Infertility treatment is stressful: everyone else seems to be getting pregnant; why can’t you? So what if there were an evidence-based method that could dramatically increase the success of in-vitro fertilization, or IVF?
A new study published online in the journal Fertility and Sterility found that women who participate in mind-body training have a significantly higher pregnancy rate than women who don’t undergo training: 52% compared to 20%.
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“It’s a strong indication that learning stress management tools before and during an IVF cycle can have a significant positive impact on pregnancy rates,” says Alice Domar, principal investigator and director of mind/body services at Boston IVF, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “With IVF, physicians feel their medicines control every aspect of an IVF cycle and there is no room for stress. My observation is yes, there is.”
Domar has trained more than 100 mind-body practitioners in skills including meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga and body scan relaxation (relaxing one body part at a time, in conjunction with your breath). She also teaches cognitive strategies that help patients challenge negative — and often irrational — beliefs. “The average IVF patient will come in saying, I won’t be happy unless I have a biolgical child, and end up saying, I am doing everything I can to get pregnant,” says Domar.
Lifestyle habits are also discussed: research on the effects of nicotine, exercise, caffeine and alcohol are shared in the interest of influencing patients to make good choices. “Not every technique works for everyone,” says Domar. “It’s like ice cream flavors. Not everyone likes every flavor so we offer a lot of flavors.”
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There are pockets in the U.S. where mind-body training in conjunction with IVF is particularly popular — Chicago, California, Florida, Boston — but most clinics are able to refer patients to a trained professional even if there is no one on staff.
An earlier study that looked at all infertility patients — not just those doing IVF — found a 55% take-home-baby rate in mind-body patients versus a 20% rate in a control group. That study was criticized as being too heterogeneous, so Domar zeroed in on IVF patients this time, recruiting 143 women at Boston IVF who had just been told they needed IVF after most had gone through at least three cycles of less intensive infertility treatment. Half were placed in a mind-body group, half in a control group.
In their first IVF cycle, during which only 9% had attended at least half the 10 mind-body sessions, there was no difference in pregnancy rates: it was 43% for both groups. In the second cycle, in which 76% had completed at least half the program, the mind-body group had a 52% success rate compared to 20% for the control group. (Domar says the plunge in the control-group’s pregnancy rate is not overly surprising because women with the best prognosis for IVF will often get pregnant right away.)
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“We know a mind-body program helps feel better mentally and physically, and now we also know it can lead to increased pregnancy rates with IVF,” says Domar. “At the very least you will feel less depressed and less anxious. If you were my sister or best friend and you were about to do an IVF cycle, I’d do everything in my power to help you find out about a mind-body program.”