The Journey to Fertility with Stress Reduction, Naturopathy, SupplementsConnie Jeske Crane August 15, 2021
Updated August 15, 2021
The group is meeting for the first time. There are twelve of us, new moms attempting to settle our newborns. We fumble through bags of baby gear, stroke silken baby cheeks and peer at the other infants. We wonder how the others are handling it all – exhaustion, euphoria, weird hormones, and hideous nursing bras – everyone eager to share experiences.
We don’t know it yet, but many of us come to this journey having just completed another, the journey to fertility. Several women are now mothers thanks to traditional medical fertility treatments. A couple of others tried for years and gave up – only for pregnancies to strike out of the blue. As one says, “The home study was done. We were all set to adopt, then I got pregnant.”
As for me, I think I’m the only one who took an alternative approach. My doctor had recommended medical fertility treatments for me too, since I was nearly 40 when we got serious about babies. But for several reasons my husband and I opted to go natural. We tried to bring more balance and self-care into our lives. I took vitamin supplements. We got a dog, took long walks, and improved our diet. It was a curious time. We strongly desired to be parents but also grappled with the fact that, ultimately, this was something we could not control. Strangely, as months passed, we became more optimistic, enjoying life and the changes we’d made. The year I turned 40, pregnancy snuck up on me following a peaceful vacation where, ironically, we had taken a break from “trying.” Looking back, I see the progression, but it wasn’t easy.
While studies conflict as to whether human fertility is actually declining, we are definitely procreating later than ever. And age alone, apart from other factors such as environmental toxins, poses a fertility challenge today. While female fertility peaks around age 27, Statistics Canada reports the average age of first-time Canadian mothers has reached 29. “People today are tending to marry later,” agrees Michelle Bodner, a Toronto naturopath whose practice includes a focus on fertility and pregnancy. “Careers and school are definitely taking priority in our twenties and into our thirties. By the time people are looking at having a child there have been long hours at work, lots of stress, sleepless nights and this brings potential issues.”
THE ROLE OF STRESS IN INFERTILITY
In fact, Toronto fertility practitioners all seem to be treating the same woman. The typical client is a woman in her mid to late 30s. She’s urban, career-focused and has delayed marriage and childbearing. She often eats out or skips meals. If she takes a break, it’s invariably to engage in an extreme sport, usually running. “Maybe in her early or mid-thirties she decides ‘OK, now I’m going to get pregnant,'” relates Bodner. “And all of a sudden it’s not as easy as she expected it to be.”
Hopeful couples today face a bewildering set of options. The medical fertility industry is ever expanding – a $3 billion business in the U.S. – and offers various drug regimens and high-tech procedures such as artificial insemination and In Vitro Fertilization (IVF). Alternative treatments are becoming more popular too, as new studies support their effectiveness. And if that isn’t enough, research indicates that sometimes a combination of traditional and alternative therapy may be best of all.
While the process of life remains a magnificent mystery, we are learning much as we delve into that mystery. Lately, studies have focused on the relationship between stress and fertility. We have known for some time that women struggling with infertility, especially over time, suffer high levels of stress. But can stress actually cause infertility? And, could pregnancy rates improve just by soothing stress? Research is answering “yes.”
A quick look at our physiology is in order. “So many people in modern life are dealing with things that 50 years ago would have been unheard of,” says Judith Fiore, N.D., whose Toronto practice focuses on fertility issues. “When we have a lot of stress,” adds Fiore, “our cortisol levels jump up. The adrenals are called upon in the body to create more cortisol because that’s our ‘fight or flight’ hormone. That sets off a cascade of events, one being that the blood supply gets diverted from non-essential areas of the body to essential ones – the heart, the lungs and the large muscles. But this means you don’t get much blood flow and circulation to the reproductive organs.”
Research by renowned fertility specialist Alice Domar indicates that psychological stress and depression can end up inhibiting ovulation, fertilization, tubal functioning, and implantation.
REDUCING STRESS TO INCREASE FERTILITY
For women, 10 years or so of success at the office can take a toll on our bodies and consequently our fertility. “Most of us feel that as long as you can get up in the morning and go to work and put in your 10-hour day without having a breakdown or crying at work, that you are handling your stress,” says Bodner. “We ignore all those little signs along the way.” In fact, Fiore and Bodner say most of their fertility clients report signs of imbalance, be it headaches, problems with sleep, digestive issues such as diarrhea or constipation, or menstrual problems.
So, how do we combat the stress? Glibly tell a couple to relax and you’re sure to compound the frustration. As researcher Sarah Berga exclaims in a BBC interview about a study on the benefits of relaxation on fertility, “People do not relax just because you have told them to. You need to teach them how to relax.” The good news is several practices are proving to work wonders:
• Group support – A Harvard study placed a group of women who had been trying to conceive for one to two years in either a 10-week support group or cognitive-behavioural program (i.e., mind/body support group). A year later, these women had twice the viable pregnancies than a control group. Other studies show similar findings.
• Acupuncture – Studies indicate that this age-old practice increases uterine blood flow. Naturopaths find acupuncture extremely helpful and the treatment is starting to find acceptance in the mainstream as well. • Deep Relaxation – Yoga, meditation, individual counselling and massage have all been part of successful fertility programs. Researchers have also noted the role of a positive attitude and humour.
When stress reigns, Fiore will often refer clients to a 12-week mind-body behavioural medical fertility program in Toronto run by Cecile Barington. Barington, who originally trained with Alice Domar, also receives referrals from medical doctors. She says her program teaches women 12 different relaxation techniques for their “fertility crisis” and also seeks to right clients’ lifestyle imbalances.
Domar writes about the importance of self-nurturing and female support for women, and participants in Barington’s program seem to flourish as they share in the group and with an assigned partner from the group. Says Barington, “What I’m wanting to do as part of the program is to take good care of these women, so they can do the same for themselves.”
Fiore and Barington report an astonishing 70 per cent pregnancy rate among women who see both of them for treatment. Interestingly, Barington also reports that women she’s partnered up in her groups often become pregnant around the same time.
THE NATUROPATHIC APPROACH
It is clearly vital to heal the effects of stressful, competitive, isolating lifestyles. However, naturopaths also look beyond stress. “A typical visit,” says Bodner, “goes into depth about who you are as a person and all of the events that have led up to this point.” Besides stress reduction, treatment can involve diet and nutrition, lifestyle changes, supplements or herbs, homeopathy, and Chinese medicine. Practitioners look for symptoms, or as Bodner says “all of those things that are from my perspective, messages from the inside.”
For women, fertility practitioners prescribe supplements according to specific conditions, which could range from irregular menstruation and hormonal imbalances (such as low progesterone), to poor nutrition. The ultimate goal, as always, is to bring healing and balance to the body. Says Bodner, “We look at the diet and make sure they’re eating regular meals, getting enough protein and the micronutrients that are really important to fertility like zinc, essential fatty acids, and selenium.”
Among the options for boosting female fertility, research recommends supplements and/or foods rich in zinc such as pumpkin seeds, as well as fish oil and folic acid. And a new study indicates that iron supplementation can counter ovulation-related infertility. Fertility experts also often recommend the amino acid L-arginine, wheat grass, magnesium, and vitamins E and B. For male fertility, zinc, selenium, ginseng and folic acid can help improve sperm count and quality. To improve sperm motility, recommendations include vitamins C and E, beta carotene, and coenzyme Q10. Most encouraging for women working a naturopathic program is that they tend to notice their symptoms improving even before pregnancy occurs. “Overall,” says Bodner, “we notice other signs through the cycle improving…energetically the woman feels stronger, is sleeping better, has better energy though the day. She’s calmer and has less anxiety. There are generalized feelings of well-being that increase along the way.”
But as any client is bursting to ask, how long will it take to get pregnant? Fiore says, “I tell people we need a minimum of three months. But if we want to be realistic, we should probably look ahead to 18 months, which can seem like an eternity to someone who’s been trying for two or three years and their 40th birthday is coming up.”
It feels like we are peeking under the veil. Research is deepening our understanding of human fertility and how to heal our bodies. Various methods let practitioners coax their statistics higher or achieve dramatic success rates. But in the end, mystery prevails. Pregnancy cannot be guaranteed – not in the world of test tubes and sperm counts, nor with more intuitive healing arts. “We’re naturopaths, not magicians,” says Fiore. “I worry about people who have been through many, many IVFs…I had one woman who came into my office who was preparing for IVF number 22 and wanted my help.” In this hugely emotional process, Fiore recommends couples have a plan B, something to move them forward after a setback, or finally to help them acknowledge that the time has come to stop trying.
But paradoxically, Bodner says holistic treatment can also help women regain a sense of control. Where the medical fertility process may leave women depressed, angry at their bodies, or stressing over thousands of dollars spent on a failed IVF cycle, Bodner says her passion is to help women understand their own bodies and their own power. If a longed-for pregnancy does not occur, at the very least a woman has learned to relax, and better respect and nurture herself. If on the other hand, she conceives, she’s all the more ready for the rigours of pregnancy and labour, not to mention the needs of a newborn.
• Julia Indichova, https://www.fertileheart.com
• Randine Lewis, https://www.thefertilesoul.com
• Julia Indichova, Inconceivable: A Woman’s Triumph Over Despair and Statistics, Broadway, October 2001.
• Randine Lewis, The Infertility Cure: The Ancient Chinese Wellness Program for Getting Pregnant and Having Healthy Babies, Little, Brown and Company, January 2004.
• Toni Weschler, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, 10th Anniversary Edition: The Definitive Guide to Natural Birth Control, Pregnancy Achievement, and Reproductive Health, Collins, paperback, October 2006.Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Vitality in 2007. It has since been updated for re-release this month.
Connie Jeske Crane is a Toronto-based writer, editor and content creator. She reports on the business of event management, real estate, sport tourism, wellness, catering and more for media, academic and corporate clients. Twitter: @connjay; Portfolio: <a href="https://conniecrane.contently.com">conniecrane.contently.com</a>; LinkedIn: <a href="linkedin.com/in/connie-jeske-crane-00b90b28">linkedin.com/in/connie-jeske-crane-00b90b28</a>