials, above for how to evaluate answers.]

· [Assuming this is at a first/introductory appointment:] What is my Chinese Medicine diagnosis? Please explain (in lay terms) what it means and what your treatment approach would be.

[Just my view, but if someone can’t explain what they are doing in understandable terms, that’s a good indicator they don’t REALLY have a good understanding of it themselves.]

· How would my treatment differ before vs. after ovulation in my cycle?

[Wrong answer: It wouldn’t. Correct answers would include: The follicular (pre-O) phase usually emphasises kidney yin treatment, whereas in the luteal (post-O) phase we typically treat kidney yang. Also, points used after O should be those that would support a pregnancy; some of the ones used before O are good for that phase of the cycle but not safe if you might be pregnant.]

· How would my treatment differ during an IVF/IUI cycle vs. during a natural cycle?

[Wrong answer: It wouldn’t. Correct answer: You’d generally tend to use less aggressive acupuncture treatment while someone’s on stims – you don’t want to make your ovaries blow a gasket!]

· What successes have you had with women/couples of a similar age and with a similar Western diagnosis to mine/ours? Please describe one or two recent success cases.

[Obviously, more success cases similar to yours are better. But keep your ears tuned too for evidence of the kind of systematic detective work a good practitioner would use to ‘listen’ to how the body responds and tweak the treatment. A fertility-challenged body is like a squeaky old violin that needs to be worked with carefully to make it sing the sweetest tune it possibly can.]

· What professional associations are you a member of? Which Chinese Medicine-related conferences and seminars do you regularly attend? How else do you keep up with new developments?

[You want to make sure you are working with someone who understands Chinese Medicine as not just an ancient tradition that you get trained for once and that’s it, but as a growing discipline that creates new knowledge all the time. If your acupuncturist isn’t making an effort to keep up with the field, that’s not a good sign.]

· What would you say are the two or three most important advances in Chinese Medicine for the treatment of infertility in the past few years. Do you have a copy of a good recent article I could look at?

[If your prospective acupuncturist can’t rattle off a few really interesting recent developments, that’s a sure sign he/she isn’t keeping up with the play. And beware of someone who doesn’t want to give you an article “because you probably won’t understand it” – first, they may not actually have any relevant articles because they don’t keep up with the field, and second, that’s a hint that they don’t see you as an intelligent and active partner in your own treatment.]

What low-tech things can we do to increase our odds?

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

Maybe IUI and IVF aren’t an option for you and you’d like to try and increase your odds generally while ttc naturally. Or maybe you’re gearing up for – or in the middle of – IUI or IVF treatment. Or on one of those interminable waiting lists!

Is there anything you can do NOW that can help improve your odds?

Yes! There are a number of things you can do to get your bodies readier and more likely to succeed than they currently are for conception and pregnancy. Many of these take several months or more before you see the full benefits, so remember, it’s never too early to start AND it’s never too late to start because every little bit helps! If you’re on a waiting list for IVF (or waiting to get on one!!), this is a fruitful way to make the most use of your time.

Things men can do to improve sperm quality

Let’s start with the guys, for once! Get them out of those briefs and into boxers for starters, and no long spa baths or sweaty bike rides!! Sperm don’t like being overheated. Guys are also supposed to get their BMIs in a healthy range – usually quoted as 19-25, but bear in mind the number can be misleading if you are athletic and carry a lot of muscle. A hilarious recent example is that about 25% of the All Blacks are considered obese and the rest are ALL overweight!

There are also a bunch of supplements that are known to improve sperm quality. Here’s the list that was recommended to us by a naturopath:

  • a multivitamin called V2000
  • CoQ10 100mg (the more bioavailable gel type)
  • Vitamin C 1000mg/day (twice a day if he had a cold)
  • Vitamin E 200mg w/Selenium
  • Flax seed oil 2000mg I think
  • zinc complex (at night)
  • L-carnitine 500mg

I’ve also seen several people also recommend Vitamin B complex and folic acid (800mcg). And most naturopaths would also advise giving up smoking (anything!!), cutting right back on drinking and cutting out coffee (even decaf) if at all possible. Tea is better, green or herb/fruit tea even better.

Does it work? Well, after our IVF#3 failed my DH was so disappointed he went on “vitamin strike” for 3 months. By the time we tried IVF#4 his count had dropped from 90mil/ml to 18mil/ml. After that, no more vitamin strike!!! 😉

What can women do to improve their odds of conception?

The clinics will give you a few basic tips here – cut RIGHT down on coffee and alcohol, stop smoking and other drugs, exercise moderately three times a week, and aim to get your BMI between 19 and 25 to maximise your odds. [However, bear in mind that BMI is a bit overly simplistic for some body types, e.g. very tall women or those who carry a lot of muscle.] Click here to access Fertility Associates’ advice on boosting your fertility.

Acupuncture and Chinese herbs can also be a great way to prepare yourself for IVF. As you can see from this summary of research on acupuncture and fertility, it can be used to treat all sorts of conditions, from endometriosis, PCO/PCOS and sperm counts/quality to advanced maternal age, high FSH and poor eggs. For more information about how and why it works in general and for various conditions, find related blog posts by clicking ‘Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine’ under Topics (in the left column of this page).

What about supplements for women? Well, there is a huge and overwhelming range available depending what diagnoses you are struggling with, so probably the best advice is to see a good fertility naturopath to help you pick out the best mix for you. Having said that, here are a few that seem to be recommended in many/most cases, from what I can tell …

  • a good multivitamin
  • folic acid, at least 800mcg, but if you’re ‘older’ or have had multiple losses or implantation failures, ask your specialist to prescribe you the 5mg dose
  • Vitamin C 1000mg/day, twice a day when you have a cold
  • Vitamin E with Selenium
  • Coenzyme Q-10 (aka CoQ10) 100mg, preferably the more bioavailable gel caps
  • Fish oil or flax seed oil, 2000-4000mg/day
  • zinc complex
  • iron supplement if your levels are a bit low (ask your GP to test)

For an additional truckload of ideas, follow this link to read about low-tech things women can do to increase the chances of conception. And if you fish around that site you will find a lot more info about low-tech methods for couples and some of the basics of conception (most of which you’ll already know, of course). Unfortunately their tips for guys was down when I last checked, but I’ve emailed them about it and will add a link to this blog if it comes back online.

Can acupuncture help?

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

There’s a very interesting difference between Western and Chinese medicine on how fertility is viewed. Western doctors tend to focus on the cycle in which your eggs are produced (e.g. the cycle in which you do IVF), whereas Chinese medicine takes a much more long-term view.

To help understand the difference in thinking, here’s a quick (and hopefully not too inaccurate) summary of where eggs come from.

The process starts about a year before you actually ovulate, when a bunch of ‘primordial follicles’ are recruited within the ovary. These are developed very very slowly over the course of several months.

At about three months before ovulation, these primordial follicles start a different phase in their development and are now known as ‘antral follicles’. At the very start of any given cycle, an ultrasound will show several small antral follicles that are ready to go. In fact, this antral follicle count (AFC) is a good rough indicator of your ovarian reserve – check out this guide to how AFC helps predict a patient’s response to IVF stims.

During a natural cycle, just one or two of these antral follicles are recruited and will mature, leading to ovulation of an egg or sometimes two. The remaining antral follicles just fizzle out and undergo ‘atresia’ (basically, they bow out of the race). Here’s a link to a really excellent animation showing what happens in an ovulation induction (e.g. Clomiphene) cycle, which is not that different to what happens in a natural cycle (in a natural cycle you usually only ovulate one egg).

During an IVF cycle, the goal is to try and get more of those antral follicles to mature and fewer of them to undergo atresia.

So, how do the Western and Chinese perspectives on this process differ?

Your Western specialist tends to focus on a particular treatment cycle (i.e. that one month), which is the journey from antral follicles to ovulated eggs, fertilisation and beyond.

A Chinese medicine doctor, in contrast, takes a much more long-term view of the process. The intent is to create the optimal and best balanced environment for the development of your primordial follicles and then their further development once they become antral follicles, and then finally (the last and very short conclusion of the journey), the recruitment of antral follicles to produce an egg, get it fertilised, etc.

This is why the Western view is that there’s nothing you can do to influence egg quality – you are dealt the hand you’ve got; you just have to harvest as many eggs as possible, play the numbers game and hope that one of them is good.

The Chinese medicine perspective is that, although age and heredity are huge determinants of egg quality, eggs and their chromosomes can also be damaged during their development if they are subjected to toxins or have to grow in a sub-optimal environment. So, if you maximise the quality of the ‘soil’ in which they develop, then you will be able to get the best possible eggs that the woman can produce at her age.

This is why acupuncturists (and naturopaths, for that matter, who subscribe to a similar view) will tell you that you should do acupuncture for at least three months before expecting to see real benefits. Here they are talking about optimising the development of your antral follicles prior to a particular cycle. And if you do acupuncture for a year, you are not only helping this part of follicle development, but also the development of the primordial follicles as well.

Is there any actual research that shows acupuncture works?

Yes!! OK, acupuncture is hard to evaluate because treatment is very individualised (you can’t just standardise and expect the same treatment to work on different people). Also, it’s highly dependent on the competence of the practitioner. But there have been some very good studies done that show the benefits of acupuncture on fertility. Dr. Vitalis in Auckland has posted a really excellent summary of the effectiveness research on acupuncture – check it out.

I hope all this makes sense! Please post comments or questions below if not, or if you have something to contribute. Thanks!