The ‘F’ factor: 10 Things You Should Know About Fertility
By Paola Bassanese
Trying for a baby can either be the most exhilarating or the most stressful time in a couple's life.
First of all, when looking at fertility, a specialist must look at the couple as a whole. There is a risk of rushing into medical treatment before assessing any emotional blocks that a woman or her partner may have about getting pregnant and the responsibilities of having children. According to leading fertility expert Zita West, founder of the Zita West Clinic couples should be able to see a midwife, receive a structured plan looking at different factors to aid conception and be able to express their feelings, fears and axieties.
We speak to fertility experts in the field of complementary health who have agreed to share their knowledge and advice to couples considering trying for a baby.
1. Stress. Managing stress levels is essential to good health for the parents and help a woman increase her chances of conceiving. "There is no doubt that stress plays a significant role in the ability to or not to conceive. In the long term this can create a vicious cycle as the longer this goes on the more stressed and upset the individuals get" argues reflexologist Rima Shah of Calm and Clear. Elizabeth Calderara of Fabulous Feet states that "although stress does not cause infertility, it is a contributing factor to an individual's ability to conceive." In a study by Carnegie Mellon University published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a link was found between stress and the inability of the body to respond to inflammation efficiently. The ability of the body to self-regulate responses to external stressors means that we are more resilient to disease. When this function becomes impaired, our immune defenses become weaker and in the case of stress there is a higher risk of cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases and asthma. Stress can have a negative effect on fertility so it is worth lowering stress levels before trying for a baby and rethink lifestyle habits like working long hours, relying on processed foods, smoking, drinking too much alcohol. In a 2004 study the National Collaborating Centre for Women's and Children's Health looked at causes of infertility, highlighting how both external factors like smoking and alcohol, and internal factors like ovarian or tubal damage and low sperm count or low sperm quality compromise conception.
2. Lymphatic drainage. Lymphatic drainage is a massage technique that can help the immune system and help balance hormone levels thus helping the production of luteinising hormone, responsible for ovulation. Gentle massage can help prepare for natural or assisted conception by optimising the lymphatic system circulation, which carries hormones, fluid and excess metabolic waste in the body. Boosting the immune system can be a catalyst for conception as a lowered or impaired immune system causes the body to become prone to inflammation and disease. Lymphatic drainage is used to reduce inflammation (eg sinusitis), improve digestion, eliminate excess fluid and increase blood flow to the abdominal area. If a woman has been taking the contraceptive pill for 10-15 years and then wants to start a family, she will need time to adjust to the hormonal changes in her body and regulate her cycle according to Zita West.
3. Hypnotherapy. A busy lifestyle equals a busy mind. Our conscious minds are often overflowing with superfluos information, habits, stresses, fear thoughts and hindrances that can block or delay conception. "Often our blocked minds can manifest physical blocks too" says hypnotherapist Ema Borges of Dynamic Calm who explains that "in a hypnotherapy session the busy conscious mind can be temporarily bypassed, and the deeper, subconscious mind (the part of the mind responsible for blocks and hindrances) can take centre stage to make way for positive messages and visualisations. This will help to reframe and rearrange how things have been operating so far."
The result over a course of treatments is that positive habits can begin to take shape, the mind and body become more relaxed, and therefore blocks can begin to shift, improving the chances of conception.
4. Nutrition. Nutrition plays a key part in fertility according to nutritional therapist Neema Savvides of NS Nutrition. Hormone production and function, egg and sperm quality are determined by the foods you eat. Foods rich in antioxidants are required to protect the egg and sperm from damaging free radicals present in the environment and the foods we consume. Neema says that "nutritional deficiencies and toxic overload can have a major effect on fertility by disrupting the balance of hormone levels, reducing sperm quality and motility and affecting the health of the egg, thus affecting your chances of conceiving." Other factors such as stress and PCOS (polycystic ovaries - Victoria Beckham was reported as suffering from this condition) can be addressed and improved through good nutrition. According to Neema, the key factors in increasing the chances of conception are:
- Addressing any nutritional deficiencies
- Addressing and eliminating any signs of toxic overload
- Improving the health and quality of the ova and sperm
- Balancing hormone levels
- Addressing any other factors that may be affecting your chances of conceiving such as environmental factors and stress levels.
5. Acupuncture. "Acupuncture is now very much linked to fertility treatment" says acupuncturist Maria Christofi of Belsize Health, "and its effect on the endocrine and reproductive system can greatly boost the chances of conception as well as enhancing the chances of assisted reproduction techniques such as IVF". Acupuncture is used to regulate a woman's cycle, to increase blood flow to the ovaries especially in cases of low egg reserves, to manage stress levels and to support IVF treatment. Emotional support is a major factor during any fertility journey and the combination of the relaxation benefits of acupuncture with the opportunity to talk openly with a practitioner about how you feel can be invaluable.
According to the British Acupuncture Council, the debate in the medical profession about the efficacy of acupuncture for fertility is more to do with poor design of the clinical studies than the actual therapeutic results of the treatment.
Maria Christofi adds: "the timeline of a woman's life from her first period through to the menopause, is a journey filled with many life events and circumstances which can affect the smooth ebb and flow of hormones and the menstrual cycle resulting in irregular cycles, painful periods and conditions such as endometriosis and fibroids."
Zita West offers support to couples through her support network of acupuncturists. Her approach is to use complementary medicine alongside traditional medicine particularly in cases that require medical intervention like thyroid disfunction, diabetes, fibroids and endometriosis.
6. Reflexology. Reflexologist Rima Shah says "Reflexology is a complementary therapy based on the belief that there are reflex areas on the feet, hands, face and ears which are believed to correspond to areas of the body" to bring the body back into balance. She continues: "For preconception and fertility, reflexology is an excellent support as it is non-invasive and looks at the whole person rather than an individual problem. Fertility is very dependent on the endocrine (hormone system), which is in itself quite a sensitive system. Stress increases the number of stress hormones, which in turn could have a knock on effect on the reproductive hormones - as all the hormones in our body respond to one another." Reflexologist Elizabeth Calderara has seen that couples who discover their dreams of starting a family have been dashed either by a diagnosis of sub-fertility or repeated miscarriage experience high levels of anxiety, fear and stress. "For some the pressure from family members, peers and society add to a sense of isolation and vulnerability. Reflexology can aid in releasing tension created by these heightened emotions" says Elizabeth. Rima Shah adds: "As a reflexologist specialising in fertility we would use specific techniques and tools to aid the balance of the endocrine system in a timely manner for each individual and would work all the body reflex points as each system in the body works with another."
7. Exercise. Exercise can be very beneficial to help with fertility in the same way it is good for overall health. Celebrity personal trainer Anthony Mayatt of Breathe Fitness says: "regular exercise helps to lower fat levels which can cause problems with fertility especially the closer you get to obesity. Exercise also helps to lower stress levels within the body that can reduce chances of fertility so aim to exercise 30-45 minutes 3-4 times a week. Studies have shown that exercising too much can reduce fertility chances so it is about finding the right balance." In fact, being either overweight or underweight can affect fertility. Over-exercising may disrupt a woman's cycle or stop it completely. Very vigorous exercise can increase testosterone levels in women and if body fat falls to dangerously low levels the ovaries may stop producing oestrogen.
8. Weight. "Weight has a major impact on fertility" says eating and behavioural therapist James Lamper of Weightmatters. "Research tells us that a woman who has a BMI higher than the normal range can take twice as long to conceive", James continues, "and for those with a lower than normal BMI it may take even longer." Women who are overweight may suffer with disordered eating patterns. Obesity can lead to metabolic disturbances in the body and the onset of conditions such as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), which reduces the chances of conception. With women who are of a low weight, and eat a restricted diet, they will be lacking adequate nutritional balance in the body that is necessary for conception. A desire to conceive can be a motivational factor that inspires many women to once and for all face up to their eating issues, and create a new healthy relationship with food, eating and weight that will serve both themselves and their children in the future.
James recommend looking at this checklist to determine whether you need to see a specialist:
- You have very painful or very irregular periods.
- Your BMI is under 18.5 or over 30.
- You suffer from PCOS.
- You are under excessive stress.
- You are approaching 40.
- Your lifestyle is unhealthy
- You are an athlete, or train regularly to a high level.
9. Beauty products. Many women turn to natural cosmetics for the first time when they fall pregnant or are trying to conceive. In order to maximise the chances of conception the body needs to be as healthy and toxin-free as possible says Sarah Brown founder of Pai Skincare founder. "The two main ingredients that I would recommend avoiding are parabens, believed to be hormone disruptors, and Vitamin A (in its Retinol Palmitate form). This can be found in high proportions in acne and anti-ageing products", Sarah argues, adding that "certain natural essential oils should also be approached with caution. Rosemary, Sage and Cedarwood for example are known as 'emmenagogues' - which are thought to stimulate the uterus and can cause complications in the early stages of pregnancy."
10. Osteopathy. Osteopathy and sophrology (a technique which is better known in continental Europe than in the UK) may also provide support to women trying to get pregnant. Osteopath Avni Trivedi of Avni Touch believes "it is essential that women understand their menstrual cycle - sadly so many don't understand their bodies - perhaps due to misinformation, or years of being on the contraceptive pill." Rest, according to Avni, is a key aspect of preparation for conception. Old injuries, such as an ankle injury, or irritable bowel syndrome can cause issues in the pelvis and lower back so it is essential to address them. Osteopathic treatment can also address issues related to organ function. "Adhesions from ovarian cysts or endometriosis can feel like scar tissue within the pelvis. When these are treated the movement, blood flow and nerve communication through the pelvis can be much better", Anvi explains. Similarly, sophrology can be used to aid fertility, as sophrology therapist and osteopath Dominique Antiglio of BeSophro describes: "through a combination of relaxation exercises, breathing techniques, slow movement and visualisations sophrology allows both men and women to access a new level of balance. The method also releases emotional and physical blockages. We can look at fertility as a reflection of our mind-body health state."
Finally, reassess your situation every 3-6 months. This factor is particularly important when choosing a complementary medicine treatment or other therapeutic plan. "If you are older, you don't want to waste your fertility" urges Zita West, who recommends that women look at what they have achieved with their chosen alternative medicine treatment (for example, they tried nutrion for 6 months or acupuncture for 6 months) and review the results; if the results are unsatisfactory, they should consider the medical route.