I’d say that most of us are smart enough to know that you can’t necessarily just get pregnant whenever you want. We know this logically, but when it’s time for us to try, we want it to happen immediately. We spend all these years preventing pregnancy and then when we finally decide we are ready for a baby, it’s a struggle! It’s not fair, and it’s often due to factors of which we are unaware- until we do some digging.
I want to share my fertility struggles and experiences to shed light on what I’ve learned through the process. I have 2 girls now, and I struggled with fertility with my first.
My husband and I planned on getting pregnant during the summer of 2015. I realize now that that might seem naive, but bear with me. I had been learning about the Paleo lifestyle since 2014, had completed a couple of sugar detoxes and was eating mostly healthy foods at the time. I went off birth control six months before we wanted to try (I had been on it for 8 years), and I researched prenatal vitamins and began taking them right away.
My cycle regulated quickly after being off the pill, and I just knew we’d get pregnant right away. I was doing everything “right.”
Well, life threw us a curve ball, big time. My dad was diagnosed with a glioblastoma brain tumor in April 2015. It is an aggressive form of brain cancer with a median life expectancy of 11-14 months. My immediate family- mom, sister, brother and I- all dove into caregiver mode. We were determined to beat this thing. I continued to eat healthfully even during hospital visits and crazy schedule changes. I knew that if I maintained my own health and nutrition then I’d be better equipped to help the family and my dad. I knew I could be a source of strength in the family and support my mom who was clearly devastated. I really felt like I was doing everything right and still setting myself up for success with fertility. I didn’t want to put our family plans on hold because of this. In fact, it was all the more reason to start trying. If my dad wasn’t going to be around for many more years, I wanted him to at least have the chance to meet my baby.
It turned out that, despite my efforts to keep it all together, my body absorbed the stress and started reaping the consequences. The month we started trying (July 2015, three months after Dad’s diagnosis) was the first month I lost my cycle. In hindsight, it was a cruel joke nature played on me. I thought I was pregnant! I took test after test after test with negative results. I finally went to see my OB who confirmed I wasn’t pregnant and put me on progesterone pills to stimulate my cycle. This “worked” in that I got a period, but it didn’t fix the underlying problem. Therefore, after this period I didn’t get another one for 60 more days. My cycle was all jacked up and it seemed like it was up to me to fix it. After all was said and done, these were the lengths of my cycles (in days) once I started trying to conceive: 45, 60, 75, 39, 34, 30. That adds up to about 9.5 months of trying to get my body back.
I read and listened and read some more about fertility. I eventually received a book recommendation from a friend, and this changed the course of my journey. It was called How to Conceive Naturally and Have a Healthy Pregnancy After 30, by Christa Orecchio and Willow Buckley. This book is full of nutrition and supplement tips, self-assessment techniques and other strategies to boost fertility. I took the recommendations to heart. I took my temperature dozens of times in attempts to assess ovulation and thyroid function. I purchased yellow maca root and dong quai supplements, I continued to implement a “palealmost” diet, and I purchased bioavailable progesterone cream. I started drinking red raspberry leaf tea. You can find the full list of strategies I implemented below- I was willing to try anything.
My goal was to rebalance my hormones so that my body would regulate a cycle again. I needed to teach my body that it could be a hospitable environment for pregnancy. Our bodies are so smart and intuitive, and in times of stress they recognize that they might not be the best vessel to maintain a growing new life. Fertility health is sacrificed in times of extreme stress. The nutrients meant to balance such hormones are recruited to manage other body functions instead- the ones meant to help you survive. Literally, your body steals progesterone which helps regulate your cycle and uses it to make the stress hormone cortisol. Therefore, the lack of available progesterone left prevents your body from recognizing its time to shed the uterine lining and you stop getting a period. No cycle, no pregnancy.
Things I tried in order to regulate my cycle and boost my fertility:
- healthy diet of mostly gluten-free foods
- reduced sugar intake for hormone balance
- red raspberry leaf tea
- yellow maca root capsules for hormone regulation
- dong quai tincture for reproductive health
- prenatal vitamins to ensure I was building up nutrient supplies for baby
- fermented cod liver oil to promote healthy cell membrane growth
- bone broth for gut healing, digestive support, immune support
- apple cider vinegar concoction (Bragg’s ACV, ginger, turmeric, honey and water) for gut health
- vitamin C for boosted progesterone levels
- vitamin B6 for sex hormone balance (boost progesterone, control estrogen)
- bioavailable progesterone cream for hormone rebalance/supplementation
- pH testing of my saliva and urine via strips to gauge alkalinity vs acidity of my body
- exercise via walking mostly for heart health and stress reduction
- Appointments with OB/GYN and PCP to report and discuss issues, get bloodwork, etc.
- Ovulation tracking (via strips purchased in bulk through Amazon)
- stress management/self care (see ideas below)
- social support– leaning on friends
- relationship support– remaining open with my husband, actively trying to put less pressure on trying to conceive, more focus on love and understanding
- Got rid of my FitBit (potential EMF impact– topic for another day)
The things I was trying must have been working, because my cycle was slowly getting back to normal. Of course it’s hard to know what had the greatest impact, but it was likely a combination of healthy intake of food and supplements as well as stress management. The first month that my cycle was within the “normal” range of 28-32 days was the month we conceived.
What does a healthy diet for fertility entail? Well, according to How to Conceive Naturally, it is recommended that we detoxify the body of things that can potentially impact fertility and then to support healthy hormone balance through a whole-foods omnivore approach. Strict reduction or elimination of caffeine, sugar, alcohol, soy, gluten and exposure to toxic household products is recommended. Addition of grass-fed and pastured meats, eggs, and raw dairy are vital. Bone broth and plenty of green vegetables and healthy fats will further support immune function and hormone balance and will crowd out the unhealthy stuff. If you’re focusing on these foods, you’re not eating the processed junk that lead to imbalances in the first place. I highly recommend this book to anyone of child-bearing age- not just those over 30! The information is easily understood and you can choose for yourself what to implement at your own pace. If you prefer a dictated plan, they have provided a 12-week preconception action plan for you with manageable steps to add each week.
I really can’t emphasize stress management enough. We all know someone who tried to get pregnant for so long that they resorted to IVF or adoption for their first child, only to conceive naturally after that while not really “trying.” I have to believe that stress played a big part in those scenarios. Not in the “a watched pot never boils” superstitious kind of way, but in the scientifically-proven-stress-related-hormonal-changes kind of way. Sometimes I think the hardest part of stress management is this pressure that we feel to reduce or eliminate our stress in the first place. Last time I checked, you can’t just quit your job, ignore a sick family member or not pay your mortgage bill. I was finally able to tackle the overwhelming topic of stress when I realized I didn’t have to eliminate the stressors, but rather manage my reaction to them and to build up my defenses against letting them take me down.
My stress began when my dad was diagnosed with cancer and my family dove head-first into caring for him. It was exacerbated when I began to struggle with fertility. Below are the ways I attempted to MANAGE- not reduce- my stress:
- meditation (I wasn’t great at keeping up with this)
- coloring (can be a form of meditation)
- baths with epsom salts and lavender essential oil
- listening to podcasts (about fertility, nutrition and other unrelated topics)
- listening to music
- driving in silence
- focus on getting 7+ hours of sleep per night
- watching uplifting or funny television
- meeting up with friends to go for walks
- walks by myself
- meeting with an actual counselor (this was helpful and I wish I would have kept up with it- I only had 2 sessions)
- talking to friends
- “Time-outs”– periods of time (for me it was weekends) where I actively chose to physically and mentally separate myself from the current stressful situation for self preservation
- reading hopeful and informative books about cancer (this was about dealing with my grief head-on as well as obtaining the peace of mind that comes with knowing you’re taking a proactive stance to help your sick family member. I would have done this regardless of the diagnosis. As a Questioner, it makes me feel better to inform myself).
I didn’t do each of these things daily, by any means. But I tried them all. If I had to nail down the MOST effective ones at helping me recharge and feel in better control of my emotions, they were “driving in silence” and “time-outs.” I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the power of sufficient sleep as well. I am fortunate to not have frequent sleep issues.
Driving in silence on my 45 minute commutes allowed me to be alone with my thoughts. I didn’t do it every day, but I would recognize when I needed it because I’d be listening to a podcast and completely zone out. I wouldn’t even remember the last few minutes of the drive and wonder how I got to that point on my route- I was on autopilot. Fairly consistently, I felt better after driving in silence. Sometimes it just felt good to be in quiet, but at others I’d use the time to talk through my feelings with myself out loud.
“Time-outs” were my weekends spent at home or with friends, away from my caregiving duties. My dad resided at the facility where I was working at the time (and where I still work at the time of writing this). As much as I love my family, I needed time away in order to recharge and prepare for another week of working and caring for my dad at the same time. After several months, I stopped checking in to see how things were going on the weekends. Every time I did, the negative energy I was left with afterwards stuck with me for hours. He was sick with a terminal illness that debilitated him, so there wasn’t a ton of positivity to report. There was enough doom and gloom to go around, and I had to stop attracting it during my “off” time. I had to remind myself that we delegated these days for a reason. Once I stopped, I was better able to achieve my goals for the weekends and I started each week with a positive energy to bring into Dad’s room. I think this was a valuable asset to him; he was always happy to see me. If it is at all possible to get a break from the main source of your stress, please take advantage of it and use it to recharge yourself. I know that this was nearly impossible for my mom, and it is like that for many others in stressful situations.
A note on journalling: this can encompass any creative writing, including blogs. Writing as a way of self-expression has always been incredibly healing for me. From boys and my long distance relationship, to friend and family quarrels, to my dad’s illness, there are a lot of heated topics within the spines of the many books I have filled over the years. Any time I have felt that I couldn’t shake off negative feelings, I found it helpful to write them down. Sometimes I learned things about myself that I didn’t realize prior, and sometimes it helped me to release the hurt in a tangible way and develop strategies to move forward productively. It even helps to read what I’ve written after the fact.
I have spent so much time discussing stress relief because stress is such a big factor in infertility. I plan to write a whole post on the topic of stress in the near future. I want to delve deeper into my ongoing experience with it and its impacts on many other aspects of health beyond fertility.
Bioavailable progesterone cream– I feel the need to explain myself on this one. My mom was diagnosed as having low progesterone during her second pregnancy, which caused her to have a miscarriage. Therefore, during her third pregnancy (with my brother) she was taking it supplementally. She was told that she wouldn’t be able to conceive again without it. Well, that was incorrect because she got pregnant with me, but then she was put back on it as a precaution to prevent miscarriage. So when I began to have difficulties with conceiving and had read about the link between low progesterone and stress, I took it upon myself to diagnose myself with the same problem (I know, I’m not a doctor). I bought bioavailable progesterone cream on Amazon from a reputable source and began using it in the second half of my cycle. I would pump it directly on to the inside of my forearms (didn’t touch it with my hands) and rub it in to the insides of my thighs as instructed. Once I got pregnant, I continued to use it until week 20 of pregnancy when the placenta is supposedly fully formed.
I will never know if progesterone cream made an impact for me, because despite my condition improving I was trying so many things that it’s hard to pinpoint the “winner”. At the time I truly felt like I was doing something for myself that the doctors wouldn’t or couldn’t do. In hindsight, prescribing myself medication was unwise. It didn’t seem to do me harm, but I read later that supplementing yourself with progesterone doesn’t necessarily mean it will be utilized for what you want it to. It could be adding more fuel to the cortisol fire and could exacerbate the problem. I was afraid that telling a doctor I was doing this would get me reprimanded, but in hindsight I don’t recommend medicating yourself without consulting a physician. I should have taken myself to a holistic practitioner or functional medicine doctor if I didn’t trust the allopathic doctors.
I was able to overcome the issues that caused my fertility struggles and I got pregnant after about ten months of trying. I really feel like I healed myself. In hindsight, ten months was not long and I empathize greatly with those who struggle far longer than me. I went on to have a very healthy and uneventful pregnancy. You can find my birth story here on the blog as well.
Lucky for me (and you readers), this story is much shorter.
I started tracking my ovulation 6 months ahead of planning to try to conceive this time. I wanted to know which days I was the most fertile and I wanted to take out the guesswork by knowing my cycle and any fluctuations it had during that time. I never really stopped taking my prenatal vitamins since I had just stopped breastfeeding a few months prior to trying to conceive this time. I should also note that I never went back on birth control after my daughter was born. My feelings on hormonal birth control are best left for another post. I will say, though, that I will never go back on the pill.
The first month that we tried appeared to be successful- I got an extremely faint line on a pregnancy test. I knew that even the faintest of lines was a positive result, but for some reason I wanted to temper my expectations. I told my husband and two best friends that it was “inconclusive.” Over the next few days the line got no darker, and one test even came back negative with no line in sight. Just when I was giving up hope, I got a darker line. And I got my period that day, a few days late.
It appears I had a chemical pregnancy. In this scenario, the sperm fertilizes the egg and the hormone HCG is released for a short period, but the embryo is not viable and never implants into the uterine wall. It is technically a miscarriage, but I did and do not think of it as such for myself. Yes, I thought I was possibly pregnant for 3 days, and it sucked when I realized I wasn’t. But for my own mental health I chose to not label it as a miscarriage. Women go through far, far worse than the glimmer of hope that I did. In any case, to each her own regarding how she deals with this.
The second month of trying was unsuccessful. It happens. No explanation that I can think of.
The third time was the charm with this one! After going through months of mental anguish with getting pregnant the first time around, I am eternally grateful that this time was so much easier. Despite having a toddler this time, I had fewer life stressors to deal with which seems to have made all the difference. I also learned from past mistakes and was able to set myself up for success with a healthy diet and supplementation plan, ovulation testing and strategic timing.
I had another uneventful pregnancy and another healthy baby girl. See her birth story on the blog as well!