Sometimes the secret to getting pregnant lies in just getting away from it all.
Becky Green’s heart sank when the doctor told her the verdict over the phone: premature ovarian failure, no chance of having a child. “That was my worst day,” Green says. “The next day my husband and I picked out a puppy—we needed to have something.” The diagnosis capped a two-year struggle to conceive that involved two intrauterine inseminations as well as the drug Clomid.
During that time, Green says, she lived her life on a pregnancy calendar. “I didn’t go on vacations, I hung on every word from doctors, and I basically put my life on hold.” Alas, to no avail. Watching friends and relatives bear children left and right made it tougher. “The world of infertility is a lonely, lonely place,” Green says.
Then in 2004 she heard about infertility retreats held by Randine Lewis, LAc, PhD, in Austin, Texas, and ended up attending three in summer 2004 and a reunion retreat in February 2005. “It was a powerful, eye-opening experience,” she says. “It changes your life regardless of whether you get pregnant.”
Such retreats, both for couples and for women only, have become increasingly popular as people seek more natural mind-body approaches to fertility, either as a safer alternative to conventional treatments or as their last hope. Interest has grown so much, in fact, that Lewis is expanding them to other cities nationwide. Although their treatment plans for the participants vary—with acupuncture, herbs, supplements, exercise, and
diet adjustments often included—the retreats usually share a few underlying goals: stress reduction, fellowship, and a shift in focus away from pregnancy.
At the Mind/Body Medical Institute (MBMI) near Boston, for example, a primary aim of the infertility retreats is teaching participants how to elicit the “relaxation response” (the physiologic opposite of stress) during stressful events, using techniques like meditation, imagery, breathing, and mindfulness. The program also teaches participants how to change negative thought patterns that add to their stress. “We can’t always remove stressful events from our lives, but we do have control over our reactions to them,” says Leslee Kagan, MS, NP, director of the Infertility and Menopause Programs at the MBMI, which offers weekend couple retreats and a once-a-week program that lasts approximately three months.
Many doctors—both conventional and holistic—note a correlation between stress and infertility. In fact, a 2006 study at the University of Michigan found that women with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol during their first three weeks of pregnancy had a higher risk of miscarriage. Other studies have shown that women grappling with infertility have the same levels of depression, anger, anxiety, and feelings of isolation as those with chronic illnesses such as HIV, heart disease, and cancer.
“If you remove any factors that may negatively affect fertility, such as depression and anxiety, you can potentially enhance a woman’s chances of getting pregnant,” Kagan says. “In evolutionary terms, it makes sense: If you’re running from a saber-toothed tiger, signals to the brain dampen systems not needed for survival, and reproduction is one of those.”
Support groups, an integral part of the retreats, help reduce stress and anxiety. Kristen O’Rourke, who tried two IUIs and suffered three miscarriages before attending Lewis’ retreats, concurs: “For the longest time, my husband and I never told anyone about our pregnancies and miscarriages. I think I felt embarrassed or ashamed, like I was failing at something.” But sharing her experiences with other people going through the same thing helped remove the isolation and stigma from infertility, she says.
Another crucial step in promoting fertility involves letting go of the sometimes frantic determination to get pregnant. Lewis tells of one woman who tried 27 in vitro fertilizations and nine donor eggs, spending $2.2 million in the process. “We can be so consumed with our attempt to have a child that it actually diffuses energy away from the reproductive system,” Lewis says.
No one knows this better than O’Rourke. “The harder I tried to have a child, the further away it seemed I was from having one,” she explains. “I became obsessed with it, losing sight of all the other positive things in my life.” Through the four retreats she attended, she says she grew emotionally and physically healthier, both by changing her outlook and by adopting a healthier organic diet, taking herbs, and receiving acupuncture and craniosacral therapy. “The retreats brought me out of my vicious cycle of trying harder and getting more discouraged,” she says. “I began to be a grounded and centered person once again . . . and arrived at a place where I could conceive and carry to term.” Indeed, O’Rourke just gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
Not every retreat participant achieves pregnancy, however. Success rates can be as low as 30 percent, especially since retreats often draw the most difficult cases. But “fertility isn’t just about having a baby,” Green says. “It’s about letting go, getting life off hold, and learning to love other aspects of life.” To put that to practice, Green and her husband flew to Florida for vacation in August 2005. They floated on the ocean, relaxed, and opened themselves to whatever life—or the stork—might bring. “When I got back, I was pregnant,” she says. And on March 22 she gave birth to Zachary Daniel Green, 6 pounds, 12 ounces. “I got two hours of sleep last night, but I’m over the top in love with this little guy,” she gushes.