My husband and I have been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant. I've seen many ads for fertility herbs and supplements. Do they work?
Answers from Mary M. Gallenberg, M.D.
Infertility can be a difficult problem to treat, and modern interventions — while sometimes effective — can be expensive. So it's not surprising that some people look to herbs and supplements as a possible alternative treatment to this troubling problem. However, there's no compelling evidence for any herbal therapy or supplements as a treatment for infertility.
Unfortunately, the research on so-called fertility herbs and supplements is inconclusive and based on a limited number of small studies. Some of the fertility herbs and supplements studied include:
- L-carnitine. For male infertility, some studies show increased sperm production and motility in men who took a combination of acetyl-L-carnitine and L-carnitine. But the resulting number of pregnancies was not statistically significant.
- Vitamin E. An older study showed that men with low sperm counts who take vitamin E may have a higher rate of fertility than those taking a placebo, but this study had several dropouts in the placebo group, making comparison difficult. Other studies found no improvement in male fertility when vitamin E is combined with vitamin C or selenium.
- Coenzyme Q10. A few studies have suggested that coenzyme Q10 may improve sperm counts or motility, but this was not shown to improve the chances of getting pregnant. More research is needed to confirm these findings and to determine whether such findings lead to improved fertility.
- Folic acid. Although one study suggests that folic acid taken with zinc may improve sperm counts, more research is needed to determine if this will have an impact on conception.
- Vitamin C. There isn’t enough reliable evidence to determine whether taking vitamin C has any impact on fertility. More research is needed to clarify whether vitamin C can improve fertility in men and women.
Although often marketed as "natural," this doesn't mean that herbal products are always safe. Consider these important issues about fertility herbs:
- They have limited Food and Drug Administration regulation. Herbal and nutritional supplements are subjected to limited regulation by the Food and Drug Administration and are only now starting to be held to higher purity and quality standards.
- They have a potential for drug interaction. Conventional hormone and drug treatments for infertility are complex regimens. It's not known how herbs or supplements may interact with such treatments.
- They may have side effects. Herbal and nutritional supplements may have side effects, especially when taken in larger doses. For example, too much vitamin C can cause significant gastrointestinal problems, and high daily intake of vitamin E could increase the risk of premature death in some people with chronic illnesses.
Talk to your doctor about any herbal or nutritional supplements you plan to take or are taking to find out the possible risks and benefits. Until researchers more clearly define the risks and benefits of fertility herbs and supplements, conventional treatment for infertility appears to be the best option.
July 25, 2012
See more Expert Answers
- Ross C. A systemic review of the effect of oral antioxidants on male infertility. Reproductive Biomedicine Online. 2010;20:711.
- Showell MG, et al. Antioxidants for male subfertility. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. http://www.thecochranelibrary.com. Accessed May 11, 2012.
- Vitamin E. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. http://www.naturaldatabase.com. Accessed June 18, 2012.
- Vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. http://www.naturaldatabase.com. Accessed June 18, 2012.
- Coenzyme Q10. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. http://www.naturaldatabase.com. Accessed June 18, 2012.
- L-carnitine. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. http://www.naturaldatabase.com. Accessed June 12, 2012.
- Folic acid. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. http://www.naturaldatabase.com. Accessed June 18, 2012.
- Cohen PA. Assessing supplement safety - The FDA's controversial proposal. The New England Journal of Medicine. 2012;366:389.
- Bauer BA (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. July 2, 2012.
- Gallenberg MM (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. June 20, 2012.
- Agarwal A, et al. The role of antioxidant therapy in the treatment of male infertility. Human Fertility. 2010;13:221.