Thanks to modern science we can identify and diagnose the causes of most infertility cases. However, there are still those cases which science cannot identify an exact cause… yet. The human reproductive system is part of a vastly complex organism, the human body, which is host to a huge amount of interdependent hormones, nerves, cells, bacteria, etc. These are replenished and regulated with incredible consistency and efficiency.
Because of this complexity, treating infertility often requires a scientifically holistic approach. And because of this intricacy, IVF is often subject to misinformation and pseudo-scientific advice.
One of the dominant myths around the subject of infertility across the world is that it is mostly a psychological phenomenon. We do not denounce that psychological influences can affect fertility. However, this myth often exaggerates and twists the truth. Year after year, scientific theory, technology, and actual treatment of infertility is improving. We are more accurately identifying causes and improving success rates. Each year more couples are successfully getting pregnant through IVF. Recent published figures for IVF treatment by the Centers For Disease Control (CDC) in the USA show that about 29.4% of IVF cycles result in a live baby. In 1996 this was about 20%.
Around 70% of infertility is currently diagnosable to physical conditions and symptoms. This leaves the other 30% as an unknown. Within this (roughly) 30%, there is the possibility of psychological blocks. As with a lot of psychological phenomena, it is hard to identify exact causes. What we can do is find out what issues we recognize in ourselves and what brings up certain emotions in us. Sometimes experiencing previously withheld emotions changes our stress levels and hormonal system. It’s possible that these effect our fertility and virility.
When a couple wants a baby, facing infertility can be a time of pain and insecurities which disrupt our relationship dynamics and usual ways of thinking. We can get triggered by the world in many ways, a world which is saturated with symbols of fertility and parenthood. Our families may not relate in a supportive way. We, along with our partners, might be experiencing some kind of isolation.
You might relate to some of these issues when facing infertility:
A lack or change in intimacy
Libraries of books have been written about intimacy. A common recurring theme in them seems to be open communication, i.e. revealing what was previously hidden, and communicating your desires and needs. Only you and your partner can know if your intimate life is nourishing you. Intimacy is not a measurable element of the universe, but you can take some actions to open new intimate doors with your partner which may increase how connected you feel together. For example, dance, honest sharing, new sexual experimentation, couple’s therapy, going on vacation, tantra and other workshops.
Feelings of increased stress
Many people find infertility to be one of the most difficult periods of their lives. Facing and coping with it brings a wave of new emotional, physical, and financial factors to address and resources to find.
In general, women tend to experience the stress of infertility more intensely than men. For men and women, infertility can stir-up feelings around ideas of masculinity and femininity, “am I good enough?” and perceived social stigma.
Redshaw et al. (2007) found many people who were experiencing IVF therapies to feel a lack of control as a central stress in their lives. IVF treatments do involve some level of surrender to trusting the medical professionals around you, the procedures you go through, and the uncertainty of awaiting results. This can raise a fear of powerlessness.
Feelings of guilt and blame
Infertility will most likely be symptomatic in one of the partners in a couple. Around two-thirds of diagnosed cases of infertility are due to causes in the female body. Sometimes the diagnosed partner experiences thoughts of guilt around being the “cause” of the infertility, and subsequent fear of being rejected by their partner. This fear, guilt, blame and/or shame all builds distance in a relationship if left unexpressed and experienced alone.
If you are finding yourself stressed or overwhelmed by infertility or IVF treatment, you have many options to find help to support you emotionally. Along the path of IVF treatment you will contact and meet many medical professionals. These people understand that the procedure you are going through can be a draining one, emotionally, physically and mentally, and as such are trained to help you cope and experience the treatment in the best way possible.
Feeling unsupported – reaching out to friends and family
Friends and family might be afraid to talk about some of the issues you are experiencing. If you haven’t yet breached the subject with them, it could be the case that they’ve sensed something is up with you and/or your partner and they may feel uncomfortable pretending that they don’t know anything. Some people see their infertility as a taboo topic for conversation. Letting your family and friends know what you are going through can build understanding and connection between you all.
If you are in a position of not having the support you need from friends or family, or feel you’d like some extra help, speak to your doctor about therapeutic routes, or search for therapists in your area. Often therapists and counsellors will start with a consultation phone call to assess where you’re at if they think they could help you. Some are specifically trained and focused on issues involving pregnancy and medical treatment.
Beyond the psychological aspects of infertility, there are a multitude of ways you can help yourself improve your chances of conception. Fertilitypedia has covered dietary and lifestyle changes you can implement to nurture your fertility (LINK). If you are thinking of getting medical help to enhance your fertility, you will most likely be treated with a form of assisted reproductive technology.
Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs)
The following therapies have a great success rate for many couples experiencing infertility issues. We recommend you discuss possible therapeutic avenues with your doctor, as they likely know you and your medical history and can give the best advice on what you can do next. The majority of people opting for medical help to get pregnant will use one of these techniques:
(IUI) Intrauterine Insemination: A fertility treatment of assisted conception, also known as artificial insemination, that places medically prepared sperm directly inside a woman’s uterus, close to an egg, during ovulation. This improves the chances of pregnancy by increasing the number of sperm that make their way into the fallopian tubes. IUI treatment is usually combined with fertility drugs to maximize chances of conception.
(IVF) In Vitro Fertilization: IVF is the most sought-after and most effective form of ART. This technique requires a removal of an egg from ovulating ovaries, which is then fertilized with sperm in a lab, propagating for 2 – 6 days. The embryo is then returned to the woman’s womb to grow and develop.
(ICSI) Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection: Often used for couples with male-factor infertility and older couples, or for those with failed IVF attempts. A mature, healthy egg is removed from the uterus and a single sperm is injected directly into it. Once the embryo has been deemed viable it is placed back in the woman’s uterus to grow.
Egg Donors: Donor eggs can be used for women who cannot produce healthy, viable eggs. This is often the chosen technique for women over the age of 45 or for those whom other ARTs were unsuccessful. Donations are frozen and used at the time of the ovulation of the woman undergoing therapy, or both her and the donor’s ovulation cycles are synchronized and the transfer is made with the egg in a fresh state. Additionally, donor sperm can be used to facilitate pregnancy.
Donor Embryos: An infertile woman or couple have the option to use frozen donor embryos from another couple. Through IVF, the donated embryo is transferred to the uterus.
Traditional Surrogacy: A surrogate is a woman who agrees to become pregnant using the man’s sperm and her own egg. She carries the embryo in her womb through the foetal stages to give birth to the baby, which is then passed to the intended parents to raise.
Gestational Carrier: Women with healthy ovaries and eggs, but no uterus, may be able to use a gestational carrier. In this case, the carrier woman uses her own egg and source of sperm. She carries a developing foetus through pregnancy to birth. The baby is then given to the intended parents to raise, as with surrogacy, except the baby is genetically unrelated to the intended parents. Less than 1% of ART clients opt for a gestational carrier method.
According to The Centers For Disease Control (CDC) in the USA, the average percentage of fresh, non-donor ART cycles that led to a live birth for women were:
- 40% in women younger than 35 years of age.
- 32% in women aged 35–37 years.
- 21% in women aged 38–40 years.
- 11% in women aged 41–42 years.
- 5% in women aged 43–44 years.
- 2% in women aged 44 years and older.
To give you some perspective on the commonplace practises of ART, it was recently estimated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) that around 2% of babies born in the UK are conceived using ART. In Australia the figure is 3.1%. In the USA, the CDC estimates the figure to be 1.5%. This is a relatively large number of babies born using ART therapy.
Changes you can make to improve your chances of getting pregnant
We began this article describing the pseudo-scientific claim that infertility is mostly a psychological phenomenon. It is not. About 70% of cases are diagnosable due to physical symptoms.
We can, however, improve our chances of pregnancy by taking care of our mental and physical health and well-being. If you are one of the 30% of couples currently undiagnosed due to physical conditions and symptoms, there are still many things you can do to help with your fertility.
What can I do?
Reducing stress where possible has its effects. Although notoriously difficult to measure, meditation and yoga can help you calm your mind, as well as taking part in sport and exercise.
Eating healthily and minimizing and eliminating certain foods, activities, and influences help your body heal and grow. We explore the particulars of these influences in THIS Fertilitypedia article.
If you are a woman, get to know your menstrual cycle even more intimately. There are methods for tracking your cycle which you may not be aware of. We look at these in THIS article.
If you are a man, get to know your sperm. There are multiple changes you can make to maximize your sperm health. There are also things you can do to lower your sperm count and health. You might be doing a mix of these things already. Find out what to do and what not to do HERE.
Infertility is diagnosed medically as “a disease of the reproductive system defined by the failure to achieve a clinical pregnancy after 12 months or more of regular unprotected sexual intercourse.” This definition does not necessarily mean that you are 100% infertile. We recommend making changes in your lifestyle to maximize your chances of getting pregnant.
You can begin by entering your health details into our Chance to Conceive calculator. This will take you through a series of health-related questions which also gives you the opportunity to input you and your partner’s vital information to generate an individual and coupled chance of conception, shown as a percentage. This info will be recorded for you to start your own Personal Health Profile with Fertilitypedia. Click here to begin.