When I learnt at a seminar I attended this week that mindfulness can increase DHEA and melatonin levels in our blood, I was intrigued.
As you may remember from the free book, ’19 ways you can contribute to increasing your chances of IVF success’, optimized melatonin levels can be associated with higher numbers and quality of eggs come IVF egg pick up day (1).
Similarly DHEA, or dehydroepiandrosterone, is a bit of a controversial IVF supplement which is believed to increase egg quality, especially for those with diminished ovarian reserve or who have been poor responders to IVF treatment. There needs to be more larger studies supporting and evaluating its use but from the preliminary evidence there is, it seems like DHEA could be beneficial to increasing the live birth rates for some women doing IVF.
For example, in a very small study with only 33 patients (2) they found that the live birth rates for women who had DHEA supplementation were 23% where as those women who did not take the supplementation had live birth rates of around 4% (remember, it was only a very small study and although an increased birth rate of 19% for taking a tablet seems great, it is ‘only’ an extra 5 births… but it is certainly a start and a step in the right direction). You absolutely need to check with your treating fertility specialist to check that DHEA would be suitable in your situation (so no off-grid, unapproved supplementation) but maybe if we can support levels naturally through mindfulness that can only be a good thing?
What about mindfulness
At the seminar, led by mindfulness expert and international best selling author, David Michie, a study which found that when people meditate for five years or more the DHEA in their blood stream is the equivalent to someone twelve years younger was discussed. DHEA depletes as we age and if we can have the DHEA of someone twelve years younger, could that lead us to the path of having eggs twelve years younger? It seems unlikely that such a direct correlation exists, but while looking for evidence to support this theory, I found other remarkable statistics linking DHEA to mindfulness. For example, did you know people who meditate have upto 44% more DHEA than those who don’t? (3)
Whilst looking for the ‘smoking gun’ linking DHEA, mindfulness and IVF, I found that the studies linking mindfulness to increasing DHEA were sometimes just only looking at male populations, sometimes it only looked as far as it impacted cardiovascular health… unfortunately I could not find any evidence that examined directly, or even indirectly, of how mindfulness impacts DHEA in women, women with fertility problems or women doing IVF.
Mindfulness Benefits for IVF
This then lead me to think, that if you want to increase your DHEA or melatonin levels, by all means giving mindfulness a go is definitely worth it for this reason alone. But ultimately, to achieve the results that you want in the quickest time possible (forget yesterday, who doesn’t want that baby, like, 3 years ago?!) with a more evidence based approach, you are best speaking to your fertility specialist to see if supplementation might be right for you.
But mindfulness has so much more to offer than just its influence on hormone levels.
For many women doing IVF, the process can become EVERYTHING. Everything you eat, everything you touch, everything you do, the plans you make, the plans you don’t make, it all becomes linked as to how it’s going to possibly increase or decrease your chances of a take home baby this cycle. It’s mentally exhausting. Practicing mindfulness gives you the opportunity to have that weight taken off your shoulders even for the shortest time while you are doing it.
We focus so much on eating right and taking the medications at the exact time in the exact way that we forget to take care of our mental health. But as David Michie highlights, when we look at our physical health, the absence of disease does not equate to health. We can be incredibly unhealthy physically, not at all ‘fit’ and still not have an actual disease process going on. Similarly, we may not have a mental health condition, such as anxiety, depression or otherwise, but that still is not to say we are actually mentally healthy either. Mindfulness is what helps you achieve a better state of mental wellbeing as exercise helps you achieve a better state of physical wellbeing.
Other benefits of mindfulness
When we are in our one thought IVF tracked mind it is hard to open up to other things and experiences. It is, understandably, easy to get resentful with the world – especially the 25 year old you share an office with who ‘boom!’ accidentally got pregnant. Giving yourself the head space to get out of that mindset even if it is just for a short period of time at first lets you feel less stressed, develop better coping strategies, become more accepting, innovative, creative and taking one more step towards living your most vivid life.
How to practice mindfulness
I’ve written about the benefits of mindfulness to IVF success rates in previous posts and also given some practical exercises for you to get started on. Although you can get benefits from day one, overall for the best results you need to practice mindfulness on a daily basis. As David Michie points out, you don’t go to the gym just the one time and then wonder why you haven’t got abs of steel. Similarly, don’t just practice mindfulness the one time before deciding it’s not for you. Like going to the gym, it seems there is direct correlation between the hours you put in and the impact it has.
But if you want a time frame to aim for, David Michie guarantees if you practice mindfulness five times a week for six weeks you’ll definitely see these rewards.
I write a lot about mindfulness in Eat Think Grow. In fact, there are mindfulness or mindset suggestions for every day of your cycle and it is specifically tailored for women doing IVF. It focuses on helping you through every step of your IVF cycle and is written from the perspective of someone who has been there and knows how you might be feeling.
There are also other mindfulness resources around, including apps such as ‘Insight Timer’ and ‘Smiling Mind’ and books such as ‘Why Mindfulness is Better than Chocolate’.
Like so many practices that will ultimately influence your quality of eggs and overall health, the key is just to start. If you are not ready to take the plunge into a more detailed mindfulness program, such as Eat Think Grow, for now just start the day taking three deep breaths. Breathing in for about 3 seconds and out for around six, focus on nothing but these breaths. Pay attention to the temperature of the air, the sound your breath makes, the rise of you abdomen as you breathe in and lowering as you breathe out. Let your thoughts only focus on these three breaths… It will certainly be a start in clearing away some of the unwanted and often negative thoughts that may be swirling around your mind.
To sum it up
Although it seems that there is still so much that is unknown about the mind-body connection, there is still so much information that supports that the way we think and feel can have a direct relation to our physical health. Already they have linked serotonin, cortisol and other steroids (which all potentially impact our IVF health) and here we have mentioned DHEA and melatonin.
While it is likely that by practicing mindfulness you will see an improvement in these hormone levels in a natural way (which is theoretically a great thing for egg health during IVF) the other benefits of mindfulness on your ability to cope and get through what for many women may be some of the most challenging times of their life, is equally, if not more so, important.
PS If you have any worrying thoughts that turn towards harming yourself, those around you, or you feel have gone on just a bit too long, make sure you speak to a health professional that knows you. There are many treatments out there – and some of which will be suitable for women doing IVF or, hopefully, about to be, pregnant.
- Fernando, S. & Rombauts, L. (2014) Melatonin: shedding light on infertility? – a review of the recent literature. Journal of Ovarian Research 7 98
- Wiser, A., Gonen, O., Ghetler, Y., Shavit, T., Berkovitz, A and Shulman, A. (2010). Addition of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) for poor-responder patients before and during IVF treatment improves the pregnancy rate: A randomized prospective study. Human Reproduction, 25 (10) 2496–2500