Infertility can be stressful, and practicing yoga can reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels
Yoga, a tradition that originated in India thousands of years ago, has gained significant popularity over the past few decades as an integrative practice that focuses not only on stretching and toning muscles as a physical exercise for the body, but also as a way to exercise and improve mental and emotional well-being.
Interestingly, the benefits of yoga are now being studied in medicine as a possible way to treat a variety of diseases. Studies have suggested that yoga may be an effective treatment for conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. So what about fertility?
One of the most common questions I hear as a fertility specialist is whether there is anything a couple can do themselves to help improve their chances of becoming pregnant. Can yoga improve the likelihood of achieving pregnancy in those struggling with infertility?
Unfortunately, the practice of yoga and how effective it is at helping couples achieve pregnancy has not been well studied to date. However, one thing we do know with more certainty is how stressful the diagnosis and treatment of infertility can be for a couple. Research has demonstrated that women who suffer from infertility find this condition as stressful as those with a new diagnosis of cancer. Furthermore, infertility ranks just behind death of a loved one and divorce with respect to the level of stress it causes.
Infertility treatment and stress
One of the most interesting studies to me, and one that really drove home just how disruptive infertility treatment can be in peoples’ lives, is a survey done in Sweden, a country where three cycles of in vitro fertilization (IVF) are generally covered by insurance. Couples who did not get pregnant after the first IVF cycle and who chose not to pursue another cycle of IVF were asked why they decided not to continue treatment. Surprisingly, one of the most common answers given was the psychological burden associated with fertility treatment.
This is where I think yoga can play a critical role in fertility therapy. Although yoga as an effective treatment for infertility has not been well studied, yoga has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety.
Studies suggest that the regular practice of yoga is effective at attenuating the stress response by altering the chemical cascade in our bodies that typically occurs when we are exposed to physical or psychological stressors. Yoga has been shown to lower levels of cortisol, a hormone released during stressful situations. Increasingly, incorporation of more holistic approaches to fertility treatment to reduce the associated stress and anxiety are being evaluated and shown to be beneficial.
A study out of Boston compared infertility patients who participated in a mind-body program (which included relaxation training and yoga) to those who did not, and showed that the women who participated in the mind-body program had higher pregnancy rates. Thus, I think that integrating yoga as a complement to more traditional medical fertility therapy can certainly be of great value.