Is This the Missing Ingredient In Your Fertility Care?
How many of these statements do you identify with?
“Why is it so easy for everyone else to have babies except for me?”
“It’s so hard whenever one of my friends announces that they are pregnant. I want to be happy for them, but I can’t help but feel resentful that it’s not my turn.”
“I feel broken.”
“I’m at a crossroads in my fertility journey and I have to make this very important decision, but I feel frozen. Can’t someone just tell me what to do?”
“What if I can’t have a baby?”
“What is wrong with me?”
The more time I spend with women who are trying to fall pregnant, the more I see that a successful pregnancy is not just about treating the physical body. Yes, that delicious (note the sarcasm here) herbal tea I prescribe for you helps build up nourishing blood to flow through your uterus. Yes, the supplements help balance out any nutritional deficiencies you may have. Yes, the acupuncture points help regulate and bring balance to your hormones. However, the more I support women who struggle with fertility, I find that the the emotional and spiritual soul journey is just as important as the physical. Basically it all comes down to how the nervous system responds to stress.
Let’s start by chatting about the basic physiology of our nervous system. Our nervous system exists in two “modes”. The sympathetic mode is what is commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” response. This is an absolutely necessary survival reaction that our ancestors developed because there were times when we had to fight off predators and hunt for our food. These days in our modern lives, we utilize the “fight or flight” mode to get ourselves through stressful times whether that is deadlines at work, personal disagreements we may have in relationships or the stress of infertility. Physiologically, our bodies respond to this stress by stimulating cardiac muscles to pump blood to the limbs and brain, and activating the adrenal glands so we can think and work our way out of potentially life-threatening situations. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of reaching deep into your reserves to unlock a well of energy you don’t even know existed. Well, this is an example of your adrenal system kicking into gear.
The parasympathetic mode works in opposition to the sympathetic because it is is our “rest and restore” response. This is the part of the nervous system that is activated when you sit down with a cozy cup of tea in front of the fireplace or when you are in a state of relaxation or meditation. Physiologically, the parasympathetic nervous system response is designed to conserve energy, activate endocrine (think hormones!) activity and redirect blood flow to the digestive system and reproductive organs. This is why when you are on vacation, everything seems so much easier. You feel relaxed, your skin seems brighter, it’s easier to get along with your partner, even your poops are better! All these shifts are not just in your imagination. They are just signs of your body living in the parasympathetic mode.
I have many women who share that they’ve been to a reproductive endocrinologist and that their infertility is “unexplained.” How frustrating is that? Where do we start the work? How do you “fix” something that isn’t really broken? I believe that stress plays a huge role in fertility and conventional western medicine is beginning to pay attention to the effects that stress may have on fertility. This NIH study from 2010 shows that women who secrete higher levels of alpha-amylase (an enzyme that is highly correlated with stress) have a 12% overall reduction in fertility. This is precisely why mind-body therapies should be a part of every couple’s conception plan.
The nervous system is a highly nuanced system in many ways, but at its basics, it really is pretty simplistic. There are only two modes and we cannot exist with one foot in sympathetic with the other foot in parasympathetic. The sympathetic mode kicks into high gear when we are under any form of stress or perceived danger and the body does not understand the difference between fleeing from a bear and and the emotional load of going through the fertility journey. Being in sympathetic mode is necessary for short bursts of time, but when we live in a state of “fight or flight” for an extended period of time, the physiological effects of having blood flow diverted from the reproductive organs has an effect on fertility. Additionally, when the adrenal system is prioritized, this creates an imbalance in the sex hormones that are necessary to create and hold a successful pregnancy. The signs and symptoms of a body that may be “stuck” in the sympathetic gear are:
Insomnia (difficulty falling or staying asleep, an inability to relax or quiet the monkeys in the brain)
Digestive issues (nausea, constipation, diarrhea)
PMS and menstrual difficulties (in females)
Impotence, difficulty maintaining an erection, premature ejaculation (in males)
Anxiety and depression
High blood pressure
Lowered immune system
Tunnel vision (hyperfocus on a specific issue)
a feeling of disconnection, inability to relax or feeling scattered
Instead of seeing stress as a list of signs and symptoms that need to be silenced, I encourage my patients to express their feelings and share what they are going through. I have many patients who tell me that they are good at compartmentalizing their feelings. They share that the fertility journey is stressful, but they are managing just fine. However, when we dive into their history and start unpacking what their body is telling us, we start to see that by denying themselves the chance to feel their feelings, their body is actually screaming to be heard. Our bodies are the storytellers of our lives. Signs and symptoms are how the body tells that story. My job as your acupuncturist is to help you decipher what the body is trying to tell us and give your system the tools and input to bring itself into balance.
Our bodies are made up of organs and tissues. Our organs and tissues are made up of billions of cells. Our cells are made of molecules which are made of atoms. If you break down the material body down to its atomic form, we see that an atom is made up of 0.01% material and 99.99% space and energy. So really, when it comes down to it, we are made of mostly energy and very little material. Why is it then that we focus so much of healing and medicine on the 0.01% that is form? This is what we do when we try to use only medication and supplements to reach your peak fertility potential. Depending on where you are in your journey, you may need support for both the physical and immaterial parts of your path to fertility. When we take a broader perspective and start examining how this chapter of the journey affects the story of our lives, we are working with energy medicine. When we take our feelings out of their compartments and start working through our triggers, insecurities and vulnerabilities and find the compassion to see bravery in ourselves, this is energy medicine. This is how we find empowerment in our journeys, however challenging they may be.
Ready to dive deeper into your fertility journey to uncover the gifts and challenges you are being called to learn? I’ll see you at the Empowered Fertility Workshop! Email firstname.lastname@example.org to join.
Kathleen Lee FABORM, RTCMP, L.Ac. MTCM
Photography credit to Marcos Moraes