Should I stop drinking coffee? How do I balance my hormones? What should my partner be eating? What should he be drinking? How do you get healthy sperm? Help!
When you’re trying to conceive, it can often feel like you’re back on Google every few minutes with a new question. So, we thought we’d speak to leading naturopath and author of Healthy Hormones Belinda Kirkpatrick and ask them for you. From fertility-boosting foods to the role of lifestyle in fertility, you won’t want to miss a word of this interview.
There’s a discussion in the culture about how people wear “busyness,” like a badge of honour — but there’s a certain amount of shame associated with admitting that you’re stressed out and overwhelmed. Why is that?
I find this really disappointing because achievement and being busy are often seen as positive attributes but many people still associate being stressed out or overwhelmed with being ‘weak’ or not being able to cope. What many people might not realise is that the impact of being constantly busy or overachieving and feeling stressed out or overwhelmed result in the same chemical stress response from the body so we really all need to be slowing down and looking after ourselves and each other.
Talk us through the role cortisol and adrenaline play in our lives and how they impact our health and wellbeing? When did stress become such a big part of being human – where have we gone wrong?
Our adrenal glands secrete cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones when we are exposed to stress. This release of stress hormones is designed to help us to get out of a dangerous situation, like running away from a lion. After the danger has passed, our bodies stop releasing these stress hormones and is able to get out of the ‘fight-or-flight’ system and move into ‘rest-and-digest’, also known as the parasympathetic nervous system. It is in this system that our bodies focus on increasing immunity, digestion, absorbing nutrients, self-repair, procreation and keeping a healthy hormone balance. Sadly, in our modern world, we are often stressed, busy and rushing. Our bodies don’t know the difference between this type of stress and running away from the lion so our adrenal glands continue to secrete adrenaline and cortisol and our bodies become stuck in fight-or-flight. This can make many of us feel ‘tired but wired’ or anxious or unable to sleep which just further triggers our stress response. In some cases, our bodies can become very adrenally depleted and we can crash or experience burn-out.
How, in your opinion, does stress impact fertility?
Stress can impact fertility in many ways and research shows that stress is associated with longer time to conception (1). If our body senses we are in danger (when our fight-or-flight response is activated), reproduction is not high on the body’s list of priorities and our fertility can be affected. Healthy progesterone production is required for conception and pregnancy maintenance however, cortisol and progesterone are made in the body with many of the same ingredients, but the body will make preferentially produce cortisol to keep us safe (rather than progesterone which keeps us fertile). Stress can also impact fertility by reducing our libido and making us less likely to want to attempt conception.
Stress before conception can also impact the health of the potential baby. A 2017 study found that perceived maternal preconception stress was associated with an increased risk of offspring atopic eczema at age 12 months (2). In saying this, it is important to not be stressed about being stressed! Just acknowledge it and try to implement some stress management techniques. Remember that babies are conceived and born in all sorts of stressful situations around the world and while that might not be ideal, it is important to remember.
When a woman is about to undergo IVF, can you share some of the things you will advise her to do?
1. Avoid all alcohol, coffee and drugs for ideally three months before starting IVF.
2. Avoid sugar.
3. Increase veggies and protein with each meal. Aim for 4-5 cups of veggies/salad daily. Following a Mediterranean-style diet has the best outcomes for IVF and fertility.
4. Keep your grains/starchy carbs at less than 25% of each meal.
5. Avoid intensive exercise like HIIT and running and opt for daily walks on cycle.
6. Drink 2-3L of water daily.
7. Aim to do a daily mindfulness App before bed every night to help manage stress.
8. Take it easy on the weekends and learn to say no – now is not the time to be rushing around.
9. Take a good quality folate in addition to a multivitamin, CoQ10 and a probiotic.
10. Consult a fertility naturopath for individual diet and supplement advice.
What about men – how should they prepare for IVF?
Men are responsible for 50% of the potential baby so it is important that they are also on board. I would recommend following the same exact guidelines as above (but they can continue their regular exercise program). Don’t forget that regular ejaculation helps to create healthy sperm so continue to ejaculate at least 2 x weekly.
We all have stress triggers – how do you coach your clients to deal with these triggers – what are some practical tips?
Trying to conceive can be a time of excitement and anticipation but also a time of huge stress and anxiety for those who have been trying to conceive without success or have suffered pregnancy loss. The impact of this stress can affect relationships, friendships, finances, sleep quality and so much more. I often suggest these stress management techniques and would recommend them to everyone, don’t wait until you are super-stressed to try them.
• Aim to do a mindfulness app before bed each night (Smiling Mind, Headspace, Calm)
• Take 10 x slow deep breaths daily
• Ensure enough sleep (7-9 hours is ideal)
• Learn to say ‘no’
• Exercise plus daily walking
• Phone/technology free time
• See a psychologist for extra help as required
How does stress impact relationships?
Stress can impact relationships in many ways and can place additional strain on couples who are experiencing fertility problems or undergoing IVF. Stress can affect our mood and the way we behave or interact with our loved ones and research shows that relationships often suffer when people are under stress (3). For those attempting natural conception, sex can begin to feel very clinical and unromantic or men may develop temporary problems with sexual function from the pressure and lack of positive results. In these situations, I usually recommend that couples make an effort to spend some good quality time together and ensure that they are being intimate at times away from the fertile window to help reduce any pressure associated with trying to conceive. When you have been trying for some time, there can be intense emotional stress when it feels like everyone on social media or all your friends are magically falling pregnant ‘so easily’. The stress and impact of subfertility is often not spoken about publically and many of your friends or relatives may not even know of your struggles. Even though you are happy for them, it can be really difficult hearing about other people’s successes so please know that you are not alone if you are feeling this way. Sometimes life just isn’t fair and that injustice can feel overwhelming. People deal with this in different ways so remember to be kind to yourself, reach out to your support networks and consider seeing a counsellor or psychologist if you need some extra help.
You were widowed 15 years ago, leaving you to finish university, raise two small babies, start your business and complete your Masters on your own – how did you cope? How did you put your health first during this time? What did you learn about stress during this time?
I certainly learned a lot about stress that’s for sure. After the unexpected death of my fiancé, body was stuck in fight-in-flight for a long time. To be honest, I am not sure how I coped. I was four months pregnant and had an 18-month-old so I just had to take each day at a time because I still needed to look after my daughter and try to nourish my pregnant body at a time when eating was the least of my priorities. I probably didn’t really focus on putting my own health first at the time but I was still very committed to creating a healthy and low-tox environment with nourishing wholefoods for my children so the food we ate was always healthy which kept me healthy too. After spending a couple of years on auto-pilot with waves of unrelenting grief, I had a moment where I realized that I had to choose life. I was the only parent that my girls had and I needed to be healthy and there for them and show them how to live life to the fullest which is what their daddy would have wanted me to do. I learnt that tragedy and stress are indiscriminant and a part of everyone’s life in some way. Whether it is death, illness, loss, fertility problems, financial problems or mental health issues, stress is sadly unavoidable but it is how we learn and choose to deal with stress that helps us to cope and grow.
We are often told our hormones are out of imbalance – can you talk us through your book Healthy Hormones?
Absolutely! ‘Healthy Hormones’ is a naturopathic and nutritional wealth of information designed for women from 16-45 years who want to take an active interest in optimizing their hormonal health and understand more about themselves and the way that food and nutrition can improve their hormonal health. ‘Healthy Hormones’ helps women to improve their hormonal health and symptoms by providing nutritional and dietary advice for common symptoms and conditions. This advice is given in an easy to read, user-friendly format with an emphasis on balance, moderation and having fun! It is all about learning how to take control of your hormones and feel your best and focuses on crowding out the bad stuff by increasing the good stuff. Your body naturally wants to heal and move towards good health so be gentle with yourself and allow flexibility! ‘Healthy Hormones’ is also designed to help women who are planning conception, currently trying to conceive, undergoing IVF or have experienced miscarriage(s) and want to take an active role in improving their outcomes and increasing their fertility.
If someone experienced a miscarriage, how would you treat them?
Researchers reveal that one in five pregnancies result in miscarriage while in many more cases it goes undetected. These are really sad statistics and everyone would know someone who has been affected by miscarriage. Some causes of miscarriage include:
- Thyroid problems
- Progesterone insufficiency
- Genetic and chromosomal problems
- Auto-immunity and antibody production
I create an individualised preconception health care plans for each client to help reduce the risk of miscarriage. These plans include diet and lifestyle advice in addition to herbal medicines and nutritional supplements as required. In cases where single or multiple losses have been suffered, I use the latest medical testing to investigate the cause of the miscarriage so that it can be treated and the chance of it happening again reduced. These tests may include genetic testing, antibody testing, hormonal analysis and more.
What foods do you encourage your clients to eat if they’re trying to fall pregnant?
I always recommend an unprocessed wholefoods diet and encourage my clients to ensure they have a source of ‘protein, good fats and something fresh (ideally veggies)’ with each meal and most snacks. What is not part of these essentials are the carbohydrate foods (such as rice, bread, pasta, cereal, crackers). It is not that you can’t have these foods but they should be the accompaniment to a meal, not the basis of it. Alcohol and coffee should be avoided and sugar only consumed infrequently as a treat (maybe once a week). Always check the ingredient list of any packaged foods and avoid added sugar.
My top fertility-friendly foods to include:
5. Brazil nuts
6. Chia seeds
10. Leafy greens
Belinda Kirkpatrick is an expert nutritionist and naturopath with over 15 years clinical experience. Besides running a busy clinic, Belinda lectures in nutrition and naturopathy and is a regular television and media presenter on health and dietary topics. Last year, Belinda published her first book Healthy Hormones with Ainsley Johnstone, which features expert naturopathic advice, 50 recipes plus tips on lifestyle and nutrition. Belinda also manages a private Facebook group called ‘Healthy Hormones with Belinda Kirkpatrick’ which all women are welcome to join. ‘Healthy Hormones’ is available for purchase at all good bookstores.
1. C.D. Lynch, R. Sundaram, J.M. Maisog, A.M. Sweeney, G.M. Buck Louis; Preconception stress increases the risk of infertility: results from a couple-based prospective cohort study —the LIFE study, Human Reproduction, Volume 29, Issue 5, 1 May 2014, Pages 1067–1075, https://doi.org/10.1093/humrep/deu032
2. Maternal stress and psychological distress preconception: association with offspring atopic eczema at age 12 months – Clin Exp Allergy. 2017 June; 47(6): 760–769. doi:10.1111/cea.12910. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5447366/pdf/emss-71653.pdf
3. Falconier, Mariana & Nussbeck, Fridtjof & Bodenmann, Guy & Schneider, Hulka & Bradbury, Thomas. (2014). Stress From Daily Hassles in Couples: Its Effects on Intradyadic Stress, Relationship Satisfaction, and Physical and Psychological Well-Being. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. 41. 10.1111/jmft.12073.