A friend who’s been trying to conceive for a few months asked if I had any herbal recommendations for fertility, so I thought I’d share some suggestions for anyone who’s trying to conceive (TTC) and wants to incorporate herbal support. Discussions of fertility often focus on how women can increase their fertility, but since at least 40% of fertility challenges are due to male fertility issues, I’ve included herbal allies for both male and female fertility.
***Please note that if you have any diagnosed fertility challenges (blocked fallopian tubes, endometriosis, low sperm count/motility), an individual consult with an herbalist along with your chosen health care team will best help you navigate those challenges.
Before we get to the herbs, let’s talk about the basics: Timing, General Health, Toxins, and Keepin’ it Coooooool.
Every woman’s menstrual cycles and ovulation timing are different. In order to know if you’re actually having sex before ovulation, you first need to know when your ovulation is most likely to happen. The best resource to help a woman learn about tracking cycles is Taking Charge of Your Fertility. This is the book I recommend to every woman I know — I’ve been known to force copies on unsuspecting visitors! It’s the sex ed we should have had in school, and it covers everything about tracking your monthly cycle. (Which is useful for every woman, regardless of whether she’s sexually active, TTC, or not.) Apps like Kindara help you easily keep track of monthly cycles, basal body temperature, cervical fluid, and other notes you might want to take.
Eat real food. Take a good-quality multivitamin and omega-3 supplement. Exercise. Get as much sleep as you need.
While woman are widely counseled to avoid every possible vice while TTC and during pregnancy, we hear less about toxins’ detrimental effect on sperm. Both women and men who are TTC should limit lifestyle toxins like cigarettes, alcohol, and caffeine. Other ways to remove toxins that you might consider:
- Drink filtered water.
- Avoid processed food.
- Use glass food storage containers to avoid the BPA in plastics.
- As you run out of household cleaning and beauty supplies containing harsh chemicals and artificial fragrances, replace them with natural alternatives. EWG’s consumer guides can help you choose products with fewer toxins.
It’s impossible to avoid all environmental toxins, so don’t stress about this — just make the changes that feel right for you. (If your job or housing requires exposure to toxins, an herbalist can suggest herbs to help your body clear toxins more rapidly.)
Keepin’ it Cool
Sperm like it cooooooooool. Men who are TTC should limit hot tub, steam room, and sauna time, and keep laptops off their laps. Sperm regeneration takes about 74 days, so changes men make to improve sperm count, motility, and morphology won’t be measurable for about 3 months.
Herbs to Support Fertility
In addition to their herbal actions, one of the best things herbs can offer anyone who’s TTC is agency — the sense that you are doing something nourishing to support your body's fertility, instead of just waiting and worrying. Each of the herbs described below supports fertility and general health leading up to pregnancy. Once pregnant, you should stop taking these herbs and consult an herbalist and your health care team for herbal support during pregnancy.
American Ginseng (for men), Ashwaganda (for both men and women), and Shatavari (for women) are all adaptogens, which relieve stress and support resiliency. Also — American Ginseng and Shatavari are both aphrodisiacs! (Keepin’ it fun :)
American Ginseng (for men)
American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is the gentle ginseng. It is native to the Eastern US and Canada and was used by native people throughout the region as a general tonic for a wide variety of ailments, as well as a sexual tonic; in the 1700s it became a popular US export to China, and it still maintains its popularity in Chinese medicine. It is an adaptogen and acts on the HPA (hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal) axis, so it helps with the common modern conditions of chronic fatigue and depleted immunity.
Research supports that both American Ginseng and the more stimulating Asian Ginseng (Panax ginseng) have positive effects on male fertility. I’m suggesting American Ginseng here, but if you are severely depleted, you might choose to use the more stimulating Asian Ginseng.
American Ginseng can be taken in capsule form. High doses should be avoided by people taking Coumadin. American Ginseng is endangered in the wild; please don’t use any product labeled “wild American Ginseng.”
Red Clover Blossom + Nettle + Red Raspberry Leaf Infusion (for women)
Red Clover blossoms (Trifolium pratense), Nettles (Urtica dioica), and Red Raspberry leaves (Rubus idaeus) are all tonic herbs that help nourish the body in preparation for pregnancy. They can be taken as a daily infusion for months at a time to gently shift your body toward fertility.
Red Clover blossoms have a high vitamin, mineral, and protein content, including Calcium and Magnesium, which relax the nervous system. Red Clover is the most important fertility herb in the western herbal tradition; it has been used for centuries to balance hormone function. It also helps to regulate the menstrual cycle, but because it’s mildly blood thinning, it should be avoided by women who have heavy bleeding.
Nettles are the favored tonic herb of many herbalists. It increases energy and nourishes the whole body, including the uterus, kidneys, adrenals, and hormonal and immune system. Nettles are diuretic, which helps them cleanse the body of toxins. Nettles can also offer significant relief from seasonal allergies.
Red Rapberry leaf is well-known as a women’s tonic, full of vitamins and minerals, as well as alkaloids that strengthen the pelvic area.
Fertility Support Infusion
- 1 oz dried Red Clover blossoms
- 1/2 oz dried Nettles
- 1/2 oz dried Red Raspberry Leaf
- 8 cups water
Put the herbs into a half-gallon jar. Pour 8 cups boiling water over the herbs. Cover and steep for at least 4 hours or overnight. Strain and refrigerate. Drink 1-4 cups daily for several months, either warm or cold.
Shatavari (for women)
Shatavari root (Asparagus racemosus) is a wild asparagus that has been used as a rejuvenating female tonic in Ayurvedic medicine for over 4000 years. The name shatavari is translated both as “having one hundred roots” and “having one hundred husbands.” It’s traditionally used to support a healthy female reproductive system and balance female hormones, bringing harmony to a woman’s system while balancing the mind and emotions. It can also increase libido and improve fatigue.
Shatavari is also an excellent choice for new mothers — it increases breast milk production and Tieraona Low Dog notes that “tradition holds that shatavari will open [a new mother’s] heart, so that she may fall deeply in love with her child.”
While shatavari can be taken in capsules, it is more traditionally (and deliciously!) taken in warm milk.
- 1/2 - 1 tsp powdered shatavari root
- 1 cup milk (coconut or almond milk can be substituted)
- honey to taste
- optional: cardamom (1/8 tsp), turmeric (up to 1 tsp)
Boil the milk. Add the shatavari powder (start with 1/2 tsp and increase to your taste). Also add the honey, and optional cardamom and/or turmeric and mix well. Drink 1 to 2 cups per day.
Ashwaganda (for both men and women)
Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) is another herb used in ayurvedic medicine, traditionally “for prolonging life, stimulating the mind, and enhancing vigor and sexual prowess as well as for its recuperative powers” [via Adaptogens]. Ashwaganda acts as a tonic to the reproductive system in both men and women, improving sperm and promoting conception. Ashwaganda is also a relaxing adaptogen; when taken regularly it helps soothe nervousness, anxiety, fatigue, and stress-induced insomnia. You should avoid ashwaganda if you’re sensitive to nightshades, or if you have hemochromatosis (excess iron), or hyperthyroidism.
Ashwaganda can be taken as capsules or in warm milk with honey. If you tend to be anemic due to low iron, Ashwaganda milk sweetened with molasses replenishes iron. (Ashwaganda milk can be prepared using the recipe for shatavari milk above, substituting ashwaganda root powder for the shatavari.)
A Note about Acupuncture
I’ve heard nothing but good stories about women’s experiences using acupuncture to help support fertility. Acupuncture can also help relieve the aches and pains of pregnancy, so adding an acupuncturist to your healthcare team is a great idea for all stages of pregnancy.
American ginseng, red clover blossoms, nettles, red raspberry leaves, shatavari and ashwaganda have been used to support fertility for generations (or even millennia!), and their efficacy is increasingly supported by modern scientific research. Good luck and have fun!
Adaptogens, David Winston & Steven Maimes
The Childbearing Year, Susun Weed
Opening Our Wild Hearts to the Healing Herbs, Gail Faith Edwards
Life is Your Best Medicine, Tieraona Low Dog, M.D.