A third of the women who took the supplement became pregnant after five months, reports Lynn Westphal in the April issue of the Journal of Reproductive Medicine (vol 49, no 4, p289).
Marketed as FertilityBlend, the supplement contains chasteberry (an herb that has been shown to improve ovulation and restore progesterone balance, which can be skewed in women having difficulty conceiving), L-arginine (an amino acid that improves circulation to the reproductive organs), green tea and numerous vitamins and minerals.
"This was a small, pilot study but if the findings hold up in a larger trial, the supplement may be a feasible treatment for some women," said Lynn Westphal, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
One in six couples in the United States has trouble conceiving, Westphal said. The possible barriers include endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, male factor infertility and irregular menstrual cycles, among others. Treatments vary but a growing number of patients have expressed interest in pursuing alternative therapies before taking more aggressive routes such as in vitro fertilization, she said. Despite this, little research has been done on the benefit of a pre-pregnancy supplement to optimize fertility health.
"There's not a lot of work in this area but it's an important one," she said. "Many women are interested in avenues aside from aggressive infertility treatment. If we can find an effective way to treat patients less invasively, it would be a great benefit."
To study the effects of FertilityBlend, Westphal recruited 30 volunteers who had tried unsuccessfully to conceive for six to 36 months. The women ranged in age from 24 to 46; some had been tested and diagnosed with a particular disorder that hindered their fertility while others fell into the category of 'unexplained' infertility.
During the double-blind study, the women were randomly assigned to take the supplement or a placebo three times a day. Changes in progesterone levels, basal body temperatures and menstrual cycles were then monitored.
After three months, the supplement group had an increased progesterone level and a significant increase in the average number of days in their menstrual cycle in which they had basal temperatures above 37 degrees Celsius, which indicates better ovulation, Westphal said.
The placebo group, meanwhile, showed no notable changes. After five months, five of the 15 supplement participants were pregnant and none of the 15 women on placebo were. The pregnancies resulted in four healthy babies; one woman miscarried.
"I was definitely skeptical before the study, but the results are promising," said Westphal, adding that she believes the chasteberry component of the supplement most likely played the biggest role in boosting fertility.
The chasteberry (Vitex agnus-castus) has long been recommended to treat reproductive-tract disorders and relieve the symptoms of PMS (premenstrual syndrome). The plant, indigenous to the Mediterranean region, contains no hormones or hormone-like substances but is thought to influence hormonal activity by stimulating the pituitary gland at the base of the brain to produce more luteinizing hormone (LH). This, in turn, signals the ovaries to produce more of the hormone progesterone.
It also lowers elevated levels of a second pituitary hormone, prolactin, which is involved in breast-milk production. Lowering prolactin can improve the balance with progesterone and help ovulation, thus providing opportunities for conception.
Based on its promising findings, Westphal's pilot study has been expanded to a larger multicentre study. She is also looking for men to enroll in a separate study on FertilityBlend for Men, a supplement containing L-carnitine (an amino acid that can improve sperm function) and ferulic acid (an antioxidant that has shown to improve sperm quality).