In response to a study that made headlines recently concluding that stress does not seem to affect IVF outcomes, many of my clients have been asking me questions about the efficacy of things like acupuncture, meditation and yoga (all things I recommend to many of my clients!).
This is good news!
In this study, the researchers looked at how stress, anxiety and depression affects IVF cycles, and I am actually glad that they found that it doesn’t have a negative impact. It takes the pressure off of women and couples to try to stay calm and positive during their IVF cycle for fear of having a negative pregnancy test because they were too stressed.
No doubt the process of IVF treatment is stressful! Typically, the experience is something like this:
Waking up early to get to the clinic before work to have a blood draw and vaginal ultrasound, all leading with great anticipation to hoping your body is responding to the drugs and grow many more eggs than is physiologically normal. Or being able to produce a sample of sperm on demand in a truly un-inspiring environment. Then the waiting… oh the waiting. Once the eggs are fertilized (how many will fertilize??), will they grow? How many should we transfer back? And then the two week wait, wondering if each twinge or breast tenderness means anything. And on top of it all, unreal levels of hormones in your system.
These levels of stress are combined with the stresses on a couple’s relationship, the sense of isolation as you try to keep your treatments a secret, just in case it works… or it doesn’t. And everyone around you seems to be sporting baby bumps, it’s just not fair.
As badly as women and couples want to start their families, there are high levels of treatment burnout for those undergoing IVF. Couples may stop treatment before they reach their goal of starting their family because they simply cannot go through any more treatment. The practices of yoga, meditation, acupuncture and supportive care can provide a normalizing effect and give an outlet for emotions around the process of trying IVF, even when it works. It can help couples stick with treatment which improves their chances of growing their family. And each of these therapies in their own way prepares both male and female reproductive systems for health which improves the chances of success.
What about stress and natural pregnancy?
I would caution the temptation to extrapolate the results of this study of the effect of stress on an IVF cycle to natural pregnancy cycles. There are plenty of ways that stress impacts natural fertility that are bypassed using IVF. One of the most significant is during ovulation and the embryo’s trip down the fallopian tubes.
Research shows that extreme stress can interfere with or disrupt normal ovulation for women. Stress can suppress the hormones that are needed for ovulation to occur, making ovulation come later on in a woman’s cycle or, rarely, causing her to miss ovulating at all during a cycle. For men, stress can actually lead to a lower sperm count.
Tension in the system can pull on the smooth muscle attached to the fallopian tubes, making them less able to move the embryo smoothly toward the uterus.
Another role that stress can affect your chances of getting pregnant has to do with sexual desire and sexual performance. Stress has been linked to issues of erectile dysfunction in men, and can certainly lead to a decreased sex drive in both men and women. Being too stressed out to try to make a baby can certainly affect your chances of getting pregnant as well.
If you are trying to get pregnant, whether naturally or with IVF, a stress management plan including acupuncture, yoga and meditation should be a part of your overall conception strategy.