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Fertility Symbols Have Provided A Restorative And Fruitful Focus For Would-be Parents

I was meant to be recovering from another harrowing 12 months of miscarriages, failed IVF attempts and gynaecological operations, but when a friend had suggested Malta as a holiday destination all I could think was, ‘I can go to the famous fertility temples there and plead with whoever or whatever to let me become a mum.’

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Fertility Symbols

Throughout history, fertility symbols have provided a restorative and fruitful focus for would-be parents. On a personal journey, Catherine Blackledge uncovers their surprising secrets and the real stories behind them...

‘Please, please, please, please, please, let me have a healthy, happy baby,’ I whispered as I placed my final offering – a fig – at the feet of the gigantic fertility goddess. It was a glorious sun-baked day in early September 2008, I was 40 and still not pregnant.

I was meant to be recovering from another harrowing 12 months of miscarriages, failed IVF attempts and gynaecological operations, but when a friend had suggested Malta as a holiday destination all I could think was, ‘I can go to the famous fertility temples there and plead with whoever or whatever to let me become a mum.’

So now here I was in Tarxien, having already viewed the mother goddess figurines in the museum in Valletta and visited the ancient sites at Hagar Qim, Mnajdra, and Ggantija, with their curved, womb-like chambers. These sacred structures are the oldest in the world – older than the pyramids and Stonehenge – and were built approaching 4,000 years ago to revere and promote female fecundity. I had to believe their potent prehistoric images could help me too.

Everything seems worth a try when you are failing to conceive and carry a baby to term. I always wore my silver necklace in the shape of the crescent moon – associated with fertility and motherhood; I was an advocate of acupuncture, reflexology and herbal remedies too.

In this context, embarking on a personal pilgrimage to feast my eyes on as many symbols of fertility as possible felt like a perfectly sane approach. That’s why seven months earlier, on a bitterly cold and snowy February day, when the sensible option would have been to get home as quickly as possible, I’d convinced my husband to take a cross-country detour so that I could gaze on my next sheela-na-gig.

Sheela-na-gigs are perhaps the most well known fertility icons in Europe. Crafted in stone by medieval sculptors, these startling female figures proudly revealing their chiselled genitalia adorn churches and castles across the UK, western France and northern Spain. Some squat, hunkering down on their haunches; others splay their legs or place them akimbo; a couple are in the form of mermaids. Many reach back or around, twisting to enable a better view between their legs; a handful even lift their feet up to their ears. What unites the hundreds of sculptures is their utter lack of shame in displaying their womanhood.

The sheela-na-gig I was visiting on this particular day is famous for having the most generous genitals of all her sisters. Gracing the wall of Oaksey Church in Wiltshire, she stands upright and gestures with her hands towards her astonishing oval-shaped vagina, which is depicted in an abstract manner reaching from groin to ankle.

These remarkable and explicit works of art on places of worship and power have been recognised as fertility symbols for hundreds of years. Those within reach have vulvas that have been rubbed smooth or worn away after centuries of being touched by hopeful hands.

But even eye contact is said to be enough to help: the tradition surrounding the sheela-na-gig on St Michael’s Church in Oxford requires that all brides look at the figure on the way to their wedding. I couldn’t touch the sheela-na-gig on Oaksey Church, so I simply gazed on her and asked her for assistance.

The fear the threat of infertility evokes is universal. In response, every civilisation throughout history has fashioned symbols of fertility in a bid to ensure the life of future generations. Many, like the Maltese goddesses, focus on the voluptuous naked female form.

The oldest are the Stone Age Venus figurines. Some are palm-sized and appear designed to be handled and carried, while other Venuses are larger and carved into rock faces; so far over 200 have been found across Europe and as far east as Siberia. The most famous is the Venus of Willendorf, an exquisite 11cm high limestone figure who flaunts her fecund curves of breast, buttock and belly and a very realistic vagina.

Indeed, the prize for the most prolific symbol of fertility and womanhood goes to the vagina itself, or yoni (the Sanskrit word for female genitalia). The site and source from which all humanity springs is the primal fertility icon, symbolising the power of creation, of hope for the future, the origin of the world and the font of all new life.

The imagery appears to be common across cultures. In Bolivia, Indonesia, Mexico, Ecuador and America, stone carvings of female genitalia are associated with fertility rituals; in California it was the custom until the last century for Native American women to visit yoni stones when they needed help in conceiving.

Naturally occurring rock formations reminiscent of female genitalia are honoured too. In Japan, the genital rock forms in Kyushu are believed to bestow good luck on all in their vicinity. In Thailand, on the island of Koh Samui, two vulva-shaped rocks in the cliffs are places of prayer and pilgrimage; the best known is called Hin Yaay, the Grandmother Stone.

Many believe in the power of yoni magic. Amulets inscribed with vaginal imagery – typically two concentric ovals, or a downwards pointing triangle (the Indian symbol for the yoni) – have been used around the world in a bid to confer fertility on their owner. For anyone wishing to explore the potency of the vagina as a symbol of fertility today, the Polish artist Iwona Demko creates contemporary yoni jewellery, handbags, candles, soaps and more.

It’s not just the human body though that has proved inspirational as a symbol of fertility. Animals and plants, including figs, seed-filled pomegranates and the almond have too.

It’s thought almonds enjoy this status because of how they look. The almond-shaped oval or mandorla echoes the shape of the vagina, and indeed almonds are said to have sprung from the vagina of Cybele, the goddess of nature and mother of all living things. That’s why almonds were traditionally thrown at weddings, or coated in sugar and given as a gift to the bride and groom’s guests. We may throw confetti now, but the name itself, which derives from the Italian for small sweets, is rooted in the older custom of throwing almonds to ensure a fertile marriage.

Shells, in particular cowrie shells, are also an age-old fertility symbol because their contoured underside resembles the folds and curves of the opening of the vagina. Women in Roman Pompeii were said to wear them around their hips to increase fertility; and in ancient Egypt, cowrie shells decorated sarcophagi in a bid to promote rebirth.

However, it is the mad March hare, seen leaping and bounding as the seasons change to spring, which is the most joyful of all humankind’s fertility symbols. For centuries, wonderful stories have been passed down about the hare’s links with fecundity. The hare was sacred to the pagan fertility goddess, Eostre, whose name lives on in the Christian feast of Easter and the term oestrus.

It was the hare that laid Easter eggs, children used to be told, and it was the hare’s exuberant, thumping dance that helped the earth grow again after winter. This connection with Eostre and Easter is why today hares pop up on Easter eggs and cards and atop spring bonnets.

Until a few years ago, the hare’s status as an icon of fertility was thought to stem from these connections with Eostre and its life-renewing dance. But in 2010, scientists discovered another reason for its fecund image – the European brown hare can get pregnant while it is already pregnant.

Superconception or superfoetation, as it is called, is very rare, but hares can do it. While days away from giving birth to her brood of leverets, the expectant hare mother can conceive again.

The resulting second batch of embryo hares simply wait in her oviduct until their older siblings are born, and then move into her newly vacated uterus to complete their gestation. The hare’s fertile reputation is a valid one and, curiously, it looks like our ancestors knew of the hare’s abilities long before modern science did.

I saw my first wild hare with my husband early one morning in August 2009. Sadly, by then, I was 41 and still not pregnant. As we saw the hare we were minutes away from arriving at a new fertility clinic to try a novel type of IVF in a last, forlorn hope that this would be the time that it worked for us.

When I saw the hare I knew immediately it was going to work. This was the omen I’d been looking for. I was right. The day I saw the hare, one of the embryos placed back inside me took root and began to grow, healthily and happily. Nine months later I cradled our daughter in my arms.

I am one of the lucky ones; I will never forget that. My odyssey exploring fertility symbols is finally over. But I do still wear my silver crescent moon, and the hare will always have a special resonance for me.

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Fertility 360

NEWS: Get access to adult photos of the Cryos sperm donors

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Adult Cryos Sperm Donors Photos

Viewing adult photos of Cryos sperm donors is now a reality. Visit dk.cryosinternational.com today and get access to the new feature.

At Cryos it is now possible to access adult photos of sperm donors on our website, thus adding another dimension to your search for the perfect donor.

The unique chance to see both childhood and adult photos of your sperm donor, provides you with a more comprehensive idea of who your sperm donor is and moreover of the features of your future child. We hope that this extra dimension will upgrade your experience making your decision of a sperm donor easier.

The 5-6 adult photos are taken by a professional photographer and are a part of the donors extended profile where you also have access to childhood photos, an audio recording of the donor’s voice, a handwritten message, an emotional intelligence profile, and finally our staff impressions of the donor, amongst other exclusive features.

The adult photos require special access on our website. Visit our website and find out more and get access to this new feature now.

Please note that the person in the photos is a model and not a Cryos donor.
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Fertility 360

Fertility And Sex: Why Her Orgasm Matters

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Why her orgasm matters

For many couples, trying to conceive can make sex feel less fun and more pressured. Instead of being an intimate and enjoyable experience, baby-making sex can start to seem like a finely choreographed routine. Often, the female orgasm is one of the first things to go, but the maleorgasm is not the only orgasm that matters when it comes to fertility.

Before I dive into discussing the potential benefits of the female orgasm for fertility, it’s important to note that reaching climax is not technically essential for conception. If you never, or rarely, achieve orgasm, don’t worry, you can still get pregnant! Around 1 in 10 women don’t experience orgasm, ever. What’s more, the exact nature of the female orgasm remains somewhat elusive. Some experience orgasm through clitoral stimulation, some through vaginal intercourse, some through both, and others through something else entirely, or not at all.

Even without reaching orgasm, sexual arousal is itself beneficial to fertility. Like an orgasm, arousal is, first and foremost, a good indication that sex is enjoyable. Sexual arousal and climax causes significant changes in your levels of neurotransmitters including noradrenaline, oxytocin, prolactin, dopamine, and serotonin. These ‘reward’ neurohormones help you bond to a sexual partner and make it more likely that you’ll have sex more often, thereby increasing your chances of conception.

Second, orgasm and arousal have a range of physiological effects that might aid conception, which I’ll discuss in a moment. And, third, sexual arousal and orgasms for everyone can help sperm-producing partners avoid feeling like they’re being used just for their sperm. In fact, some studies show that male partners who engage in cunnilingus prior to vaginal intercourse have greater sexual arousal and produce more semen!

HOW ORGASMS ENHANCE FERTILITY

The female orgasm can help relieve stress, and promote healthy circulation and balance in the body. Stress is a key cause of diminished libido and may also reduce the chances of conception by raising levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Conversely, good sex can help raise levels of oxytocin and the other neurohormones mentioned above. These help you to relax and bond to your partner.

Published in 1967, the author even went as far as suggesting that the increase in these hormones after orgasm help support conception by temporarily incapacitating you. Put simply, this ‘poleax’ effect means you’ll feel so relaxed that you’ll stay lying down, which may increase your chance of conceiving. Whether staying supine does make conception more likely is still under debate, but I’m all for promoting relaxation, so if this theory provides added motivation, go for it!

CERVICAL TENTING

There is some suggestion that orgasm affects the shape and function of the cervix. These effects, which may include cervical ‘tenting could enhance the likelihood of conception by promoting the movement of sperm into the uterus and beyond. If you are curious as to what your cervix looks like during different stages of your cycle, check out these photos.

THE ‘UP-SUCK’ THEORY

One of the main ways in which female orgasm has been linked to fertility is something called the ‘upsuck’ theory (or, sometimes, the ‘insuck’ theory). This theory proposes that the female orgasm causes uterine and vaginal contractions that actively draw semen up into the uterus and towards the fallopian tubes, thereby increasing the chances of an egg being fertilized.

Scientific evidence to support this theory is rather inconsistent, but there’s certainly no harm in trying! One proposed underlying mechanism of this theory is oxytocin-mediated uterine peristalsis, i.e. the same mechanism that causes uterine contractions during labour could be partially responsible for increasing the likelihood of conception. Indeed, some research has found higher pregnancy rates in women shown to experience this ‘insuck’ phenomenon.

SPERM RETENTION AND FERTILITY

More recently, one small study found that orgasm may increase sperm retention. This study involved women using a syringe to insert a sperm simulant (lube) prior to external stimulation to orgasm. As such, the study’s findings may be especially applicable to anyone undergoing artificial insemination (IUI).

The take-away: Chances are that if you orgasm 1 minute before or up to 45 minutes after insemination (whether artificial or otherwise), you will probably retain more sperm, which may increase your chance of conceiving.

IN CONCLUSION

To sum up, the female orgasm might enhance fertility in a variety of ways, but it isn’t essential to conception.

The take home message is that orgasm and sexual arousal itself have many benefits to fertility, partner relationships and stress relief. Don’t worry though, if you have a low libido, conception can still happen even in the absence of arousal and orgasm!

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What Is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?

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Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome or PCOS is a hormonal imbalance that affects 5 to 10 percent of women of reproductive age across the world, and results in irregular or absent periods, acne, excess body hair and weight gain. It is also a major cause of infertility and yet is frequently misdiagnosed and often missed completely.

PCOS gets its name because under an ultrasound scan, the ovaries can look like a bunch of grapes, each one covered in what look like multiple cysts. In fact, these aren’t cysts at all, but are small, undeveloped follicles.

Symptoms

Not every woman with PCOS will get the same symptoms, but common signs to look out for include:

  • Few or no periods
  • Excess hair on the face or breasts or inside of the legs or around the nipples
  • Acne
  • Oily skin
  • Scalp hair thinning or loss (male pattern baldness)
  • Skin tags (known as acrochordons)
  • Skin discolouration (known as acanthosis nigricans) where the skin looks ‘dirty’ on the arms, around the neck and under the breasts
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Lack of sex drive
  • Weight gain especially around the middle of the body
  • Difficulty in losing weight
  • Cravings and binges
  • Irregular or no ovulation
  • Difficulty in becoming pregnant
  • Recurrent miscarriages

PCOS creates a vicious cycle of hormone imbalances, which has huge knock-on effects throughout the rest of your body. With PCOS, the problem often starts with the ovaries, which are unable to produce the hormones they should, and in the correct proportions. But linked to this is the very common problem of insulin resistance. Women with PCOS very often have difficulties with blood sugar levels which can cause weight gain and the excess insulin can stimulate your ovaries to produce yet more testosterone. Half of all women with PCOS do not have any problems with their weight, yet they can still have higher insulin levels than normal.

How is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome diagnosed?

The most widely accepted criteria for the diagnosis of PCOS says that you should have two out of these three problems:

  • Infrequent or no ovulation
  • Signs (either physical appearance – hirsutism or acne – or blood tests) of high levels of male hormones
  • Polycystic ovaries as seen on an ultrasound scan

The Seven Nutritional Steps to beat Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

Good nutrition is the foundation of your health and you should never underestimate how powerful it can be. It is the fuel that provides you with the energy to live your life and it gives your body the nutrients it needs to produce your hormones in the correct balance. The better the supply of those nutrients, the more healthily your body will function.

The fundamental aim of my nutritional approach to PCOS is to target a number of areas simultaneously so that you get the maximum effect in the minimum amount of time.

Here’s how:

  1. Switch to unrefined carbohydrates (eaten with protein) and never go more than 3 hours without food to keep your blood sugar levels balanced
  2. Eat oily fish and foods rich in Omega 3s to help your body to become more sensitive to insulin so it can overcome insulin resistance
  3. Cut out all dairy products for 3 months to bring levels of male hormones under control
  4. Eat more vegetables and pulses to which helps control male hormones
  5. Cut right back on or cut out alcohol for 12 weeks to allow your liver function to improve
  6. Cut down on caffeine to give your adrenal glands a rest
  7. Cut down on saturated fats and eliminate trans fats to help control the potentially damaging inflammatory processes PCOS causes in the body

PCOS Symptons

Best Supplements for PCOS

The use of certain vitamins and minerals can be extremely useful in helping to correct Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, along with a good diet.

Chromium

Chromium helps to encourage the formation of glucose tolerance factor (GTF), which is required to make insulin more efficient. A deficiency of chromium can lead to insulin resistance.  It also helps to control cravings and reduces hunger. Can help to reduce insulin resistance associated with PCOS

B vitamins

The B vitamins are very important in helping to control the symptoms of PCOS. Vitamin B2 helps to burn fat, sugar and protein into energy. B3 is a component of GTF which is released every time blood sugar rises, and vitamin B3 helps to keep the levels in balance. Vitamin B5 has been shown to help with weight loss and B6 is also important for maintaining hormone balance and, together with B2 and B3, is necessary for normal thyroid function.

Zinc

Zinc helps with PCOS as it plays a crucial role in the production of your reproductive hormones and also regulates your blood sugar.

Magnesium

Magnesium is an important mineral for dealing with PCOS because there is a strong link between magnesium levels and insulin resistance – the higher your magnesium levels the more sensitive you are likely to be to insulin.

Co-Enzyme Q10

Co-Q10 is a substance that your body produces in nearly every cell.  It helps to balance your blood sugar and lowering both glucose and insulin.

Alpha lipoic acid

This powerful antioxidant helps to regulate your blood sugar levels because it releases energy by burning glucose and it also helps to make you more insulin sensitive. It also has an effect on weight loss because if the glucose is being used for energy, your body releases less insulin and you then store less fat.

Omega 3 fatty acids

Omega 3 fatty acids taken in supplement form have been found to reduce testosterone levels in women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome.

Amino Acids

Certain amino acids can be very helpful for PCOS as they can improve your insulin sensitivity and also can have an effect on weight loss.

N-Acetyl cysteine

In women with PCOS this amino acid helps reduce insulin levels and makes your body more sensitive to insulin. Study using NAC in women who were clomiphene resistant and had ovarian drilling.  After ovarian drilling, the women given NAC compared to a placebo showed a significantly higher increase in both ovulation and pregnancy rates and lower incidence of miscarriage.

Arginine

Arginine can be helpful in reversing insulin resistance. In one study, a combination of both arginine and N-acetyl cysteine were given to women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome.  The two amino acids help to improve blood sugar and insulin control and also increased the number of menstrual cycles and ovulation with one women becoming pregnant on the second month.

Carnitine

Carnitine helps your body break down fat to release energy and can help improve insulin sensitivity.

Tyrosine

Tyrosine is helpful for women with PCOS who are overweight as it helps to suppress the appetite and burn off fat.

Glutamine

This amino acid is useful for helping with sugar cravings as it can be converted to sugar for energy and so takes away the need to eat something sweet.  It also helps to build and maintain muscle which is important for fat burning.

Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

BCAAs include three amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine. They are important in PCOS because they help to balance blood sugar and having good levels of these BCAAs can have a beneficial effect on your body weight

Inositol

A study used inositol (2,000mg) in combination with NAC (600mg), a significant increase in ovulation rates.

Having a good diet, regular exercise, controlling stress and taking key nutrients will help in getting your hormones back in balance and reducing the negative symptoms associated with PCOS.

More information can be found on www.naturalhealthpractice.com

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