Struggling with infertility? You’re not alone: 6.1 million women in the United States have experienced the heartache that comes from wanting a child and not being able to get pregnant. There are endless emotional, mental, and physical obstacles that present themselves throughout the journey to pregnancy. Deciding to go through IVF is one of them. According to recent research, about 1 million babies have been born in the U.S. using assisted reproductive technology (ART), including in vitro fertilization.
Even knowing that your odds of a successful pregnancy using IVF are high, going through it is challenging. From the time you begin IVF all the way through to the end, one of the best things you can do for yourself (and future child) is to stay healthy. In this post, we’ll share actionable tips for preserving your mental, emotional, and physical health through every stage of IVF.
How does IVF impact your physical health?
Throughout the process of IVF, your body undergoes a lot of changes. These can largely be attributed to the commonly used fertility drugs: Clomiphene, Gonadotropin, and human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). These drugs are a key part of IVF and are used to, in a nutshell, control your ovulation. Each of these hormonal injections is given at different points during an IVF cycle, with all of them typically falling within a 10-day window. Each come with their own set of side effects and can impact your physical health. Let’s look at each one further.
The first fertility drug you’ll encounter during IVF are Gonadotropins — 2 naturally occurring hormones, luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), produced by the pituitary gland. During IVF, you’ll be given gonadotropin injections to use every day. This stimulates your ovaries to produce eggs, which will later be stimulated by clomiphene for ovulation.
If you have a normal menstrual cycle and don’t have trouble ovulating on your own, you may only be given an FSH injection. If you don’t have regular menstrual cycles or have low levels of LH and FSH, you’ll likely be given an injection that contains both hormones. This varies by individual; only your fertility specialist will be able to tell you which type of gonadotropin makes sense for you.
Side effects of gonadotropins
Overall, gonadotropins are not known to cause any direct side effects. Though not common, some women taking gonadotropins can develop ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), which can be life-threatening. If you have any of the following symptoms while taking this fertility drug, call your doctor immediately:
- Stomach pain
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- Rapid weight gain, especially in your face and midsection
- Little or no urinating
- Pain when you breathe, rapid heart rate, feeling short of breath (especially when lying down).
- Pelvic pain or pressure, enlargement of your pelvic area
- Seeing flashes of light or “floaters” in your vision
- Increased sensitivity of your eyes to light
- Heavy vaginal bleeding
Also known by the brand names Clomid or Serophene, clomiphene citrate signals to your brain that your body isn’t producing enough estrogen, causing it to release 3 fertility-related hormones:
- GnRH (gonadotropin-releasing hormone)
- FSH (follicle stimulating hormone)
- LH (luteinizing hormone)
Then, due to the flood of these hormones, your ovaries are stimulated and begin to produce eggs and ovulate. This fertility medication is often prescribed to women who have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) — a reproductive condition that can prevent ovulation. Even if you don’t have trouble ovulating, clomiphene is used during IVF to stimulate your ovaries to produce more eggs. Typically, you’ll start clomiphene between the 3rd and 5th day after you start your period and begin ovulating 7 to 10 days after you take your last clomiphene pill. Of course, if your cycle is irregular, this can take longer. Your doctor will monitor your ovulation and make adjustments according to your individual needs.
Side effects of clomiphene
Clomiphene usually only has mild side effects, though this can vary from person to person. These physical side effects can include:
- Hot flashes
- Breast pain or tenderness
- Blurred vision
As with gonadotropins, OSHH can occur and the symptoms should be addressed by your doctor right away.
Human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG)
Your last fertility drug in an IVF cycle is hCG, also referred to as the “trigger shot.” While related to the gonadotropins previously mentioned, it works differently. It’s injected about 36 hours before your egg retrieval and stimulates your ovarian follicles to mature and release your eggs.
Side effects of hCG
Similar to both Clomiphene and Gonadotropins, side effects from hCG are often mild and can include:
- Hot flashes
- Blurred vision
- Breast tenderness or swelling
There’s also the chance of OSHH, like with most fertility treatments.
How can I stay physically healthy during IVF?
Now that we’ve gone over the potential side effects from fertility medications you’ll use during IVF, let’s take a look at the bigger picture. All of the above side effects should be addressed by your fertility specialist but, regardless of whether you experience them or not, one of your main focuses, as you go through IVF, should be your physical health. Just as when you were trying to conceive naturally, your body needs to remain healthy in order to support a healthy pregnancy. However, there are some specifics you should keep in mind during IVF.
Exercising during IVF
Exercising while trying to conceive has many benefits: weight management, stress relief, improved hormonal balance, and, for men, improved sperm quality, count, and motility. But is there a difference between how much and how intensely you should exercise when TTC naturally and when TTC through IVF?
In short, yes. When you’re trying to get pregnant naturally, the American Heart Association recommends about 30 minutes of low- to moderate-intensity aerobic exercise 5 days a week and muscle-strengthening activity at least 2 days a week.
While some doctors will recommend that you “take it easy,” research done at the University of North Carolina Chapel-Hill found that, of 108 IVF patients, the most active “tripled their chances of a pregnancy compared to the least active.” But most active doesn’t mean “high-intensity exercise” but, instead, regular moderate exercise. The main point the research makes is that exercise helps to lower insulin levels — when insulin is too high, you run the risk of harming your eggs.
Some exercises you can do during IVF include:
- Gentle yoga
- Riding a stationary bike
- Light jogging
- Dancing or Zumba
Of course, before you begin any type of exercise, you should talk to your doctor.
Eating well during in vitro fertilization
Another piece of the ever-complex IVF puzzle is your diet. Eating nutritiously is always important, from the time you begin trying to get pregnant, through any type of fertility treatment, as well as during and after pregnancy. There are as many different opinions on eating well during IVF as there are eggs in your ovaries. The best plan of action for staying physically healthy through your diet is to eat whole, unprocessed foods, limit alcohol consumption (ideally avoiding it entirely during IVF), and scaling back on the amount of sugar you consume.
Mental and emotional health during IVF
In an earlier article on the Stork OTC blog, we quoted a Vice article that lends itself particularly well to the topic of mental health during fertility: “many fertility patients may not be getting the mental health treatment they need. A survey of patients at five California fertility clinics published in the July 2016 issue of Fertility and Sterility shows that few were offered counseling. Despite more than half of the women and one-third of men displaying clinical-level depression symptoms and 76 percent of women and 61 percent of men displaying anxiety symptoms, only one-quarter of patients said their clinic offered them information on mental health resources.”
There’s no denying that IVF, or any fertility treatment for that matter, can take a toll on your mental and emotional wellbeing. It’s a lot of pressure to be under, both from yourself and from the people around you. So, how do you stay healthy during IVF when the weight of trying to get pregnant, manage your finances, maintain a relationship, and just keep your life flowing smoothly is bearing down?
It’s not always easy but it is incredibly important. Here are some tips for maintaining and improving your emotional and mental well being during IVF and beyond:
- Talk to a therapist — Whether you go alone or you seek out couples counseling, having a third party to help you learn coping skills and work through any issues that come up can be incredibly beneficial.
- Take a break from baby talk — While you and your partner both want to have a child, talking about it all the time can put a strain on your relationship which, in turn, can lead to a lot of unnecessary stress. Try setting aside time that isn’t about trying to have a baby but is just for you and your relationship.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for support — Talking about infertility can be a challenge. There is still a taboo around it that often makes women (and men) feel ashamed. But during IVF, you really do need a support system around you that can lift you up when you’re down, as well as be there to celebrate successes and milestones.
- Meditate — Ok, so meditation may seem like a “basic” answer but studies have found it to be helpful in reducing stress and alleviating depression.
- If you’re depressed, talk to your doctor about fertility-safe medication — When your brain chemicals are out of balance, depression and anxiety can occur. This is nothing to be ashamed of and is, in fact, very common. Most importantly, talk to your doctor to find out if there’s a medication that is safe for you to take during IVF.
Staying healthy during IVF doesn’t have to be hard. In the long run, all of the work you put into your health before and during IVF will benefit you, your partner, and your future child for years to come.