Fighting Infertility May Be Easier Than You Think
Skipping meals or taking a long run when you're feeling frantic might make matters worse. In a study of monkeys published last month, Berga and her colleagues created mild stress for one group by moving the monkeys to a new cage and found that 12 percent developed abnormal menstrual cycles. In the second group, which was moved plus given less food and a daily one-hour session on a treadmill, 70 percent experienced irregular menstruation.
Overcoming the level of stress associated with chronic infertility may require more formal interventions. On their first visit, about 40 percent of women seeking infertility treatments exhibit the same range and severity of symptomsirritability, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbancesas people diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, says Harvard's Domar. She developed a 10-week workshop for infertile women now in use around the country that includes group therapy, nutrition counseling, and relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga. In two studies, Domar and her colleagues found that 55 percent of women who took the workshop while getting fertility treatment wound up giving birth to a healthy baby compared with 20 percent of women who had treatment alone. "The women who took the class were also less anxious and depressed and had a much easier time coping with the medical procedures," Domar says.
Heidi Fallon, 36, of Ayer, Mass., found this to be true when she took Domar's workshop at Boston IVF 15 months ago after going through three rounds of treatment and a miscarriage. The class taught Fallon focused breathing techniques that she used while stuck in rush-hour traffic and provided comforting connections with other infertile women. "They knew exactly what I was going throughhow hard it was when a friend or relative got pregnant," she says. An IVF cycle during the 10-week session produced Fallon's 9-month-old triplets.
For some infertile couples, a phone call to a travel agent seems to do the job. "My friends raise their eyebrows whenever I take a vacation," says Meredith Collins, 35, of Portsmouth, R.I. After three failed tries at artificial insemination, Collins took a much-needed break from her busy paint-your-own-pottery store and infertility treatments and headed to a beach in the Dominican Republic, where she promptly became pregnant with her now 19-month-old son. Her 6-month-old son was also conceived naturally on a 2006 family getaway to a quiet bed-and-breakfast.
Since the point is a healthy baby, success at getting pregnant doesn't mean it's OK to relax back into old habits. About 10 to 15 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, and lifestyle factors linked to infertility are probably responsible for some of them. In a study published last year, Danish researchers found that smokers had a higher risk of miscarrying during the first few weeks of pregnancy than nonsmokers. Stress, caffeine, and alcohol might also be associated with miscarriages, though the data have been conflicting.
Longer term, evidence is mounting that a pregnant woman's lifestyle and diet can affect her baby well into adulthood. Children born to mothers battling depression or anxiety during pregnancy appear to be smaller and to weigh less as they grow, for example. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists now recommends that clinically depressed women consider staying on their antidepressant medication while pregnant (with the exception of Paxil, which has been tied to birth defects). One recent study suggested that expectant mothers who eat more than three servings of fish a week deliver babies with higher IQs, while gaining too much weight during pregnancy seems to raise a child's risk of developing obesity or diabetes as an adult.
And too little vitamin D puts babies at risk of asthma, type 1 diabetes, and bone deformities, says Lisa Bodnar, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh whose research shows that, even with prenatal vitamins, most pregnant women aren't getting enough. She recommends at least 1,000 international units of vitamin D a day; most prenatal supplements contain 400 IUs. Clearly, there's good reason to make choices that go beyond standard practice. But most are common sense.