Why "Just Relax" is Still Not Helpful Advice in the World of Infertility

BlogHer Original Post

You know, infertile women and men of America, the whole reason you're not having a baby isn't because you have a uterine malformation or clotting disorder. It's not because you have a non-existent sperm count because you were born without vas deferens. The real reason you're infertile is because you're not relaxing enough.

You can thank me now for shining light on that fact.

Actually, it's not me that you should thank for the fact that this age-old advice has been recycled again. The onslaught of media stories is due to a study in Fertility and Sterility that the media believes supports what the general public has suspected all along. A watched pot never boils. You just need to stop wanting it so much. Take a vacation and then you'll get pregnant. Do some yoga.

Model Released: Woman in yoga position (Photo by Markus Boesch/Getty Images)
Apparently, doing yoga poses is the prescribed antidote to fertility-lessening stress. This pose, and not sex, is what will get you pregnant

And while stress enzymes very well may affect fertility levels, the reality is that infertility is an umbrella term for a disease that has a myriad of diagnostic paths, one that can't be boiled down to a simple answer. Yes, not releasing that stress enzyme may help some forms of infertility, but it certainly won't help the numerous other reasons for why people are infertile.

And beyond that, this case is more about the general public seeing what they wish to see. The study doesn't actually say that stress causes infertility. Instead, it illuminates the fact that in a case study of 274 women, looking at their first cycle of trying-to-conceive, there were "reductions in the probability of conception across the fertile window during the first cycle attempting pregnancy were observed for women whose salivary concentrations of alpha-amylase were in the upper quartiles." In other words, if you were stressed during that fertile window on your first month, you had a lower chance of conceiving during that first month. Doesn't mean you didn't conceive the second month, but your chances were lower during the first month.

See what I mean? Still not very helpful advice.

But that doesn't stop the media from proclaiming that stress causes infertility. The New York Times states "Some experts still recite an old maxim: while infertility undoubtedly causes stress, stress does not cause infertility. Now researchers suggest that the two conditions may indeed be linked." And the The Stir asks if "just relax" is good fertility advice after all (hint: no).

USAToday leads the pack in offensiveness with their opening:

Practically everyone has heard of a couple who, after fertility treatments fail, adopt a baby and then all of a sudden get pregnant ... A new study in the current issue of the journal Fertility and Sterility lends credence to a link between stress and time to conception, and not just in couples dealing with infertility.

Want to know the statistical rate of those diagnosed with infertility who conceive after adopting? As stated in my book, Navigating the Land of If, the number is 8%. Want to know the statistical rate for those diagnosed with infertility who conceive without fertility treatments and without adopting? Also 8%.

The Independent goes the women-should-just-stay-at-home-and-make-babies-and-stay-out-of-the-office approach with their opening:

Living life to a tight deadline, juggling appointments and rushing from place to place may harm a woman's chances of becoming pregnant.

WebMD crows, "There is now scientific evidence to back up the widely held belief that stress can interfere with fertility." CNN gently reminds readers that "The practical take home from all this is that if you are having trouble getting pregnant, one of the most important things you can do is work on ways to relax."

Luckily, there is also Rachel Gurevich at About.com who calms the flames by pointing out why the general public shouldn't return to their mantra of "just relax":

What the research actually found was that during the first cycle of the study, this stress related enzyme seemed to be linked to a lower likelihood of pregnancy. But, when researchers looked at all the months from the study combined, there was no statistically significant difference. In other words, when looking at the big picture, this stress enzyme did not lead to trouble getting pregnant. Also, as an interesting aside, the study found that higher levels of cortisol - another stress related hormone - seemed to be linked to higher rates of pregnancy overall. Cortisol levels may be higher in those who experience long term stress, while alpha-amylase is related to acute, short term stress. (The difference between having an extremely stressful life, as opposed to an extremely stressful day or week.) However, the article was not titled "Long Term Stress Boosts Pregnancy Success."

Reading her post is certainly more helpful than the proposed yoga classes women trying-to-conceive should enroll in to reduce stress levels.

What are your thoughts on the study?

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.

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