If you are having difficulty to conceive, what could go wrong? Things could go wrong either in women or in men or both. About one-third of infertility is caused by women’s problem. Another one third is due to men’s problem. The remaining one third is caused by both women and men.
Egg and sperm quality
High quality of eggs is essential for conceiving. Women are born with millions of follicles. These follicles stay in the cortex of ovaries where they will develop and some of them will be mature and released. This is a long process and it takes about a year for an egg to develop and to be released. The original follicles are preantral type of follicles. These follicles are in deep sleep stage. Some of them will wake up and be recruited to develop. This is preantral development which is a slow process and it takes about 10 months. This process is hormone independent. After 10 months of development, some of them will be selected to develop to dominant follicles. It takes about 2 months for these dominant follicles to develop to a preovulatory stage. This stage is hormone dependent. And then one of the follicles will be mature and released in 15-20 days which is highly depending hormone balance.
Hormonal balance is the key in human reproductive system. In women, there are five hormones involved in reproductive function: gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) produced in hypothalamus (a part of the brain), follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) both produced in pituitary gland (another part of the brain), and oestrogen and progesterone both produced in ovaries located in pelvis. To be fertile, these five hormones have to be well balanced, which means they have to be at the right level at the right time. If the balance is disturbed at any points in a cycle, this would affect fertility. Most of the infertility in women is caused by imbalanced hormones. Hormonal imbalance could cause poor egg development; as a result, poor quality egg is produced (fertilization is affected) or no egg is released in the mid-cycle. Hormonal imbalance could also cause poor uterine lining affecting implantation and causing early pregnancy loss.
The hormonal system is very sensitive, even a slightly change can disrupt hormonal production leading to anovulation. Common causes related to hormonal imbalance include stress, anxiety and eating disorders which are associated with inhibition of GnRH production in hypothalamus. Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is the most common cause of infertility which is associated with hormonal imbalance. Excessive male hormones (androgens) were produced in women with PCOS. Another hormonal imbalance is excessive production of hormone LH which is involved in stimulating ovary to produce hormones.
Sperm production in men is different. Sperm production and maturation takes about 74 days. Sperm production takes place in testicles where temperature is lower than body temperature. This process is hormone dependent and follicular stimulating hormone (FSH) and Luternizing hormone (LH) are involved in the process. This process takes about 60 days. Sperms produced then mature in epididymis where they obtain motility and it take about 14 days.
In men there are four hormones involved in reproductive function: GnRH, FSH and LH produced in brain, and testosterone produced in testicle located in scrotum. Hormonal imbalance in men causes poor sperm development resulting in low sperm count and/or poor sperm quality. Stress can disturb hormonal balance affecting men’s fertility.
To improve fertility, correcting hormonal imbalance is the key. It takes time (at least a few months) to restore hormonal balance; sometimes it takes much longer than you expected. So determination and patience are needed to achieve the goal. Acupuncture treatment could help restoring hormonal balance by stimulating sympathetic nerve and lowering sympathetic activity. Balanced diet and regular exercises could also help.
Local chronic inflammation is another important factor causing infertility. In women inflammation in pelvic area could cause fallopian tube spasm which blocks the eggs passing through. After lower abdominal surgery, or following pregnancy loss, inflammation could occur in pelvic area. Endometriosis causes inflammation in pelvic area surrounding the misplaced tissue affecting ovulation, egg transportation. Endometriosis is another common cause for infertility. In men inflammation in scrotum could impair sperms. Reducing local inflammation can significantly improve fertility in relatively short time, if there is no hormonal imbalance involved in infertility. Acupuncture can help reducing local inflammation by stimulating nerve endings and improving local blood flow.
AMH is short for anti-mullerian hormone. It is a substance made by small follicles in women’s ovaries. When the follicles grow bigger, they are no longer producing AMH. Since AMH is produced only in smaller follicles and its blood levels are constant, AMH has been used to measure the size of the pool of growing follicles in women. AMH blood levels reflect the size of the remaining egg supply. If your AMH is low, it means your egg supply is poor. With increasing women’s age, the size of their pool of remaining small follicles decreases. Their AMH levels and the number of ovarian small follicles visible on ultrasound also decrease. Some women may have problems of recruitment and development of follicles; in this case they have fewer follicles developed and their AMH tends to be low. Women with low AMH would have less chance to have good quality eggs. So they may have difficulty to conceive naturally. Women with low AMH level are likely to have poor response to ovarian stimulation for IVF and have fewer eggs retrieved. This reduces their chance to conceive via IVF.
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