Increasing the odds for your family

 

Making lifestyle chnages can greatly improve your chances of fertility

MOST PEOPLE’s life plan includes becoming a parent at some stage but, as the rising age of motherhood in Ireland shows, we’re leaving it later and later.

After years of trying not to get pregnant, women in their 30s and early 40s may find themselves desperately wanting to get pregnant in what suddenly turns into a race against time.

The average age of first-time mothers in Ireland was 29.4 in 2010, according to the latest Perinatal Statistics Report available, compared with 27.6 in 2001.

The average age of women giving birth was 31.5 years in 2010, up from 30.3 years nine years previously.

With women’s fertility starting to decline in their late 20s, the delaying of parenthood undoubtedly contributes to what seems to be an increase in infertility.

Couples who have not conceived a baby despite having frequent, unprotected sex for at least a year are regarded as having fertility issues and are advised to seek medical help if they want a child.

If the woman is aged 35 or older, the couple should wait no more than six months before looking for professional advice.

For the estimated one in six couples who, when they put their fertility to the test in the hope of starting or enlarging a family, are dismayed to find it’s not happening, age is the one factor they cannot change.

But there are other things that couples can do to maximise their chances of conceiving, says Dermot O’Connor, a specialist in Chinese medicine and the author of a new book called The Fertility Code.

The “code” is a three-month, multi-dimensional programme encompassing lifestyle changes (see panel, right) that aim to improve the health of a couple and so increase the odds of them conceiving and producing a healthy baby, whether they are availing of assisted reproductive technology or not.

“People underestimate the power they have themselves to help,” he says. “It is important to educate yourself in this respect.”

Even people who are totally preoccupied with their struggle to conceive and feel they would do anything to achieve the outcome they so badly want, are still making mistakes, he says – such as allowing themselves to continue to be overweight or, even worse, underweight.

“There is scientific evidence that if the overweight normalise their weight, 75 per cent of them will conceive within 12 months. And if they are underweight, it is 90 per cent.”

Such statistics pepper the book and would appear to be persuasive, if not a little overwhelming, for people trying to follow the “code”.

“All those percentages were put in there because they are backed up by scientific studies,” stresses O’Connor, who denies picking and choosing ones to fit his theories.

“I think it surprises people – and it certainly surprised me – that these figures were so amazing and they were also backed up by science.

“These were lifestyle changes – things that people could do for themselves to enhance their fertility.”

Sitting in his basement clinic on Haddington Road in Dublin 4, O’Connor says: “I am not 100 per cent sure why I became a fertility expert.”

It kind of just happened – as a practitioner of acupuncture, which is seen as complementary and helpful to both in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and fertility in general, he found more and more of his clients were coming to him with fertility issues.

But he purposely downplays the acupuncture in The Fertility Code because it is intended as a self-help book. And O’Connor (43) certainly has a compelling personal story when it comes to self-help and health.

In 1998 he was a banking technology consultant, travelling around the world, when he suddenly experienced slurred speech, severe vertigo and numbness. After multiple tests he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis (MS).

“I was told that in between 12 and 24 months I would be in a wheelchair, so therefore I didn’t have a lot of time.”

He read up everything he could about MS, which was mostly about symptoms “and I was getting them as I was reading them”.

This showed him how the mind affects the body – and he wondered how he could turn this negative power into a positive one.

He started to inform himself about psychology, nutrition and Eastern medicine “to see if I could figure out a way to push that 24 months to years”.

O’Connor was inspired by a lecture given by hypnotherapist Seán Collins, who wrote a book about fighting back against serious illness called Tipping the Scales (1997).

Collins’s theory was optimising aspects of your life to tip the balance in favour of being healthy.

“That made a lot of sense to me,” says O’Connor who went on to study nutrition, psychology, acupuncture and herbal medicine – and applied what he learnt to himself.

“The symptoms began to disappear and within 12 months I was symptom free.”

Fourteen years and six children later, and looking the picture of health, he says: “I am very well and play tennis five times a week.”

O’Connor does not claim to have “cured” himself of MS. “I am sure if I had an MRI scan you would find evidence that I have MS. I am just symptom free.”

He attracted public attention when he wrote about the approach he took to his MS in his first book, The Healing Code (2006). As more and more people sought his advice and services, he began to use a similar approach to fertility.

He says as he got good results, clients told their friends “and I became a fertility specialist”.

Now about 80 per cent of his clients come to him with fertility issues.

Although infertility is commonly regarded as predominantly a woman’s problem, the man is just as likely to be the issue, says O’Connor.

About 40 per cent of infertility cases are due to low sperm count or quality, another 40 per cent are due to female factors and the rest are unexplained or are attributed to multiple factors involving both partners.

Ideally he likes to work with couples – and the fertility code is aimed at both partners – yet it is mostly women who come to see him.

“It is a strange one. You may find it has been identified as a male factor, yet the female is coming for a consultation. The male may even be sitting in the car outside.

“These women’s attitude is: ‘He has a problem therefore I am going to have to be extremely fertile to make this work.’ It is completely skewed.”

Stressing that he is talking in generalities, O’Connor attributes the reluctance of men to seek help to embarrassment about the fact that they might have fertility issues. “It goes to the core of who they are.”

Men will not talk to friends about this issue and even couples struggle to discuss it – “it is almost a taboo issue in the relationship”.

Couples struggling with infertility are “on a very difficult journey”, O’Connor acknowledges and he is not offering the fertility code as any sort of alternative to medical science.

“I don’t claim – ‘come and see me and I will make you pregnant’ – no, what you do is you optimise your chances of having a child.”

For those who have turned to assisted reproduction, he recommends the lifestyle changes to ensure their bodies are “physically primed to be receptive to medical intervention”.

And, in his experience, there is no greater motivator to make these changes than the hope that they might result in a much longed-for baby.

‘HYPNOSIS INCREASES THE CHANCES OF IVF WORKING’

Hypnosis is a complementary mind-body therapy that studies have shown can boost your chances of conceiving – both naturally and when having medical assistance.

It can be used in a two-pronged approach to reduce stress levels and to dispel underlying fears of pregnancy, miscarriage or birth that can, subconsciously, play a part in preventing somebody from becoming pregnant, explains hypnofertility specialist Helena Tubridy.

She works in her clinic in Kilternan, Dublin, with clients who are preparing for in vitro fertilisation (IVF). “It increases the chances of IVF working and psychologically it helps to deal with the whole process, even if it fails.”

Swinging watches and stage entertainers putting people under a spell may be popular images of hypnosis, but they do “a great disservice” to what is a talking therapy, says Tubridy. A former midwife, she attributes her initial interest in hypnosis to the late Dr Jack Gibson, the county surgeon in Naas, Co Kildare, who used it to do minor procedures on patients.

Likening hypnosis to being on “auto pilot” when driving a familiar route, it is not a treatment, she explains, but a two-way process. “It allows us to focus the attention and deliver psychotherapy very quickly.”

Sometimes she would see somebody for just two visits but generally never longer than seven visits.

A lot of people think you must be very weak-minded to be hypnotised, in fact it is the opposite, she says. “It is the highly intelligent person who will be able to do it, it is learned.”

Hypnosis is also a very useful tool for altering habits swiftly. People coming to her might need to lose a stone quickly or get sleep back on track.

Do people need to go away and work on it? “They will practise a little self-hypnosis which is really being able to control your reaction.”

There are no mantras, but rather it is focused awareness – “because you are focusing your thought process, your body becomes very relaxed. It is different from relaxing Homer Simpson style on the sofa – it is highly specific, it is alpha brainwave.”

For women undergoing IVF, she says: “It is a way of being able to calm yourself. If your uterus is relaxed and nice and pink and soft, you are going to get a lovely implantation in the right level of the uterus.”

A 2004 Israeli study of 185 women found that 28 per cent of women in the group who were hypnotised during their IVF treatment became pregnant, compared with 14 per cent of those who were not.

Tubridy sees mostly women but, in what she notes is an interesting shift, men have started to attend too. Typically men would come because they feel a horrendous sense of failure at having to resort to assisted reproduction, she says. Or they may have suffered in silence after a partner’s miscarriage.

She prefers to work with clients individually rather than as couples. “I find they are far more frank and comfortable on their own.”

For more information, see helenatubridy.comor tel 087 9962466.

FIVE STEPS: TO CRACKING THE FERTILITY CODE

The three-month “fertility code” programme has five dimensions and applies to both men and women.

1. THE MIND

It is a vicious circle: fertility problems lead to stress and stress exacerbates fertility problems. In The Fertility Code, Dermot O’Connor and fertility counselling psychotherapist Ann Bracken outline ways to reduce stress and anxiety, adopt a more positive outlook and enhance sleep – seen as a vital factor in improving your chances of conception.

O’Connor regards the psychological aspect as the pillar of the programme, because “if your mind is not in the right frame, it makes it difficult to implement all the other parts”.

2. NUTRITION

Changing from poor or even average eating habits to optimum nutrition is “probably the most powerful thing you can do to enhance your fertility”, says O’Connor. His recommendations include 10 portions of fruit or vegetables (organic) a day and eliminating dairy from your diet, as well as avoiding refined carbohydrates and eating “hormone-balancing phytoestrogens, such as beans, lentils and chickpeas daily”.

The nutrition plan should not just help you to achieve your optimum weight, but also smooth out blood-sugar levels, improve insulin sensitivity and have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. It is designed to promote healthy ovulation and improve the quantity and quality of sperm.

3. DETOX

Decreasing exposure to toxins should not only improve fertility but also benefit the foetus if you do conceive. Top of the list of toxins to avoid are the obvious ones of nicotine, alcohol and caffeine. O’Connor also recommends clearing your kitchen of all canned and processed food, as well as popcorn, cheese, salted nuts, jam and marmalade, to mention just a few on the “food detox list”. You are advised to choose chemical-free skincare products and avoid household cleaners containing toxic chemicals.

4. EXERCISE

Forget the “no pain, no gain” mantra – when it comes to exercise to maximise fertility, balance is key and overheating is to be avoided. However, regular exercise will help control weight and reduce stress – both key factors in fertility problems. Walking, yoga, gentle swimming and the Chinese exercise system chi gong are what O’Connor recommends.

5. MEDICAL SCIENCE

Although this is not part of the “code” per se, it is the fifth dimension that O’Connor advocates for couples with fertility issues because his programme is complementary and supportive rather than an “alternative” to assisted reproduction.

For their part, mainstream fertility clinics have moved in the past five years, he says, from putting no emphasis on the mind-body element to putting some emphasis on it, “but are yet to put a huge emphasis on it”.


The Fertility Code by Dermot O’Connor is published this week by Y Books, price €14.99 (or €4.99 for eBook version). He can be contacted through fertilityacupuncturedublin.ieor tel: 01 667 2222.