‘“The good news is, your ovaries look healthy and you have plenty of egg follicles. But your husband’s sperm count is, unfortunately, very low. He has half a million sperm. The average male sperm is between 20-120 million. The most likely way for you to fall pregnant is through IVF.”
Male infertility is responsible for 40-50 percent of all fertility issues. And yet, low sperm count remains a hugely taboo subject, shrouded in secrecy, and yes, even shame. So when Solicitor, Rachel Woolfe, now 37, from London, struggled to fall pregnant, she never suspected it would be her husband’s sperm that would prove to be the problem. Here she shares her story to becoming a mother with Glamour’s Editor-in-Chief, Deborah Joseph – and the little-known herbal tablet she bought from Holland and Barrett that boosted her husband’s sperm to the point she could finally fall pregnant, after years of trying.
Seven years later, I still feel haunted by those words from my doctor, even though I’m lucky enough to have two children. It was the moment my hopes of having a family felt like they were being ripped from under me as I tried to understand what this would mean in reality. I mean, low sperm count…I’d barely heard of it. IVF? Of course everyone knows about that. Female infertility through PCOS or endometriosis? A few of my friends had problems with these issues.
And I’d read so much about female infertility connected to age and lifestyle. But low sperm count? I didn’t know of any men who had it. It was never mentioned among friends, even in hushed tones. It was barely written about. It felt like a total unknown.
My husband Rick and I had been married for two years, I was 29, Rick, who worked as a solicitor, was five years older than me. We’d been trying for a baby for just over 12 months and I thought it was time to go for a check up to see what was going on. A few of our friends who’d started trying at the same time as us were ready to drop, but we hadn’t had even a shadow of a blue line on the many wasted pregnancy tests I’d bought.
I thought it must be because of me that we weren’t falling pregnant. I’d wondered if my tubes were blocked, if my stressful job as a lawyer was somehow impeding my chances, whether my history of partying hard and being on the pill for 14 years were now coming back to haunt me. But not in a million years did I expect my husband to be the one with the fertility problem.
So much so I hadn’t even asked Rick to join me for this meeting where I was to be told the test results on his sperm’s quality: its concentration, morphology and motility. I was so convinced the issue was with me and my lifestyle – I travelled a lot, worked late and still probably drank a bit too much wine, even though I knew none of these things were great for my fertility. Despite trying for a year I’d never become fixated with ‘getting my body into baby-ready’ mode. I walked out of the hospital feeling dizzy. I was sort of in shock and went back to work in a daze.
I told Rick about his results that evening at home. He cried. For him, it wasn’t just about not being able to have a baby and the fact he felt he was letting me down. He felt it was about his identity, his manhood, his virility.
He was ashamed and asked me not to tell anyone, which I respected. It felt so crazy for it to be him that I wished it were me with the problem. At least that way it would be more accepted in society, something we could talk a bit more openly about without the fear of the shame or judgement I felt people would feel about Rick for not being ‘manly’ enough. The secrecy was hard. As more and more people kept asking me if we wanted children I made every excuse under the sun – we were busy working, we were enjoying travelling, we wanted children but not quite yet – everything but the truth. We told our parents and siblings the truth, but that was it.
I googled everything around low sperm count and we strictly followed the advice to increase it – no hot baths, no smoking, no excessive alcohol, always keeping his laptop away from his lap. We even went to a Chinese Herbalist who claimed he could raise his Rick’s sperm count with a cocktail of the most foul-tasting, bitter, herb drink which he took every night for a month. We continued to have sex three times a week – sperm regenerates every two-three months so we were advised keep having sex to make sure his sperm was always fresh. Though I have to be honest, neither of us wanted to. Knowing that we couldn’t fall pregnant through sex really dampened both of our libidos.
Meanwhile, we booked in for our first session of IVF and also booked in to see a urologist to see if there was something physiologically wrong that could perhaps be fixed with an operation – there wasn’t which mean there was very little we could do apart from IVFand ICSI – which is a specific form of treatment that deals with low male sperm count. Normally for IVF , they put your egg into a petri dish of sperm and hope that one of them fertilises as it would do in the womb.
For ICSI, due to the low sperm count which also often comes alongside motility issues, they pick one healthy sperm and inject it into the egg. This is an additional cost of £1200 on top of the round of IVF which cost around £3,000 a round. ICSI has good success rates.
Even though our fertility issue was the male factor – as it is with 40-50 percent of infertility cases – it was me who underwent the physically gruelling aspect of IVF. The daily hormone injections that made me feel like I had PMT on speed and turned my stomach black and blue, the daily blood tests, the swollen stomach, the days off work as I went for egg retrieval. All he had to do was go into a private room at the clinic where he was given some porno magazines to look at, he ejaculated into a tube and his job was done.
I have to be honest, it took its toll on our marriage – I felt hugely resentful – as more of my friends fell pregnant around me, meanwhile we’d been trying now for almost three years. I had dark thoughts that maybe he and I weren’t destined to be together after all if we weren’t able to have a baby together. On the flipside, I wanted to be supportive of him and I know he found it very difficult and upsetting watching me go through the physical and mental trauma of IVF and infertility.
Our first round of IVF had resulted in a pregnancy but unfortunately, it was short-lived and at our six week scan there was no heartbeat – we had miscarried. But when he had his sperm count tested for the first round – it had risen to 1 million. So the effort he’d been making to improve his sperm had helped – but not enough to help us fall pregnant naturally. We were devastated, but also hopeful that this at least meant I could fall pregnant. But then our second round failed altogether.
We booked in for our third round. By this point I was like a woman possessed, all I could think about was falling pregnant, it took over my every waking moment. And then a chance conversation into my local health food shop changed everything. I went in to buy some antenatal vitamins, which I’d been taking throughout our treatments, when a young guy behind the counter said, ‘Oh, if you’re trying for a baby, you should get your husband to take these. They’re really good to boost his sperm.” He handed me a bottle of Tribulus Pro that contained Tribulus Terrestris, an exotic plant believed to improve human sperm parameters as well as testosterone in men and to improve virility.
By this point, I was willing to try anything and not one of the doctors has suggested any herbal supplements apart from the Chinese Doctor. I asked my doctor about them but he was very sceptical – we found that most IVF doctors were disparaging of any kind of herbal support to IVF and fertility, they were purely about the science.
We did a quick google search and discovered the plant is often taken by men in the East to boost sperm count. We read some reports that said it can make men more agressive due to the increased testosterone, but other than that, we thought why not? And compared to all the invasive IVF treatments I’d been undergoing, it felt harmless and good for my husband to be doing something to help instead of sitting by and helplessly looking on.
Nevertheless, I don’t think either of us really believed they would help – if they were going to make a difference we were sure someone would have told us about them by now. But when you’re as desperate as we were you will literally try anything. He took three tablets a day for two months, but it started to make him feel quite angry so he reduced them to two tablets a day which was better. We were shocked to find out by the time our next round of IVF came his sperm had raised from one million to 17 million.
This was the fourth time he’d been tested in three years and the highest his count had ever reached beforehand was one million. We couldn’t believe it. Even the clinic was surprised to see such a huge leap. Sperm count definitely goes up and down for all men – depending on lifestyle – even a common cold can affect a man’s sperm count which will show up two months later. But such a huge leap after various tests of such a low count is quite unusual we were told.
Three days before we were due to start our third and final round of IVF and ICSI, I realised I had missed my period. To our absolute delight I had fallen pregnant – naturally – and we gave birth to a healthy baby girl nine months later. And then…by some miracle, we started trying again 18 months later – again he took Tribulus Pro and this time I fell pregnant the second month we tried with our second daughter.
Our girls are now aged six and four and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about how lucky we are that it worked out for us to be able to have our much longed-for family. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t walked into that health food shop on that day. I once went back to thank the shop worker for his advice, but he had left.
We have told so many people about Tribulus Pro when they tell us they are struggling to fall pregnant – and in every single case our friends have reported back – that even when they didn’t have low sperm count in the first place, that their sperm numbers have sky -rocketed. So I wanted to share our story because in our experience, not many medical professionals talk about this tablet to help with low sperm count. If you are also struggling to fall pregnant, and if your partner’s sperm isn’t as high as you’d like – who knows – these little tablets may bring you the same miracles it brought us – I’ve got everything crossed for you.