After a year-long quest to conceive first time round, Ashley Pearson is already worried about whether she’ll manage it again. She explores the latest thinking when it comes to fertility
It’s very hard to think of a more frustrating thing to hear when you’re trying to conceive than, ‘Relax and stop thinking about it – it will happen’. As a 40 year old who found it difficult enough to create my first baby (now four months), I’m not looking forward to re-entering this zone in my quest for a second child.
The only thing being told to chill out does is increase my blood pressure. Anyway, before conceiving the first time around, I had enough on my plate. When I wasn’t being bombarded by news stories warning me that my time was running out, I was taking prenatal vitamins, monitoring my ovulation, avoiding caffeine and alcohol, ingesting Chinese herbs and going for fertility acupuncture sessions.
Right now, the thought of facing the same gut-wrenching disappointment every month when my period arrived fills me with dread.
And I know I’m not the only woman who feels this way. According to M&B’s fertility survey, two thirds of you found trying to conceive stressful, with almost half still worried about your chances when trying for a second baby. And almost 70% of you feel there’s more pressure on you than your partner, regardless of who might have fertility problems.
Whatever challenges you’re facing, what is undeniable is that, according to the experts, there’s mounting evidence of a connection between our thoughts and stress levels and our ability to conceive. So, what now?
‘The current focus has been on nutrition and health, but I believe the next area of interest will be the mind,’ says fertility specialist Emma Cannon. ‘Patients are becoming more aware that physical problems can have their roots in emotional issues.’ That’s not to say that infertility is all in the mind, but there is a correlation.
The only thing being told to chill out does is increase my blood pressure
‘When you’re trying to conceive, relaxation is vital because your mind affects mood, emotions and your physical state,’ says relationship psychologist Anjula Mutanda.
I hate to admit it but, last time, ‘just relax and it will happen’ turned out to be true for me. After a round of expensive testing, my husband and I agreed to start IVF. Just before it was due to begin, we took a holiday and, for two weeks, we didn’t talk about babies. We just swam and lay in the sun. I lost count of how many margaritas and iced coffees I drank, and I threw away my ovulation sticks. I came home and, yep, after a year of trying, I was finally pregnant.
But now I know far more about improving fertility than any one person should. And the single thing I’m sure makes a difference is finding things you can actually do, rather than being told to chill out. So, whether you try one or all of these, a fresh approach might just make a difference.
Find your type
In her book Total Fertility (£14.99, Macmillan), Emma Cannon outlines the way different women mentally handle the struggle to conceive, and identifying which ‘type’ you are is a good first step.
Whether you are The Thinker, All Heart, The Planner, The Perfectionist or The Visionary, Emma offers ideas on how to address your barriers. For example, if you tend to overthink things, you’ll need more support on the relaxation side.
Change your sex script
When you’ve been trying to make love every day for months, it can soon become a turn off. ‘Trying for a baby can lead to mechanical sex, and this in itself can cause both of you to feel tense,’ says Anjula.
To take the pressure off, change the pattern of your love life. Go away for a weekend or have sex in the middle of the day to shake things up.
Zoom in on zinc
Being told to overhaul your diet can be overwhelming, so focus on just one super-nutrient – zinc. ‘It boosts your reproductive health and promotes the production of calming messages to your brain,’ says nutritionist Diana Green.
‘Zinc is vital for your menstrual cycle. It increases sex drive and is needed to make healthy sperm. It is also important for the manufacture of serotonin, which helps to balance mood.’
The best sources are fish, seeds, nuts, eggs, oats, mushrooms, yoghurt and leafy green vegetables.
Try some acupuncture
It’s the alternative therapy that has the most fertility research backing it. A recent study concluded it significantly improves the reproductive outcome of IVF and ICSI compared to no acupuncture, leading to improved conception chances for over 80% of trial participants. The alternative therapy also benefits your mental health.
‘Acupuncture can help alter and improve a woman’s psychological state, which has a knock-on effect on her fertility,’ says Emma.
Stop saying ‘I’m OK’
Off-loading some of the stress really does help. ‘Next time you’re about to say, “I’m fine”, when someone enquires, stop and ask yourself if this person could do anything to help you,’ says Emma.
It’s good to find someone who can keep you motivated. The same way we look for support when starting a new fitness regime, look for someone positive – whether it’s a trained therapist, someone who’s been through the same struggle or a trusted friend.
Support your system
Keeping your digestive system healthy ensures that the food you eat, and all its vitamins, are well absorbed and used to fuel the functions of the body, including its reproductive capacity.
‘Eat lots of digestion-friendly foods – sweet vegetables like squash and carrots; grains, such as oats and quinoa; aromatic herbs and spices, including basil, ginger, cinnamon; and green tea,’ says Emma.
Sometimes, to make space for something new, we need to let go of something old. So, if you’re taking up positive habits, get rid of negative ones.
‘You might want to give up sugar and take on a bit of exercise, or stop smoking and start dancing. Just stick to one thing at a time,’ says Emma.
Choose your words
How you talk about your quest to conceive will influence your mood. ‘I hear lots of women saying things like, “I have always known I’d struggle to have a baby”,’ says Emma.
‘This is then compounded by medical professionals using phrases like “incompetent cervix”, “low ovarian reserve” and “poor responder”.’
To avoid this getting you down, think about the way you’re talking about your fertility and try to stop using negative language.
Be kind to yourself
Remember, everything in moderation, including moderation. If you’ve stopped drinking or you’ve given up sweets, but start craving a glass of wine or an ice cream, relax the rules. Do what you love – go for walk, swim or just read a good novel.
Remember all those things that made you happy before you started feeling only a baby would? Well, bring them back into your life.
Don’t go it alone
Anyone who’s been there knows how stressful it can be. But with our new campaign – It’s Not Just You #fertility – we want to support you through the process, whether you’re just starting out or have already been undergoing fertility treatment.
Most of all, we want to shake off prejudices, guilt and feelings of being judged, so we can discuss fertility with greater openness. Visit motherandbaby.co.uk/itsnotjustyou.