This post was updated on March 31st, 2020
For those of us who are looking to improve our fertility, one of the most exciting developments in reproductive medicine has to be the research that is being done on the mind-body connection. While we all may intuitively know and feel that being stressed is not helpful when trying to conceive, or when suffering from other reproductive disorders like PCOS, the effects of unpleasant thoughts and emotions on our physiology is now well and truly in the realm of good science. The good news for us is that all this new scientific research is finding a 100% FREE fertility treatment intervention that can make dramatic improvements to our chances of having a baby and improving other fertility related disorders.
In this article I will:
- Give you the low-down on the developments in our scientific understanding of how the health of our mind and body are interrelated.
- Look at stress, depression and our natural ability to counter the negative effects of these forces, which are particularly problematic for those of us who suffer from fertility problems.
- Discuss the scientific evidence supporting the ability of our minds to “treat” our infertility providing you with a fertility solution that costs you nothing and that you’re definitely going to love if you give it a go.
- Introduce mindfulness meditation and the scientific research that is proving it to be one of the best ways to decrease stress in order to increase our chances of falling pregnant.
The brain and the body
Most of us understand that our brain acts like a central control system for our body sending out, and receiving messages to operate all the amazing bits of machinery that keep us alive and functioning. What researchers are finding however, is that the communication systems between our brain and our body is far more complex than was once realized.
For example, over 60 neuro-transmitters and hormonal receptors have been found on the surface of our disease-fighting immune cells. What this means is that our brain can talk directly to our illness defenses, and they can talk back to the brain!
Your second brain – the gut
In another breakthrough, scientists have found around 80 million neurons in our gut which has affectionately been dubbed “the second brain” because as well as being able to communicate with our brain, this massive collection of neurons can act independently and even influence our behavior.
The mind-body connection is now a scientific phenomenon
As the complexity and inter-relationships between our brains and our body becomes increasingly unveiled, ancient Greek and eastern beliefs that the mind and body are a single system that cannot be treated independently is becoming more and more supported by those of us who prefer our medicine demonstrated by randomized controlled trials.
The concept of our gut health having such a significant influence over our health and behavior is one of the fundamental principles supporting functional medicine, and the degree of evidence for this idea is largely what makes functional medicine a credible field of western medicine rather than a complementary or alternative therapy.
The stress response
Nowhere is the amazing relationship between our mind and our body more apparent, then when we look at how we respond to stress. The fight or flight, or stress response is something we are all familiar with subjectively when we get a fright, and is clearly a helpful survival mechanism which has been passed down to us from the days when our ancestors lived in far more dangerous environments. The activation of the fight-or-flight response:
- Causes the blood supply to our muscles to open more allowing additional fuel to be pumped to the parts of our body we need the most, while simultaneously reducing blood flow to less critical organs such as our digestive and reproductive systems since we won’t be needing these to escape the immediate threat.
- Increases our breathing rate, heart rate and blood pressure.
- Causes a surge of fats and sugars to be released into our blood stream to give us a massive boost to our energy levels, as well as increasing muscle tension making us temporarily stronger.
- Speeds up our blood clotting function, to prevent excessive blood loss in the event we are injured, and activates our immune cells so they are prepared to commence tissue repair also.
- Gives us tunnel vision, and our brains become hyper-sensitive to negative stimuli making us aggressive and anxious toward potential threats and other people.
This combined effort of our neurological, physiological, immunological, and metabolic system is an absolutely amazing mind-body team effort, however it is only designed for present-moment threats to our persons which is something that few of us face in our modern, relatively safe societies.
Stress is making us sick
The problem with stress is that it constantly activates our fight-or-flight response to varying degrees and since more than 99% of the things that stress us are not actual immediate threats to our lives, this response has become inappropriate in our daily lives.
Worse still, the stress response has actually been shown to make us unwell by causing unnecessary wear and tear on our bodies, much like a car that is constantly driven with accelerator pushed to the floor would break-down prematurely.
Stress and infertility
As anyone who didn’t get pregnant the first time will know, unsuccessful attempts at conception can be stressful. The longer they go on, and the more sophisticated you become with your cycle timing the more the anxiety grows that something might be wrong.
I, for one, spent years stressing out about getting pregnant and trying to figure out when I was ovulating (since I have PCOS) and wanting to make sure I was doing everything I possibly could to ensure I got pregnant.
And for those of you like that have had to escalate your baby-making problems to fertility treatments like me, be it IUI’s or IVF, the stress levels are likely to either be through the roof, or on a steep trajectory towards it as your financial pressure grows along with your increasing sense of hopelessness as each attempt fails.
“Higher levels of stress are associated with a longer time to pregnancy and an increased risk of infertility.” — Lynch and Sundaram et al. (2014)
The problem with stress and infertility is that stress can affect your ability to conceive long after whatever physiological ailment that was preventing you from getting pregnant has been removed.
Studies on rats have observed sustained inflammation of the amygdala (a part of the brain that becomes highly active when stressed) weeks after a period of intensive stress has been applied. This has led experts to postulate that even if your infertility has been successfully treated, the stress you may have experienced along your journey may actually be contributing to your continued failure to fall pregnant effectively creating a new mechanism that works against you.
Unfortunately, when I learned this I started stressing out about being stressed and I am sure some of you can relate!
Anxiety, depression and infertility
The other close friends of stress for couples dealing with infertility are anxiety and depression. This is another classic area in which the mind-body connection can be observed. You don’t have to look very far to find papers showing the impact depression has on our physical wellbeing with countless studies showing that emotionally depressed, and socially isolated people don’t live as long and are more likely to have a major medical illness.
“Study after study has shown that people who are lonely, depressed and isolated are 3-10 times more likely to get sick and die early, independent of other factors, compared to those that have love and support. I don’t know any other factor, not smoking, not cholesterol, not blood pressure that affects our lives and survival to that degree.” — Dean Ornish, Clinical Professor of Medicine, University of California (Harvey 20153)
The statistics on depression and infertility
Studies show that women with fertility issues are more than twice as likely as others to suffer from depression and I definitely make up part of that statistic having struggled with depression throughout my 4 year infertility journey.
If we come back to the continued disappointment of attempts at conception, be it naturally or through a fertility clinic it’s almost completely unnecessary to even see a study to know that women with infertility are going to struggle sometimes with depression.
While feeling terrible after the commencement of your period, or even worse after a miscarriage, in a completely natural, and healthy response to your situation, depression can set in. We may begin to wrestle with it, and can get caught up in negativity, self-criticism and anger that lasts long after it ceases to be good for us.
The relaxation response
The great news about our increasing knowledge of the mind-body connection is that we have also discovered we possess the perfect antidote to the negative effects of stress and depression. This is what’s known as the relaxation response.
The relaxation response is a natural phenomenon that we can induce in ourselves which when activated causes a decrease in our heart rate, slows our breathing down, reduces the metabolic activity within our body and quiets the mind in a measurable, predictable and reproducible way. This is exactly the opposite of what happens to us during the fight for flight response.
The most well-studied, and scientifically proven form of the relaxation response is mindfulness meditation. Observations of people meditating using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have shown that the amygdala, which lights-up during the fight or flight response, actually gets smaller with meditation, decreasing arousal and generating greater feelings of peace within subjects.
While I am a huge advocate for using meditation when dealing with infertility, meditation may not be your thing or something you want to explore. So before you start thinking that the relaxation response can only be brought about by meditation however, you should know there is nothing magical about this phenomenon. It’s a simple bodily response that occurs when people meditate, but just like there are a number of ways in which a person can become stressed, so too are there many ways that one can induce the relaxation response making it available to all of us in whatever way we find best for our preferences.
Some of my favorites besides meditation include yoga, deep mindful breathing, or a massage.
“Anxiety, depression and fertility-specific quality of life showed improvement over time in association with participation in a 6-week Yoga programme in women awaiting their treatment with IVF.” — Oron and Allnutt et al. (2015)
The science supporting mindfulness meditation
As I mentioned earlier, the relaxation response has mostly been studied in terms of mindfulness meditation so here is a snapshot of what scientists are finding through highly credible, randomized controlled trials on mindfulness based stress reduction programs.
These programs are generally conducted over an 8 week period and consist of a weekly group meeting of 1.5-2.5 hours, plus home meditation practice:
Mindfulness meditation actually changes the physiology of our brains.
Research shows that meditation increases grey matter concentration in regions of the brain involved in learning and memory processes, emotional regulation, self-referential processing (how we view the world based on our self-described identity), and perspective taking (Holzel and Carmody et. al 2011; Luders and Clark et. al 2011). These are exactly the bits of our brain that we need to be working well if we want to ease our suffering when struggling with infertility.
These changes in our brains help us to “think better”.
While relaxation training is also an effective way to reduce distress and improve your mood, only mindfulness meditation has the unique ability to reduce distractive and ruminative thoughts and behaviors (Jain and Shapiro et. al. 2007; Ramel and Goldin et. al 2004) – the method by which our suffering sources its energy.
When we “think better” we feel better, regardless of our situation.
Researchers have used cancer patients, which can safely be assumed suffer at least as much as most infertile couples might do on a daily basis, to demonstrate that a 65% improvement in mood, and a 31% reduction in stress can be achieved through meditation (Speca and Carlson et. al 2000). These sorts of achievements for cancer patients have been replicated extensively (Lengacher and Johnson-Mallard et. al 2009; Monti and Peterson et. al 2009; Foley and Baillie et. al 2010) as well as for people suffering other health problems including arthritis and back-pain (Rosenzweig and Greeson et. al 2004).
Mindfulness meditation has EVEN been proven in clinical studies to directly improve the psychological well-being of women suffering infertility (Galhardo and Cunha et. al 20132; Sherratt and Lunn 2013)!!!
The relaxation response and fertility treatment
While the commercial interests of fertility clinics have to be acknowledged in any honest conversation about the services they offer, I think it is great that mind-body programs are now being offered in some clinics as adjuncts to couples seeking fertility treatments.
“Women undergoing infertility treatments exhibit high anxiety and/or high depressive scores at the start of treatment as well as over the course of treatment.” — Domar and Rooney et al. (2011)1
Off the back of all the research that has been done on mindfulness based stress reduction programs, some leading fertility clinics are starting to offer mind-body programs that include meditation as a core component of your treatment.
The Domar Centre for Mind/Body Health led by Dr Alice Domar, who is recognized as an international leader in the field of mind/body medicine, is one such program and the first to offer a Mind/Body Program for Fertility. Partnered with Boston IVF the center teaches strategies to reduce anxiety, depression and distress through relaxation, mindfulness, cognitive restructuring and yoga.
Interestingly, many mind body fertility programs include:
- Counselling by clinical psychologists covering topics such as stress management.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy methods for “changing your negative thinking”, and
- Learning how to self-sooth and nurture your mental health as well as your physical well-being during fertility treatment.
I am a big fan of all of these softer interventions and always encourage anyone who is struggling with infertility to look after themselves and to seek help and learn these important skills. And I think it is fantastic that some of this important information is finally making it into clinics. Hopefully in the near future it will be readily available at all clinics around the world!
“Women with infertility provided with a 10-week mind-body intervention program showed decreased symptoms of depression and stress and increased perceived social support.” — Psaros and Kagan et al. (2015)
People who undertake these programs also speak very favorably of the sense of community developed through attending group infertility programs. There really is nothing more soothing and emotionally nourishing than being able to share your struggles with people who “get it”. Being in an environment for a few hours a week, where you are actually surrounded by others with infertility, can really help overcome those unhelpful thoughts and emotions like there is something wrong with you, or that you are a failure.
While this single study certainly doesn’t constitute a proven scientific outcome, the results of a randomized controlled trial conducted in Boston certainly supports the real-world potential for co-treating our mind, along with our body to achieve better fertility outcomes.
After controlling for all the usual things such as age, diagnosis and lifestyle factors etc. Domar and Rooney et al. (2011) observed a 50% pregnancy rate for the 21 patients who had under-gone a mind-body program; compared to just 20% for the control group of 20 patients who had not received the intervention.
“If you had a pill that could achieve these sort of results, every infertility patient in the country would take it.” — Alice Domar, Director of Mind/Body Services at Boston IVF, and lead author for the above study (Domar A.D)
To all of you, who like me at first, are naturally skeptical about unusual fertility treatments outside of mainstream western medicine, I hope this article will be a welcomed introduction to the mind-body connection and its potential influence on your reproductive capacity. While Greek physicians thousands of years ago probably could have told you the same thing that western science is only just discovering, I trust it will be comfort to you to know that the mind-body connection is a legitimate, credible, and rapidly growing field of medicine that is particularly relevant to those of us with infertility.
While I know from personal experience how frustrating it is to be told to “just relax” when trying to conceive, or while undergoing some of the most uncomfortable aspects of fertility treatment, we really should be excited by the prospect that relaxation really is an effective way to improve our chances of having a baby.
If we can learn to bring warmth, wisdom, and compassion to ourselves not only are we going to feel more optimistic and positive about the challenges we face in our day to day life, but we just might help our bodies find that special ingredient it needs to fulfil our long-held desires of becoming parents.
For more information on mindfulness meditation and using it to deal with the negative emotions that can be brought up during infertility, please check out this great conversation that I had with clinical psychologist Judy Robinson.
Since 2010, Kym Campbell has used evidence-based diet and lifestyle interventions to manage her PCOS. After getting her symptoms under control and falling pregnant naturally, Kym now advocates for dietary change as part of any PCOS treatment plan. Combining rigorous science and clinical advice with a pragmatic approach to habit change, Kym is on a mission to show other women how to take back control of their health and fertility. Read more about Kym and her team here.
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