May 15, 2002 -- Laura Murphy had been trying to have a baby for more than a year when her gynecologist delivered the devastating news. Based on hormonal tests, the 38-year-old accounting manager was told that it was unlikely she would ever conceive and even less likely she could carry a baby to term if she did get pregnant.
A second doctor was less pessimistic, but the fertility treatments he recommended were "invasive and scary sounding," she tells WebMD. It was around this time that she saw the ad in the paper recruiting subjects for a small study of a nutritional supplement formulated to enhance fertility.
"We decided to give it a shot," she says. "I ended up getting pregnant after about three months, during a vacation in Mexico, and my beautiful little boy was born last November."
Murphy says she has little doubt that the supplement made the difference for her. But a fertility specialist contacted by WebMD remains highly skeptical, saying that the study she participated in was far too small and poorly designed to be convincing.
In that study, four out of 14 women taking the supplement FertilityBlend became pregnant within three months, while none of the 15 women given placebo conceived. The supplement is marketed by the Daily Wellness Company of Mountain View, Calif., which also markets a fertility supplement formulated for men. It is sold in some drug stores, nutrition centers, and on the Internet.
Before entering the study, the 29 women had tried unsuccessfully to conceive for six to 36 months. None received any other fertility drugs or treatments during the three-month study period, and the women were not told whether they were receiving the nutritional supplement or a placebo. The study was conducted by researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine and published in the latest issue of the Journal of Women's Health and Gender-Based Medicine.
The supplement includes nutrients routinely found in prenatal vitamins such as folic acid; vitamins B-6, B-12, C, and E; iron; magnesium; selenium; and zinc. Other components include the herb chasteberry, which is widely used in Chinese medicine to encourage ovulation; green tea extract, believed to be an antioxidant; and the amino acid L-arginine, which was shown in a recent study to enhance conception in fertility patients undergoing in vitro fertilization procedures. That study involved far higher doses of the amino acid than is present in the supplement.
Although almost 30% of the women in the supplement group became pregnant, study author Lynn Westphal, MD, agrees that the trial was too small to allow firm conclusions about the effectiveness of FertilityBlend. Recruitment is now under way for a larger study of the product, which will include 100 women.
Fertility specialist Mark Perloe, MD, of Atlanta's Georgia Reproductive Specialists, says the nutritional supplement is more about marketing than medicine. He tells WebMD that in addition to a small sample size, the Stanford study omitted important information about the patients that would allow comparisons about outcome. He adds that the nutritional supplement should have been compared to prenatal vitamins instead of the non-nutritional placebo.
"When I see a patient who wants to get pregnant, the first thing I do is give her a prenatal vitamin and tell her to eat a healthy diet," he says. "Most of the components of this supplement are in prenatal vitamins. And we don't know what the safe and effective doses of the other components are. Just because something is natural doesn't mean it is beneficial."
Perloe says he worries that couples who put off seeking treatment for infertility in order to try unproven approaches like this one risk a further decline in fertility.
"Time is of the essence for women as they get older," he says. "There are fertility issues where nutritional therapy is of some benefit, but it is important to be evaluated."
Westphal agrees that it is not a good idea for older women to put off medical evaluation if they are having trouble conceiving.
"Any patient who is over 35 should see someone after six months of trying," she says. "But this is a potential option for very young women who have not been trying to get pregnant for very long. They don't necessarily need to seek treatment, and they may benefit from this. And it may also be an option for couples who have tried everything else and are about to give up."