While it may be a while before the pathway between stress and infertility is clear, what is known right now is that reducing stress levels seems to help.
Some research in this area shows that, for many women, acupuncture could hold the key.
In studies conducted in Germany and published in the journal Fertility and Sterility, women enrolled in an infertility programme underwent acupuncturetreatments just prior to and just after an embryo transfer into the uterus – the final step in an in vitro fertilisation procedure.
The result was that compared to women who did not have the acupuncture treatment, those who did had a significantly higher rate of pregnancy – 42.5% compared to 26.3% in the group not having acupuncture.
“I don’t think we know if acupuncture actually reduces stress but it may help counterbalance some of the effects of stress on the reproductive system,” says Dr Jamie Grifo, a director of reproductive endocrinology (the study of hormones and the glands that produce them). Grifo indicates that at least three studies thus far have proven its benefits on fertility.
Other studies have found that for some women, massage may hold another key to reducing infertility stress. In research published in the International Journal of Neuroscience in 2004, doctors found that massage therapy worked to decrease the body’s physical signals of stress, including heart rate and brain waves.
While it wasn’t tested on infertility patients, Dr Allen Morgan, a director of reproductive medicine, feels so strongly that it will make a difference, he recently launched his own study to test the impact of lower body massage therapy on women undergoing infertility treatments.
“The first group is receiving a gentle form of massage therapy on their feet and legs just prior to either an insemination or an embryo transfer; the matched group is going straight into treatment without any stress-reducing therapy,” says Morgan.
While he says it’s still too early to predict results, he suspects the outcome may definitely favour massage therapy.
At Grifo’s centre, infertility patients are routinely referred to in-house programmes that offer both guided imagery and foot reflexology, all in an effort to reduce stress.
“We’re not studying it in a scientific way, but we offer it and we recommend it, and the women who become involved seem to feel better, and that’s what matters most to us. If it helps the quality of life for patients seeking fertility treatments, that’s a very big thing,” says Grifo.
Of course the one thing experts say probably won’t help reduce stress in your life is hearing people tell you to relax. In fact, experts say it could even generate more stress.
“I never want to tell patients to just ‘relax’ because you can’t tell a person who’s already nervous to stop being nervous. That just isn’t helpful,” says Dorothy Greenfeld, a director of behavioural services at a university.
What she does recommend, however, is for each woman to look into her own life and try to find tiny spaces where she can give her body and her mind a respite from the stresses of everyday living.
Greenfeld says: “Don’t just try to relax because you think that it’s going to help you get pregnant. But do relax just because it feels good, because it’s comfortable and because when you do feel good, you’re healthier overall, and that can never be a bad thing for conception.”