Stress and infertility: What message are you giving your body?
In the USA it is estimated that 20% of couples are suffering from infertility at any given time. This number has increased steadily over the last 50 years, which has lead researchers to blame everything from increased maternal age to toxic overload. However 10% of all infertile couples will not be able to find out why they cannot conceive. The medical profession is left to shrug its collective shoulders and explain to these people that they are something of a mystery. They are offered assisted reproductive techniques but without a clear idea of what is being fixed, the outcome remains uncertain.
As a practitioner of Chinese Medicine I am trained in a medical philosophy that emphasizes the interconnectedness of everyone and everything. We are taught to look for patterns of dysfunction rather than specific symptoms. In fact no symptom can make sense in Chinese medical diagnosis except in relation to the whole person. This way of seeing bodies extends to the wider environment so that the same laws that are at play in our bodies are also the laws that govern our relationship with the world. I, like most of my patients, have been brought up in the West in a way that reinforced my belief in my individuality and uniqueness. It does not come naturally to any of us to see ourselves as a small cog in a much larger machine.
But by examining unexplained infertility through the prism of Chinese medical theory it has occurred to me that our bodies may be obeying a larger evolutionary imperative. We know that birth rates decrease in times of war and famine as the human race protects itself from having to share scarcer resources with a growing population. Obviously we are not experiencing a famine and all the patients I treat have enough to eat but many of them are on such strict weight-loss diets and exercise regimes that their bodies feel like they are starving and wisely choose not to bring more children into a world where food seems to be in short supply.
Likewise, most of us are not actually living in a war zone but many of my patients’ bodies behave as if they are. You have only to look at local news coverage to see how stories are sensationalized and skewed to provoke the most fear. Our personal communication devices beep endlessly, our cell phones ring and our bosses expect us to get back to them at the double. The advances in communications technology have not freed up our time, as predicted, but enslaved us to them. In our deepest sub-conscious this endless vigilance, this inability to switch off feels like danger and our bodies take evasive action by reducing our ability to conceive.
I have several wonderful, accomplished and resourceful patients who are not able to switch their Blackberries off whilst I give them an acupuncture treatment. They hire me to help them calm down then lie on my tabletrying to feel “Zen” whilst emailing colleagues and talking on their cell. More than anything I want them to feel free and unencumbered and I cannot help but feel that they would be more likely to get pregnant if their bodies understood that there was enough space in their lives for a baby. Obviously these are the extreme cases but most of us are over-scheduled and lacking in balance.
We all know that animals in zoos have trouble getting pregnant. They unconsciously evaluate the lack of space and limited resources and their bodies respond by allowing less of them to be born. Zoo vets are experts at all kinds of assisted reproductive techniques from insemination to IVF as they encourage these animals to reproduce in defiance of nature. After many years of working with women who are infertile I believe that our heavily scheduled lives make it harder for us to conceive hence the dramatic increase in medical interventions such as IVF. Like the zoo vets our reproductive endocrinologists are being called upon to defy evolution and help us to breed in captivity.
So if no-one can come up with a reason why you are having trouble getting pregnant, I suggest looking at your life and asking yourself how much of what you experience gives your body the impression that you are too unsafe, too under-resourced and too busy to look after a baby. Try to reverse those messages. Let your body know that you are fundamentally safe, that there is enough to eat and that when you do have a child you will be able to drop everything and play with building bricks on the floor for half an hour. Many patients who have followed this advice have found that their bodies were indeed tapped into a larger evolutionary web and that slowing down was all it took to become a Mom.