Stress and Fertility

 “Reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those who are in touch with it." - Jane Wagner

While the Eskimos have at least one hundred words for snow, we only have a few words for stress, which for us is equally ubiquitous. We may or may not realize it but most of us are consistently balancing large levels of stress. From performance expectations encountered at work to the various physical challenges our jobs might entail, earning a living is a largely stressful part of our lives, even when we absolutely love what we do.

Then we go home. Often, instead of being a rejuvenating sanctuary our home life resembles an exhaustive “to-do” list. We mow the lawn, pay the bills, shop for food and walk the dog…for starters.

Unfortunately, some of the activities we use to relieve and release ourselves of the daily pressures—exercise, a night out, vacations—can actually maximize the strain to our bodies rather than minimizing it. Lots of exercise programs can be harsh and aggressive. When we lived more in harmony with nature, our bodies got all the exercise they needed. Thanks to cars, computers, television, video games and the refrigerator, we're not getting 'natural' exercise as much as we used to. So we simulate it. We isolate muscle groups and place large amounts of stress on our bodies in an effort to keep "fit" and work out the pressure from our jobs, our relationships and our debts.

We work hard at managing all this ‘noise’ so of course we like to reward ourselves. A night out with friends or family can include heavy foods loaded with too much salt, too much sugar, too much fat and too much alcohol. We probably spend more money than we planned and a woman might look great wearing  uncomfortably high heels, but most often they make her wish she’d never left home.

Finally we take a vacation. After rushed packing, busy airports, crowded jets, negotiated accommodations we vow to relax. By the last day (with any luck) we are breathing normally and feel like we have gotten away. We then return home facing the same challenges as on the outbound. While the saying goes: “A change is as good as a rest,” there are those who would argue otherwise.

As our bodies try to manage these pervasive, demands, cortisol is released.  It's the 'fight or flight' hormone.  As cortisol levels increase and become elevated we become irritable, prone to frequent illness and often suffer insomnia. As if that wasn’t enough, our ability to focus becomes an issue, and  we develop a tendency to overeat.

If you're a woman who is also working to become pregnant, this excessive stress is compromising on the Hypothalamic Pituitary Ovary Axis (HPO), which regulates the hormones needed for fertility. It's almost as if the body is allergic to stress. It starts doing strange things like pulling blood from the ovaries and balanced hormonal functions become difficult for the body to respond to normally.

Balancing stress includes a combination of actions. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), yang foods such as meat, eggs, fish, poultry, nuts, and seeds are recommended to eat in the morning and at lunch as they are a good source of protein and energy, which help combat the effects of stress by keeping us focused and strong, and not craving sugar. Processed carbohydrates may seem like a good idea before a workout, but they actually deplete the body of energy by spiking and dropping our blood sugar levels.

Green foods are also important to consume regularly. According to Chinese medicine, the way that green foods grow—straight up—means they stimulate life energy, or Qi. Green plants are loaded with B vitamins, magnesium and calcium, which we need for energy and to help the body process stress.

Hydration is also closely linked to stress. The less water we have in us, the harder the body has to work. Think of your body as a car—when there's not enough gas in the tank, oil in the engine or air in the tires, there is increased stress on the whole vehicle. Water is like this in our bodies. The more we have in us, the more fluidly things work.

A healthy dose of natural sunlight every day is another important ingredient to preventing and decreasing stress. Sunlight makes vitamin D; too little of it can cause fatigue and muscle weakness. Taking supplemental vitamin D may also be recommended.

Try trading in your isolated muscle workouts for a more holistic full body exercise. A long brisk walk works every muscle in the body. It's also a great way to calm the mind, and it can be done virtually anywhere. Tai Chi and yoga are also low-impact ways to exercise while decreasing stress. They focus on the breath too, which can calm and relax the entire body.

Implementing activity that cultivates relaxation every day is nurturing to your body and, according to TCM, is "preparing the soil for the seed." Did you know that your baby's most important time is 3-4 months before conception? Which egg will be released is determined that far in advance, so readying the body by decreasing stress and cortisol levels helps to ensure conception. Meditation and nurturing practices such as spending quiet time in nature, reading, getting acupuncture, massage or simply working in the garden can reduce cortisol and increase your chances of a healthy pregnancy.

“Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are." -Chinese proverb


Foods to Maximize Fertility

Our modern, fast-paced and often frenetic lifestyles can make proper nutrition feel like an almost impossible chore.  With the ubiquitous “quick food solution," frequent trips to the market, meal planning and preparation may seem unnecessary and inconvenient.  This is particularly true when we aren't sure exactly what it is we should be eating.

While we may do our best to avoid high fat, high sodium and high fructose corn syrup found in the usual suspects a la fast and frozen food, donuts and other processed and packaged snacks, there are many more considerations when seeking out the most healthful foods. A good diet can produce a higher level of health, which in turn creates awareness and optimism that is of utmost importance when trying to conceive.  As Dr. Dean Ornish recently stated in the LA Times the “joy of living is much more sustainable than the fear of dying.”

Over the last decade, a lot of attention has been given to the benefits found in foods that are certified organic, a process that restricts the use of pesticides and fertilizers on fruits and vegetables and prohibits the use of growth hormones and antibiotics in animal products. Certified organic foods may have more nutritive qualities than non-organic options and many people have reported more flavor in the organic options versus their conventional equivalent. Organic foods also leave less of an environmental footprint, which is healthy for us in other ways such as cleaner air and water.

In addition to organic, many people have also been making an effort to eat locally. What does that mean, exactly? Eating locally is synergizing with the seasons in your area and eating the freshest foods available at that time of year. Here in California, we have an abundance of fruits and vegetables year round, but the selections change over the months, offering a tasty variety of foods to choose from. Little else can match the excitement of waiting for your favorites to come into season. Right now, there's lots of fresh California berry picking and of course there are the grins of happy peach lovers who've waited all winter for their fuzzy favorite.

Eating locally is also sustainable, cutting down on the use of petroleum to transport foods across the globe. Because the food is being grown closer to your home, it may also retain more vitamins and minerals versus food that has traveled a great distance, likely sitting in a truck for days before ending up in your shopping cart.

But perhaps there is no more important consideration when it comes to food than how it affects your body. Food is medicine. It is what gives us life and strength, or, too often, discomfort and disease. If we are not eating the right foods for our bodies, we become imbalanced. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) focuses on bringing balance to our systems for a healthy life. Balancing is especially important for women trying to become pregnant. As "Generation X" is waiting much longer to start families, many women are turning to fertility treatment programs. TCM can be used in tandem with fertility treatments, and adding certain foods to your diet can greatly improve your chances of becoming pregnant.

Kidney Essence is vital to fertility and can be balanced by eating healthy salts found in foods such as miso (fermented soy paste), mineral or sea salts and seaweeds, and salted cultured vegetables such as sauerkraut or kimchee. Be very careful not to over eat salt as it can have the opposite effect. Cutting out salt from processed foods is one very easy way to avoid "bad" overuse of salt. The less salt you eat, the more sensitive you will become to it, making it easier to self-regulate and insure that you are only eating the right types of salt for kidney health. Lean, hormone-free red meat is an excellent source of iron and helps prevent anemia. It is useful in the production of red blood cells and is also an excellent source of vitamin B 12, which is key in the maintenance and development of the nervous system.

Nature carries a doctrine of signatures. This means that foods often look like the correlating organ that they benefit. Foods that are kidney shaped will enhance kidney essence. This includes all beans and seeds, especially kidney beans, black beans and mung beans, and pumpkin, flax and black sesame seeds. Dark berries such as blueberries, blackberries and mulberries, all of which are currently in season are also very beneficial to the kidneys.  Nuts too can be very balancing, especially walnuts and chestnuts. California walnuts are incredibly delicious and versatile. Try adding them to a salad or soaking and pureeing with seaweed and flax oil for a creamy pate.

Eating wild caught fish and shrimp can support the water element, also vital to fertility. If you live in a coastal area, there are typically dozens of fresh fish options available.  Check with your local market on where and when their selections were caught, especially if you live inland, you'll want to know as much as you can about the fish selections. Avoid "farmed" fish, as these conditions are incredibly unnatural and poorly regulated. You are what you eat, so keep in mind how your food was grown or raised.  Other animal proteins can be helpful too, such as stock made from beef bones, which is rich in collagen and amino acids good for the elasticity of the blood vessels. Chicken is rich in zinc, which is very nutritive. Buy the freshest, free range and holistically treated animal products available.

Dark leafy greens are an excellent source of folic acid known to be crucial in fetal health. This is not the same as laboratory made folic acid found in prenatal vitamins. When we eat foods rich in naturally occurring nutrients, our bodies recognize them quicker and can integrate them faster. Dark leafy vegetables, such as collards, cabbage, kale and mustard greens can grow in most any climate. They are easy to prepare and can be incorporated in to most any dish. They cook quickly and taste great.

Eating for fertility can be a delicious and rewarding experience. By putting intention towards your healthy diet, you are helping to create the ideal environment for a pregnancy. You are also helping the planet and your local economy, which is creating a better world to raise your children in!