Are Fertility Vitamins and Supplements a Scam?

What You'll Find in Fertility Supplements and How to Decide Whether to Take One

Capsules, still life
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Fertility vitamins and supplements can be found all over the Internet, with marketing materials that are difficult to ignore. The promises made are frequently much bigger than the evidence standing behind them. That isn’t to say that some fertility vitamins aren’t useful and potentially helpful, but one should proceed with caution and understand that not all supplements are harmless.

Ideally, you should get the vitamins and nutrients you need through diet and healthy sun exposure (for vitamin D), but what if you don’t?

“The modern lifestyle might benefit from dietary supplementation,” explains Dr. Kevin Doody, a reproductive endocrinologist in Dallas, Texas. That said,Commercial products are available, but there is no data to recommend one formulation over another for improvement of reproductive capacity.“

However, fertility supplements often go beyond vitamins.  Some contain antioxidants, hormones, or other substances that may boost female or male fertility. (The evidence for these improvements is often weak.) Some supplements contain herbal remedies. Some herbs can interact dangerously with prescription medications and even some fertility drugs. Caution must be taken here.

Always talk to your doctor before starting any alternative treatment. If you’re thinking of starting a fertility supplement, here’s what you must know first.

The Problem With Supplements

For between $30 and $50, you can take a non-prescription “natural” supplement and improve your fertility without prescription drugs.

Or, you can improve the odds of treatment. You’re already spending hundreds or thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars on fertility drugs, IUI, or IVF—it’s easy to justify spending $40 more.

That’s what the supplement manufacturers hope to sell you on. But are these promises legit? It’s complicated.

Many of the problems with fertility supplements are not unique to the trying-to-conceive market. The FDA does not regulate supplements as strictly as they do conventional medications.

For example, you’ve probably seen written on supplement packages and websites this line: “This statement has not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” These words are usually written right below impressive health claims. Leaving one to wonder: Are the claims true or not?

Consider the coenzyme Q10. Fertility supplements that contain this ingredient will often say it’s helpful for women over 40 to “improve egg quality.” They may not say so directly, but the implication is that it can overcome age-related fertility declineMouse studies have suggested that supplementation with coenzyme Q10 can improve egg quality and litter size in older mice,” explains Dr. Doody. “Coenzyme Q10 is a naturally produced substance involved in energy production within cells, but this molecule may be inadequately produced as we get older.”

Sounds great, but there’s a caveat to the research: “No human studies have been done to confirm improvement in egg quality with CoQ10 supplementation,” says Dr. Doody.

“But this supplement is relatively inexpensive and unlikely to be harmful.

Another issue with supplements in general: they may or may not contain what they say they contain. Studies on supplements and vitamins have found that the product doesn’t always match the label. (These studies were on supplements in general, not fertility in particular.) Legally, manufacturers are obligated to ensure what’s listed is what you get. But with no one checking, you can’t always be sure.

Are Supplements Safe?

Another issue with all supplements and vitamin products: Natural does not mean “safe” or side effect-free.

It is possible to overdose on some vitamins. It is possible to have an uncomfortable and even dangerous adverse reaction to herbal remedies.

Supplements can interact with prescription and over-the-counter medications. In some cases, supplements can make a drugs’ effect weaker. In other cases, it can make the effect stronger.

For example, St. John’s Wort is taken to alleviate depression. But this “natural” herbal remedy can cause birth control pills to fail, and can interact dangerously with prescription mental health drugs.

Combining supplements together can also cause problems, as herbs may interact with other herbs. Taking multiple supplements may lead to overdosing on vitamins or minerals. For example, selenium is found in many fertility supplements and found in most daily vitamin pills. Selenium overdose can be dangerous.

Since you can take supplements without a doctor’s guidance (though you should talk to your doctor first!), you may not even be aware that an alternative treatment you’re trying can harm you.

What You May Find in Fertility Supplements

Every supplement is different, and it’s important you review the label carefully and speak to your doctor before starting anything. Here are some commonly found fertility supplement ingredients. 

(Note: this is a brief overview and doesn’t go into all the possible positive or negative effects.)

  • Vitamins for fertility: Vitamins you may find in a fertility supplement include folate, zinc, the B-vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, and selenium. Folate is necessary to prevent congenital disabilities, so supplements that contain folate can be essential, especially if you don’t get enough through your diet or you are considered to be at a higher risk of having a child with a neural tube defect. Many doctors prescribe extra folate to patients with a history of repeat miscarriage. Folate (also known as folic acid) may also play a major role in male fertility and sperm health.
  • Antioxidants: Antioxidants are found in almost every fertility supplement, often in the form of vitamin C, but you may also find antioxidant ingredients like green tea, melatonin, and ubiquinol. Some research has found that antioxidants may have a positive effect on sperm health, and possibly egg quality as well. “Ubiquinol (the reduced form of CoQ10) is an unsurpassed antioxidant,” says Dr. Doody. “There is some evidence that CoQ10 supplementation can improve sperm function. It is not known whether this is related to improved energy generation within the sperm or the antioxidant properties.”
  • Amino acids: Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and are essential to human life. Our bodies create some amnio acids on their own, but others must be received through diet. Two amino acids found in fertility supplements are L-arginine and L-carnitine. L-arginine is said to improve blood flow to the uterus and ovaries. However, one study found that higher levels of L-arginine in follicular fluid were associated with fewer embryos and egg retrieval numbers during IVF treatment. L-carnitine is thought to improve sperm motility (movement) and morphology (shape.) Studies on these improvements have been small.
  • Chaste tree berry (vitex agnus-castus): Sometimes referred to as just vitex, chaste tree berry is an herbal supplement used for female reproductive health. There is evidence that supports its use in reducing premenstrual discomforts like breast tenderness. For fertility, it’s thought to regulate irregular cycles and improve ovulation, but the research here is weaker.
  • Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10): As mentioned earlier, CoQ10 was found to improve egg quality and quantity in animal studies. There’s no current research in humans on these effects yet. While CoQ10 has not been studied much in women, there have been several studies in men. CoQ10 may improve sperm count, movement, and shape.
  • DHEA: Dehydroepiandrosterone is a hormone created by the adrenal glands. More commonly known as DHEA, women with low ovarian reserves may benefit from DHEA. Research has found that treatment with DHEA in women with diminished ovarian reserves may improve pregnancy success rates during IVF treatment. It’s unknown whether women with normal ovarian reserves can benefit from DHEA. In fact, DHEA supplementation may raise androgen levels, leading to unwanted side effects (like unusual hair growth, irregular cycles, and deepening voice) and possibly diminished fertility.
  • Myo-inositol: Inositol is produced by the human body and is also found in food, including beans, corn, nuts, and fruit. Inositol is sometimes assigned to the B-vitamin group, though this is under debate. At the cellular level, inositol seems to be essential for insulin regulation, and the research on myo-inositol as a supplement has primarily been for women with PCOS. (PCOS is associated with insulin resistance.) A small meta-analysis of myo-inositol and PCOS found that it may improve ovulation and regulate menstrual cycles. However, it was unclear whether it can improve pregnancy rates.
  • NAC (N-acetyl-L-cysteine): Also written as N-acetyl cysteine, NAC is a variant of the amino acid L-cysteine. NAC has antioxidant properties, may prevent certain types of cell death, and seems to act as an insulin-sensitizing agent. Supplementation with NAC may improve ovulation rates, especially in women with PCOS. Some research has found that combining NAC with Clomid may help women overcome Clomid resistance, but other studies have found no improvements.

Fertility Supplements Don’t Replace Fertility Treatment

You may be considering trying supplements before getting a fertility evaluation. This isn’t a good idea. Delaying a diagnosis could lower your odds for fertility treatment success. (And fertility supplements are not proven treatments.)

Whatever benefits you do get from supplements, expect them to be modest. No one is going to cure primary ovarian insufficiency with a supplement. You’re not going to bring an almost-zero sperm count to normal with a vitamin.

A Word About Reviews

When looking at reviews of fertility vitamins online, you will probably see many more positive reviews than negative. It’s important to remember that people are more likely to come back and leave a comment if they get pregnant than if they don’t. Those who don't conceive will just move onto the next treatment.

Also, especially if you’re looking at the manufacturer's website, you can’t be sure whether the reviews are all from real people and how many negative ones have not been posted.

Reading reviews may be a good way to decide whether to buy a book or rent a movie. But it’s not a good measure of whether you should try a supplement.

Warning Signs That You Should Proceed With Caution

While most companies selling fertility supplements are honestly trying to provide a reasonably priced good product, others are attempting to scam you. There are dishonest people out there who know how desperate fertility challenged couples are, and they are hoping you’ll send them your money without much hesitation.

Be extra cautious if a fertility supplement:

  • Makes mega-promises. No supplement or vitamin can cure infertility, and even IVF can’t guarantee you get pregnant.
  • References “scientists” or “doctors” but lists no names. Without a full name, you can’t be sure the experts “standing behind” the supplements even exist. Not only should the expert’s names be clear, but their credentials should also be listed.
  • Claims to be research proven—but then doesn’t list the research anywhere. Always look up research claims on third-party websites, like pubmed.com.
  • The website contains poor grammar or spelling mistakes. Carelessly put together websites or emails are scam warning signs.

A Word From Verywell

Making lifestyle changes to improve your overall health and well-being can boost your odds of pregnancy success and provide a sense of empowerment. Taking a fertility vitamin or supplement can be a part of that action plan, but it’s unclear how much of a difference it can make.

Fertility supplements are not a “cure” for infertility, and you shouldn’t put off getting a fertility evaluation. Some causes of infertility worsen with time. If you've been trying for 1 year (or 6 months, if you're over 35), first, get both partners tested. Then talk to your doctor about whether or not delaying conventional treatment is recommended.

Speak to your doctor before starting any supplements, and make sure he knows what you're taking—even if it's just vitamins—if you're going through fertility treatment. Don’t combine supplements without the guidance of a physician.

Also, unless otherwise instructed by your care provider, stop any supplements when you get pregnant. The vast majority of supplements have not been proven to be safe during pregnancy. You can switch to regular prenatal vitamins at that time.

Sources:

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Ahmadi S1, Bashiri R1, Ghadiri-Anari A2, Nadjarzadeh A1. “Antioxidant supplements and semen parameters: An evidence based review.” Int J Reprod Biomed (Yazd). 2016 Dec;14(12):729-736.

Bódis J1, Várnagy A, Sulyok E, Kovács GL, Martens-Lobenhoffer J, Bode-Böger SM. “Negative association of L-arginine methylation products with oocyte numbers.Hum Reprod. 2010 Dec;25(12):3095-100. doi: 10.1093/humrep/deq257. Epub 2010 Sep 24.

Doody, Kevin J. MD. The Center for Assisted Reproduction (CARE Fertility). Email interview. June 23, 2017.  

Pundir J1, Psaroudakis D1, Savnur P1, Bhide P2, Sabatini L1, Teede H3, Coomarasamy A4, Thangaratinam S5. “Inositol treatment of anovulation in women with polycystic ovary syndrome: a meta-analysis of randomised trials.” BJOG. 2017 May 24. doi: 10.1111/1471-0528.14754. [Epub ahead of print]

Saha L1, Kaur S, Saha PK. “N-acetyl cysteine in clomiphene citrate resistant polycystic ovary syndrome: A review of reported outcomes.J Pharmacol Pharmacother. 2013 Jul;4(3):187-91. doi: 10.4103/0976-500X.114597.

Thakur AS1, Littarru GP2, Funahashi I3, Painkara US4, Dange NS5, Chauhan P6. “Effect of Ubiquinol Therapy on Sperm Parameters and Serum Testosterone Levels in Oligoasthenozoospermic Infertile Men.” J Clin Diagn Res. 2015 Sep;9(9):BC01-3. doi: 10.7860/JCDR/2015/13617.6424. Epub 2015 Sep 1.

Qin JC1, Fan L2, Qin AP3. “The effect of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) supplementation on women with diminishedovarian reserve (DOR) in IVF cycle: Evidence from a meta-analysis.J Gynecol Obstet Hum Reprod. 2017 Jan;46(1):1-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jgyn.2016.01.002. Epub 2016 May 19.

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