Unexplained infertility is a confusing and upsetting diagnosis and knowing what it means helps a bit; infertility means the couple have been actively trying for a baby for at least a year without conceiving, and unexplained means the usual tests haven’t been able to explain why they haven’t. Which is difficult news for any couple as it doesn’t provides answers and offers few obvious options of where to go from here. Unsurprisingly this can creates a bit of a life-crisis for the couple, and the advice they’re usually given is either:
- “Go home, relax and keep trying”
- “Look at increasing your chances with some timing advice and lifestyle changes”
- “Think about having assisted reproductive techniques (ART) like in-vitro fertilization (IVF)”
One thing a diagnosis of unexplained infertility usually means is that none of the usual reasons preventing couples getting pregnant are likely to be over-riding issues. The situation is usually that things are working, but not as well as they could, or so badly they show up in a test. Its important to remember infertility doesn’t mean sterility; it’s just that a year of trying hasn’t led to a pregnancy and most infertile couples (55%) get pregnant in the next 36 months of trying.i
The world health organisation (WHO) interpretation of semen samples helps to explain how low fertility is part of the overall fertility picture. All the men in the WHO group had become fathers that year, but the semen from 5% of the men wasn’t great, in fact so poor it was considered to be from infertile men! The reality is that for most couples there are parts of their fertility that aren’t perfect, the average monthly conception rate is just 20%, but at the other end of the scale there are super-fertile women whose monthly conception rates are about 60%. The usual reaction to a diagnosis of unexplained fertility is a mixture of:
- Research as much information as possible on unexplained fertility
- Go home and keep trying, with reduced expectations
- Become much more fertility focused in your sex life
- Give up on the idea of having children
- Decide to have ART (either IUI or a form of IVF)
- Having further levels of testing for one or both partners
- Actively engage in raising your health and natural fertility
Having a baby is a complex process involving two people and many events that need to be well timed, and it’s really important to remember that the chances of getting pregnant can get better as well as worse. There are many proven ways to improve natural fertility for a whole range of conditions, including “unexplained infertility”. This is especially true of Chinese herbal medicine, which when taken for three to four months is twice as likely to make women in unexplained infertility couples get pregnant than by using standard IVF.ii
Chinese medicine has a different window on health to western medicine, which involves a personalised and functional approach where the relative strengths and weaknesses of different systems of the body can be adjusted to improve how an area of health rather than simply the individual parts within it. It’s a less focussed approach than conventional medicine, but follows the same logic as “Systems Biology” (which is the research frontier this century) and this “systems” approach is particularly well suited to couples without specific conditions that need treating as improving their over-all fertility and health brings the rewards everyone wants.
The different perspective in Chinese medicine often leads to different explanations for low fertility and how to improve it, which can be transforming for couples with unexplained infertility as this example illustrates:
- Many women have irregular periods, but for most their blood tests come back ‘normal’
- Physical investigations may find no structural problems
- The semen analysis comes back fine
- After trying to conceive unsuccessfully for two years they’re diagnosed with unexplained infertility
However big variations in cycle length reflect imbalances in sex hormones, and this reduces fertility; so much so that when variations in cycle length are over ten days in a year it makes their chances of getting pregnant only 25% of the normal rate.iii The usual treatment for irregular periods is the oral contraceptive pill (which isn’t going to help here!), however Chinese medicine is very effective at regulating cycles and painful periods, which allows a woman’s hormonal, structural and emotional cycles to be more balanced, and this alone massively increase her chances of pregnancy each cycle!
Making positive changes to lifestyle and diet raise health and fertility, especially when the changes support personal needs and dynamics, which what the fertility types provide, along with practical ways forward.
iDefinition and prevalence of subfertility and infertility. C. Gnoth et al. Hum. Reprod. (May 2005) 20(5):1144-1147 first published online March 31, 2005 doi:10.1093/humrep/deh870
iiEfficacy of Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine in the management of female infertility: A systematic review. K. Ried, K. Stuart. Complementary Therapies in Medicine (2011) 19, 319—331