Photo Credit: Hanh Nguyen
When we’re ready to start (or grow) our families, we might expect to conceive right away, but that doesn’t always happen. Around 12 percent of US women 15 to 44 years struggle with getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term. For people struggling with the heartbreaking challenge of infertility, IVF can offer hope for a healthy pregnancy and baby. However, undergoing IVF is also a stressful and demanding time: physically, mentally, and emotionally. During this time, many people look to holistic health practices as a complement to IVF.
What is IVF?
First: a recap of the science. In vitro fertilization (IVF) is a form of assisted reproductive technology (ART). During IVF, eggs are retrieved from ovaries and fertilized in a laboratory with sperm before being transferred to a uterus. The cycle typically takes around three weeks. IVF can be done in many different ways, such as by using one’s own eggs and sperm or those from a donor.
To help control timing and egg production, hormone treatment is typically required. These commonly include injections. Monitoring occurs at various stages, through methods such as blood tests and ultrasounds.
An emotional journey
Although IVF has countless success stories, it is not without risks, which should be discussed with one’s doctor. It can also be a costly, time-consuming, stressful journey with no guarantee of success. Physically, IVF is demanding on the female partner and can be quite painful. Emotionally and mentally, it is demanding on both partners and can take a toll on mental health. Research shows that the process of IVF is associated with anxiety, depression, and stress.
Instagram personality, inspiring IVF advocate, and new mom Anna Wang (@annagetscozy) knows all too well the emotional toll that the IVF journey can take. “We have walked through it all,” she recounts. “Two Clomid rounds, two intrauterine inseminations (IUIs), three IVF retrievals, four IVF transfers, a miscarriage at five weeks, multiple surgeries and biopsies, Eastern Medicine, Western Medicine, and a near-death experience.” After eight years of infertility, the last IVF transfer worked. She and her husband Jeremy Tu are now raising their miracle baby.
Holistic methods to support IVF
“For the majority of our journey, we rushed into treatment after treatment and ended up empty-handed each time,” says Wang. “It wasn’t until we slowed down and worked on our health with the intention of getting quality embryos that it finally worked for us.” Three months prior to their last IVF retrieval, Wang made several lifestyle changes. “I started taking supplements like ubiquinol [a] and acai, doing acupuncture, getting chiropractic adjustments, walking two miles a day, doing yoga, meditating, eliminating caffeine and alcohol, and reducing gluten, dairy, and sugar intake.”
People undergoing IVF may choose to use holistic methods either to help support fertility or to help improve mental health and wellness during this difficult time. However, it’s important to check with your health care practitioner before attempting any new any holistic health practice to ensure it’s right for you. Here are a few different options.
A recent study examining the role of acupuncture during IVF found that women receiving acupuncture experienced increased relaxation, reduced psychological stress, and enhanced well-being and self-efficacy. Plus, a 2019 review found a benefit of acupuncture for IVF outcomes in women with a history of unsuccessful IVF attempts. However, a review from 2018 found that acupuncture performed on the day of embryo transfer significantly decreases the risk of achieving a pregnancy, so the authors advise that it should be avoided on that day.
Research on supplements that can help support IVF treatment is limited; however, several supplements are being examined. One that shows particular promise is the antioxidant coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). Other supplements under investigation include resveratrol, melatonin, vitamin C, B vitamins, and vitamin D.
Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness
Research suggests that stress-reducing mind-body interventions are associated with increased pregnancy rates for those undergoing IVF. In addition, a 2020 study found that yoga may be useful in reducing anxiety among women undergoing IVF and a 2018 study found that yoga may increase chances of IVF success.
Counseling, therapy, and social support
Mental health professionals can help support you with the stress, anxiety, or depression you may be feeling throughout your IVF journey. Some even specialize in topics of infertility and pregnancy loss. You may also wish to find an infertility or IVF support group, which has been shown in recent research to help reduce stress and improve quality of life.
“I always say infertility is a scary road, but it shouldn’t be a lonely one,” says Wang. “Find a community that understands you and you can lean on during tough times. Just knowing that you’re not alone on this path can give you the strength to keep going. While in search of a community, you can practice focusing on your journey a day at a time rather than the outcome. Every day you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move forward is a huge win.”
The future of fertility
Looking toward the future, many health professionals and patients alike are optimistic for a more comprehensive experience involving holistic practices.
“We believe that miracles happen every day,” says Wang. “Just a little over a year ago, we were told by three doctors that the only way for us to have a baby was through a surrogate. Even after hearing this, we didn’t give up. And because of that, we’re now holding our miracle baby in our arms. We hope our story can inspire others to keep going and to overcome the odds.”
How to support those going through IVF
When supporting a friend or loved one going through IVF, compassion is key. Consider these tips.
- Learn about the IVF so you’ll understand more about the process and become better equipped to talk about it.
- Refrain from making statements such as, “you can always adopt” or “just relax,” which, although well-meaning, can come across as insensitive.
- Rather than saying “let me know if you need anything,” offer concrete support, such as a meal subscription or a ride to a doctor’s appointment.
- Aim to be sensitive and mindful of your friend’s feelings if you are experiencing a pregnancy.
Trying to conceive? Certain lifestyle factors can make a difference.
- Quit smoking
- Limit alcohol to no more than one alcoholic drink per day
- Go easy on the caffeine—aim for no more than one or two cups of coffee per day
- Try to reduce your exposure to environmental toxins such as parabens and phthalates, which may affect fertility
- Although regular exercise is healthy, avoid too much vigorous exercise as it can impede fertility
Self-care can be vitally important when we’re going through challenging circumstances, including IVF. Try to make time for small pleasures like curling up with a good book or listening to your favorite music.
Find the right fit
“Empower yourself through doing your research and improving your health,” recommends Wang. “We were too focused on the outcome and not the journey, so we made many impulsive decisions which led to negative outcomes … In our last round of IVF, we consulted eight doctors before we felt like we really understood our diagnosis and could make decisions with more confidence.”
“Once upon a time, a good friend sent me a cozy pair of socks which gave me warmth, comfort and strength, and the realization that I wasn’t alone,” says Wang. “It’s not about saying the right thing but doing little things that show that you’re there for them. This little act was so powerful that it inspired me to start the Cozy Warrior Nonprofit to do the same for other women going through infertility.”