How to make a baby

Having trouble conceiving? A change in diet, some stress-busting hypnotherapy or a course of reflexology could make all the difference. But which treatments really work? Maxine Frith investigates
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REFLEXOLOGY

What it does: The ancient Chinese medicine is based on principles similar to acupuncture. Reflexology focuses on the feet, and is based on the belief that all the body's organs, glands and main joints are reflected in them.

By applying firm and specific pressure to different areas of the feet, reflexologists claim to be able to bring the rest of the body into balance and improve general health.

The practice can help women to relax and feel less stressed, particularly if they are already beginning to worry about their chances of conceiving. Studies have shown that women who are less stressed are much more likely to become pregnant.

Certain techniques such as "thumb walking" over the foot may stimulate the reproductive system, and practitioners may also focus on the pituitary gland reflex to balance hormones in the body.

It has also been claimed that reflexology can help with menstrual problems.

Does it work? As with many alternative medicines, there is no clear scientific evidence that reflexology can boost the chances of pregnancy.

However, a study by the Danish Reflexologists Association found that, of 61 women under 35 who had been trying to get pregnant for more than two years, 15 per cent conceived within six months of receiving regular reflexology sessions.

DIET AND NUTRITION

What it does: Simply adopting a healthy eating pattern can be one of the simplest and cheapest ways of boosting your chances of falling pregnant. The diets of both men and women can affect fertility, and the chances of conception are reduced if either or both partners are overweight.

Wholegrains such as brown rice contain zinc, which can boost fertility, and oily fish, including salmon, can balance hormone levels.

But the evidence can be confusing: while dairy products may contain bone-strengthening calcium, galactose, a sugar found in milk, appears to damage human eggs. One study found that, in populations where milk consumption is highest, women tend to be less fertile when they are older and their drop-off in fertility is steeper.

Similarly, soya products such as tofu (right) are a good source of oestriol, the main oestrogen produced during pregnancy, but in high doses may interfere with ovulation.

Diets high in the simple carbohydrates that are contained in processed food and snacks can increase insulin levels and lead to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which is known to reduce the chances of fertility. The best advice is to munch plenty of fruit and vegetables, eat about 50g of protein a day and cut out high-fat and high-sugar foods.

Women should also start taking a folic acid supplement when they try to conceive as it reduces the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida in the unborn child.

Does it work? Undoubtedly. One study showed that obese women have a 60 per cent reduced chance of conceiving. A good diet not only boosts your chances of conception but protects your unborn baby, too.

ACUPUNCTURE

What it does: The Chancellor Gordon Brown's wife Sarah is believed to have turned to acupuncture to help her conceive the couple's second child, due later this year. It is based on traditional Chinese philosophy, which states that health is dependent on qi - an energy that moves beneath the skin and consists of equal quantities of yin and yang. Ill-health occurs when these are disrupted, but by inserting fine needles into the body, practitioners can restore the right balance.

As with reflexology, acupuncture may help to reduce stress and therefore increase the chances of pregnancy. Some practitioners also claim that it can increase blood flow to the uterus and thicken its lining, helping the egg to lodge better. Hormone levels can also be balanced by the practice.

It has also been claimed that acupuncture can boost male fertility by improving the quality and quantity of sperm produced.

Does it work? Practitioners are convinced it does; doctors are more sceptical, saying that most studies are not reliable enough to prove efficacy.

However, in one study in Germany, 45 women who had encountered problems in conceiving were given auricular acupuncture (needles applied to points on the ear) and their case outcomes compared to a similar number who had conventional hormone treatment. The women treated with acupuncture had 22 pregnancies, compared with 20 of the women on hormones.

HERBAL MEDICINES

What they do: Conventional hormonal drugs used in fertility treatment can play havoc with a woman's body and emotions, and many advocates of alternative therapies say that it may be better to try herbal remedies in the first instance when trying to conceive.

Agnus castus, from a plant known as the "chaste tree", can act as a natural hormone regulator in women, while damiana, a small South American shrub, may stimulate the male reproductive system. Practitioners claim that tea made from the extract of red clover can help with irregular periods and improve the chances of pregnancy. Cornus officinalis, commonly known as dogwood, has been claimed to increase the motility (movement) of sperm. Raspberry leaf may strengthen the reproductive system (as well as, some say, helping with labour pains), and lemon balm is said to be able to cleanse the body of toxins.

However, the fact that something is herbal does not mean that it is perfectly safe. In large amounts, ginger (below) can cause miscarriage and pennyroyal, used to calm upset stomachs, may induce abortion. And, although liquorice has been claimed to increase female fertility, one study has shown that it may reduce testosterone levels in men who eat too much.

Does it work? One study showed that dogwood increased sperm motility by up to 68 per cent. But experts say that women would have to drink red clover tea for months - and possibly years - to see any benefit.

There is very little research on just how effective other herbal remedies are, and many of the claims are based on old wives' tales rather than on any scientific basis.

HYPNOTHERAPY

What it does: Hypnotherapists believe that some women feel such fear about childbirth, being a good mother or guilt about past abortions when they start trying to conceive that they send the wrong signals to their body about pregnancy. Hypnosis tries to release the emotional barriers and relax a woman's attitude to conception.

The practice focuses on the hypothalamus, the area of the brain that is sensitive to stress and turns emotional messages into physical reactions. Hypnosis may help women to overcome their subconscious concerns about becoming a mother.

The pregnancy guru Zita West, who counts Kate Winslet among her fans, is an advocate of hypnosis.

More than a million people in Britain visit a hypnotherapist every year.

Does it work? In an American study, more than half of women who attended a "mind-body" programme focusing on self-hypnosis conceived despite having previously failed to get pregnant, compared with 20 per cent of women who did not use the technique.

Another study found that women who were hypnotised during IVF procedures were twice as likely to become pregnant from them.

It could be him: what men can do to boost their fertility

* One in six couples suffers from fertility problems but experts say there still tends to be an assumption that the trouble always lies with the woman. However, in a third of couples the fertility problem will be with the man.

* A recent study found that men over 40 had half the chances of making their partner pregnant as men under 25.

* Research published by Norwich Union Healthcare has suggested that nine per cent of men may have difficulty fathering a child because of low fertility. Alcohol, smoking, stress and weight problems can play a part.

* Sperm quality and quantity have decreased over the last 30 years.

* Dr Doug Wright, clinical spokesman for Norwich Union Healthcare, says: "With the next generation facing increasing pressure as a result of declining fertility, it's only fair that men accept their responsibility in the equation and change their lifestyles now, before it is too late."

* So what can men do to boost their fertility? As with women, one answer is not to leave it too late. Men over 50 have a four-times-higher risk of fathering a child with Down syndrome and French scientist Elise de la Rochebrochard says that being over 40 is "a key risk factor for reproduction".

* Mary Kittel, author of the book Stay Fertile Longer, recommends that men take a multivitamin supplement, stop smoking and keep their alcohol intake to within government guidelines.

* She also advocates avoiding steam rooms and long hot baths, and recommends hourly breaks during car and bike rides, to avoid overheating the sperm.

* Switching from briefs to boxer shorts and jettisoning tight trousers can also help to keep sperm at the optimum quality.

* Alternative therapists say that many of the practices that can boost a woman's fertility may also be helpful to men.

* Acupuncture may boost sperm quantity and quality, according to one study; the extract of maca herbs from Peru have been claimed to increase testosterone levels.

* Hypnosis and reflexology may also help men who feel that their partner's desire to have a baby is making them stressed and under pressure during sex.

* Vitamin B and zinc supplements may also help with energy levels and general good health.

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