Black Women and Infertility. We need to talk about this

Black Women and Infertility. We need to talk about this

Cara O. Frank, L.OM

An important focus in our practice is the treatment of female and male infertility. While a good proportion of our patients are people of color, most of the women are white. Men of all races are far less likely to seek treatment with Chinese Medicine.

Last year I had the privilege of participating on a panel of doctors, therapists, and clergy for the Fertility for Colored girls conference in Philadelphia. The organization was founded by Rev. Dr. Stacey Edwards-Dunn following her and her husband’s personal journey navigating female and male factor infertility. After years of research, learning and treatment, they have a beautiful daughter named Shiloh.

Black women are twice as likely to have difficulty conceiving as white women. Even after ruling out preexisting conditions and other variables. Shame and stigma prevent women from seeking treatment early. And this is coupled with lack of knowledge about their bodies, a predisposition to developing fibroids, PCOS, tubal blockage, and diabetes type 2. Medical bias against black women, sadly, can be a factor in this. Please note that I’m being specific with choice of words; I’m not using BIPOC because even other women of color don’t have as high an incidence of infertility as black women. 

The burden of isolation we witness with our black fertility patients is poignant. We want you to know that you don’t have to feel alone with this. We’re here to help.

I recently shared with my staff a painful story of a Muslim woman I had the privilege of treating a number of years ago. She was overcome by the fear that if she didn’t conceive, her husband would leave her for another, younger wife. I had not considered this before, and I felt gob smacked. I valued that awakening, and I have never forgotten it.

If you’re having trouble conceiving- it’s not your fault. But it’s within your power to change it.

How do we approach infertility for black women?

First, I want to preface this by saying that while there are health issues that predominate the clinical scenario for women of color, it is my opinion that not all are based on race. Often, it’s rooted in poverty. Often, it’s limited by lack of education, a lack of resources to learn and access to fresh food. But, far too frequently, women of color are not listened to early enough and are unable to advocate for themselves in a medical setting.

We Work With You.

We’re a team and we’re here to empower you. We want to support you in advocating for yourself and your partner.

  1. We make sure you have a reproductive endocrinologist who will explain tests, blood values and hormones in easy to understand language. We spend time providing you with information to to ask specific questions so you’re clear on your treatment options. Knowledge is power, and there’s no way to partner with your health care provider without it. This is called Health Literacy[i] and this is your right.
  1. We work on diet and lifestyle. We want you to exercise because this helps blood circulate and metabolizes excessive estrogen that contributes to fibroid growth and weight gain. Walking or running is free. If your neighborhood isn’t safe, YouTube has thousands of free videos that require no equipment. We’ll work on breathing and relaxation.
  1. We make our goals and advice realistic. Most people, at every economic bracket, can improve their health. If organic food is in your budget- then focus on that. If not, you’re still better off eating fresh produce every day and striving to eat unprocessed foods. The chances of a successful outcome are far higher if we can improve your nutrition.
  1. We’ll go over your cycle in detail: This applies to every woman we treat. So often, women just don’t know the exact day they ovulate. When you go through the math of the menstrual cycle, it’s often easy to conceive.
  1. We help normalize it for you. If black women are twice as likely to experience infertility, then likely one of your friends or relatives is also struggling. Fortunately, women like Rev. Stacey, Michelle Obama, and Beyoncé have been open about their fertility challenges and IVF. Gabrielle Union recently shared her story of multiple miscarriages before she was diagnosed with adenomyosis. This causes scarring and inflammation in the uterus making it impossible to carry a baby to term because the uterus can’t expand. All this has helped to open the dialog of black women struggling with fertility. But most of us don’t have the resources they do.
  1. We’re going to give you supplements: Black women often have vitamin D deficiency. Optimizing this critical nutrient helps fertility and reduces pregnancy complications. If you’ve been diagnosed with PCOS, we’re going to give you supplements to help reduce androgens (a male hormone. If you have fibroids, we’ll work with supplements to help reduce excessive estrogen in your body. Please see our handout on recommended supplements for fertility. And then reach out to us for guidance.
  1. We’ll treat you with acupuncture to improve circulation to the reproductive organs, regulate your cycle and help eliminate cramps
  1. We’re going to give you herbal formulas. We often customize these for each person. Because everyone is unique, and we love to be as specific as possible. This might be to help reduce fibroids. It might be to support aging eggs; it might be to balance hormones if you have PCOS. We might even work to open block fallopian tubes. (and yes! This works!).

Helpful resources: Adapted from an Article by Dr Diana Chavkin, MD

[i] The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, Title V, defines health literacy as the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.