Conception is far more complicated than a simple sperm-meets-egg scenario. While healthy reproductive organs are vital, the whole process of getting pregnant starts, surprisingly, in your head.
When it comes to reproduction, most of us focus on the bottom half of the body—ours and our partner’s. But it’s actually the brain that controls fertility by regulating the hormones that affect the reproductive organs. According to Frederick Licciardi, MD, associate director of reproductive endocrinology at the New York University School of Medicine in New York City, factors such as stress, depression, food choices, and exercise can all interrupt the brain’s ability to keep the reproductive organs functioning properly. “The ovaries are the last stop,” Dr. Licciardi says.
You can give your fertility a nudge by getting your body and your mind working like a well-run machine. Think of it as a full-system overhaul before you begin your fertility journey. To make sure your brain is up to the job, take these five simple steps:
1. Assess Your Stress Before
Maybe it’s your job, social commitments, or a difficult mother-in-law, but clenching your jaw and tensing your shoulders are only the tips of your stress iceberg. Unfortunately, it’s the muscles you’re not even aware of that can cause the most problems when it comes to fertility and conception.
Although a healthy uterus normally contracts at a rate of five times per minute, stress increases the frequency and can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting, says Sherman Silber, MD. a fertility specialist at The Infertility Center of St. Louis at St. Luke’s Hospital, Missouri, and author of How to Get Pregnant (Little Brown, 2005). But you do have some power to relax even these “hidden” muscles. As Dr. Silber explains, “If you relax your voluntary muscles, which you have the power to do, the rest of your autonomic system naturally relaxes, too.”
According to Dr. Silber, how a woman deals with stress is an important determinant of how successful she is at getting pregnant. “The awareness of your stress is the main thing,” he says. “If you relax, you become aware of just how tense, worried, uptight, and miserable you’ve been.” Try meditation or even a laid-back lunchtime stroll. You can’t eliminate stress from your life, but decreasing its power over you will free your mind and body to support a healthy pregnancy.
2. Nosh on Good-Mood Foods
One of the most important vitamins for a developing baby, folic acid, is also vital for basic brain health. Folic acid is found in leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, and dried beans. Eat these foods or take a supplement containing this B vitamin, because a lack of it can damage your brain cells. David Perlmutter, MD, author of The Better Brain Book (Riverhead Press, 2004), says that people who lack folic acid are often moody or forgetful, and may even be clinically depressed. And that can translate into your mind saying “no” to conception. “If a woman has a history of depression, she’s at risk for infertility,” says Alice Domar, Ph.D., author of Conquering Infertility (Penguin, 2004) and director of the Domar Center for Complementary Healthcare in Massachusetts.
3. Fatten-Up Your Brain
When it comes to making a baby, it’s better to eat the (good) fats that will keep your brain happy, than to cut out all fat from your diet hoping for slimmer hips. Your brain needs plenty of DHA—docosahexanoic acid—a special type of fat that organizes information transfer, meaning it affects everything you do. The best dietary sources of DHA are in fish oils, especially from cold-water fatty fish such as wild salmon, tuna (especially bluefin), mackerel, sardines, and shellfish.
“DHA plays a profound role in how the brain makes the chemical serotonin, and we know that low levels of this chemical are linked to all types of depression,” says Dr. Perlmutter. “People who consume food containing less DHA have higher rates of depression.” Because people typically don’t get the necessary amount of DHA from diet alone, Dr. Perlmutter recommends that women take an omega-3 supplement. But because of high mercury levels in fish oils, Dr. Perlmutter recommends supplements derived from marine algae. “A woman getting ready to conceive should be taking at least 400 mg of DHA from a marine algae-derived supplement every day,” he says. Since not all omega-3 supplements contain DHA, read labels carefully.
4. Purge Emotional Constipation
It’s easy to start the blame game when mood music and candlelight fail to produce an instant pregnancy. That’s when you start remembering things in your past—and who doesn’t have them?—and wondering whether it’s your fault the pregnancy test isn’t positive yet. Andrea Mechanick Braverman, Ph.D., director of psychology and complementary care at Reproductive Medicine Associates of New Jersey says, “It’s easier to accept that we’re at fault than to accept we have no control.”
The mind/body connection often weaves stress and physical problems so tightly together that it becomes impossible to tell which came first. “Stress and guilt directly inhibit parts of the brain that are important for its function; they increase cortisol, which can affect fetal brain development and the ability to get pregnant in the first place,” says Dr. Perlmutter.
Obviously not all conception problems are stress-related—many have a very real physical cause that can be diagnosed and treated—but guilt and stress can definitely affect the journey. If you can’t let go of the guilt on your own, get help from a professional.
5. Exercise Caution
Exercise strengthens the body, enhances immunity, and alleviates stress by producing endorphins (the brain’s feel-good hormone). But overdoing it can inhibit conception. According to Dr. Domar, when you’re running on a treadmill your brain doesn’t know whether you’re doing it for better health or to escape being eaten by a bear. And some experts believe that if the brain is convinced you’re being “chased” five times a week, it may decide this isn’t the best time to get pregnant.
“We tell our patients not to go crazy exercising because animal research shows [excessive] exercise can decrease fertility,” says Dr. Domar. Instead, keep yourself fit with a gentle routine. Walking, swimming, and yoga are all good choices, and Dr. Domar recommends experimenting a bit until you find the right routine for you and your lifestyle. “The same exercises don’t work for everyone,” she says. “That’s like me taking 100 people out for ice cream and ordering butter pecan for all of them. Everybody’s preferences are different.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the Winter 2006 issue of Conceive Magazine.