Is Stress Affecting Your Fertility?
By Sarai Stapleton, L.Ac., FABORM of Axis Acupuncture
“You’re trying too hard. Just relax and it will happen.” Ever heard that from family or friends? Well, theoretically they weren’t that far off, but no one has found a magic switch in your brain that you can flip and suddenly feel cool as a cucumber and stress free, so their well-meaning advice is highly impractical.
“Trying too hard” may play a role in up to 30% of all infertility issues. We humans are designed to deal with a certain amount of stress, but it is chronic stress that seems to hinder our fertility.
What is stress? Well, it’s not a specific event and we aren’t always aware of it, but it causes a distinct physiological response in the body. Even though you tell yourself “I’m not stressed, because stress is bad for my fertility”, it’s hard to fool your brain. If you are experiencing stress in any form (poor eating habits, too much or too little exercise, overworking, not sleeping), your hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls the release of hormones, is keeping a running score. So, “just relax!” is easier said than done, right?
There are many ways in which we can seek stress relief – lifestyle changes, psychotherapy, yoga, meditation.
Perhaps one of the most effective ways is through fertility acupuncture.
How does acupuncture help? There are two ways to answer that question – traditional or modern. In other words, from the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) point of view or the modern allopathic (Western) medical approach.
Classical Chinese medical philosophy describes channels of energy called Qi (pronounced “chee”) that run through our bodies. They may be compared to rivers that course through the body to nourish the tissues and organs. Any disruption in the free flow of Qi is like a dam in the river, which leads to physical and emotional imbalances or illness. By needling specific acupuncture points on the body, that dam can be cleared and the flow of energy re-established.
The Western scientific explanation is perhaps easier for our modern, stressed-out, workaday brains to comprehend. The truth is that there are a handful of very plausible theories, but no single one can explain how acupuncture effectively treats so many different ailments, so let’s focus on what we can prove about acupuncture and stress-relief.
Acupuncture increases the amount of beta-endorphins flowing through the body. Beta-endorphins are the feel-good hormones. Anyone who has ever experienced a “runners high,” has experienced this release of beta-endorphins.
Interestingly, a research study at the University of California- Irvine used MRIs to look at the brain while patients received acupuncture treatment. When a point on the little toe was used to address eye pain, because that point is on the channel that is connected to the eye, amazingly the part of the brain that regulates vision lit up on the MRI.
My patients often ask me how acupuncture works, and it can be very difficult to explain. The research on acupuncture and infertility is ongoing. Many of the previous studies were too small to prove any significant results, and some studies even contradict each other. This is partly due to the fact that TCM looks at each person as an individual. There is no one particular treatment for everyone, so in order to perform randomized, double-blinded, repeatable studies, we must somewhat go against the grain of TCM and treat everyone the same. Even when operating within the Western medical context of study protocols, a statistically significant positive relationship between acupuncture and ART outcomes is shown.
More specifically, current acupuncture research has shown:
- Improved pregnancy rates during IVF treatment cycles
- Increased blood flow to the uterus
- Reduced stress and anxiety levels
In the most recent edition of the textbook Infertility and Assisted Reproduction (Cambridge University Press, 2008), an entire chapter is devoted to the impact of TCM on reproductive outcomes in the treatment of infertile couples (Magarelli, Cridennda, Cohen, pp. 576-603). In short, integrating acupuncture into IVF may improve reproductive outcomes in the following ways:
- Fewer Miscarriages
- Fewer Ectopics
- More Pregnancies
- Fewer Multiples
- More Take Home Babies
According to Gabor Mate, M.D. (author of When the Body Says No, pub. John Wiley & Sons, 2003), three major stressors that can change your body are:
- Loss of control
- Lack of information or uncertainty
- Emotional isolation (suppressing emotion, always doing for others, feeling alone)
That describes most of you who are on this fertility journey. Find ways to help relieve the stressors in your world in order to allow your body to focus on your dream of having a healthy baby. Acupuncture is one proven and effective way to do just that.