According to the infertility network, as many as 1 in 6 couples in the UK will experience fertility problems and perhaps you or someone you know are in that situation.
In my practice, I treat a huge number of couples who are thinking about or opting for In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF). IVF is a challenging and difficult process and not a decision that is taken lightly. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting my tips for how to cope with different aspects of the treatment. The reasons why people to turn to IVF are varied and complex and are far too many for me to cover. Instead, I have chosen to look at the treatment itself, what may be involved (in general terms, as treatment will always be tailored for each patient) and what you may be able to do to help yourself as you go through the treatment.
Whilst my experience may be fairly wide, it is by no means exhaustive so if you wish to add your own comments, experiences or tips, please feel free to do so. If you would prefer to keep them anonymous, you can always email me directly (email@example.com) and I will be happy to post them for you.
Tests, more tests and preparing to start treatment
IVF. Just the mention of it conjures up images of laboratories with rows of babies in test tubes. The reality is that, yes, it is a clinical process but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. These days, many of us simply need a little help trying to conceive. Whether it is down to the impact of modern lifestyles, genetic issues or something else entirely, there is no denying that more and more couples are turning to options such as IVF in an effort to get pregnant. Reports from the HFEA (the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which monitors all clinics) show that in 2011, 2% of all babies born in the UK were conceived using IVF and the number of IVF cycles has increased almost annually since 1991.
If you have reached the stage where you are considering IVF, you have more than likely explored all your options and yet you still might not know the exact reason why conceiving a child is just not happening. If you have been through the treatment already, you will be well versed in what is involved and how to prepare yourself but for any couple or individual about to start their first cycle, it can be a bewildering and overwhelming time.
Getting yourself ready
As I keep mentioning, IVF is not an easy treatment and the more you look after yourself, the better. When you start to consider if this is the way to go for you, that is the time to also start thinking about how to prepare yourself, physically and emotionally, as much as you can. Before any treatment starts, your hospital or clinic may require you and your partner to go for various tests . Since treatment will start at a specific point in your cycle, you will possibly have a couple of months to start thinking about looking after yourself. Although it is impossible to know how you will react to the treatment, by which I mean how you might react to the drugs prescribed for example, there are key areas to consider in the run up to help prepare yourself and to give you the best possible chance of conceiving.
Everyone reacts differently to IVF and people even react differently to the same drugs in different cycles. Whether you sail through it with barely any side effects or find it more difficult, taking care of yourself during this time is absolutely vital. The following are simply areas for you to consider as you approach the start of your treatment and I will come back to some of them in more detail in future posts. The nearere you get to starting your treatment, the more important it is to look after both your physical and mental needs.
- Stress – We all know that stress can be a key factor in trying to conceive, whether naturally or with help. IVF in itself can be stressful with side effects from the drugs, the worry over whether it will work, time constraints, to say nothing of the cost if you are funding it yourself. Whilst you may not be able to influence those factors, are there other stressors that you may be able to do something about such as work/life balance? Whilst you may not be able to take weeks off during treatment, can you perhaps reduce your hours occasionally or work from home?
- Social events – You don’t have to become a recluse whilst you are going through IVF but be aware that you may not always feel up to going out. You may also need to to alter plans according to when you need to take your medication, as some of it will need to be kept refrigerated and will need to be taken at approximately the same time each day. However, remember that each stage of treatment doesn’t necessarily last very long so it won’t be forever. Alcohol consumption can also be a tricky one during IVF.Obviously the less you and your partner drink the better but it can be difficult if you are trying to keep it from other people and want to avoid awkward questions. If you are attending a social event where it will be noticed that you aren’t drinking alcohol, you can either try long drinks , where it is easier to disguise that there is no alcohol in it or keep a half full glass of wine in your hand. At the end of the day, how much you drink is your own decision and the odd glass of something before you start treatment or during the first stage before egg collection is unlikely to make any difference in the outcome of your cycle. Once you know when your treatment is going to start, you and your partner might want to agree dates when you either cut down or stop drinking. Communication between you about how you are both feeling as you go through your treatment will become more and more important and I will come back to this later on.
- Complementary therapies – Many clinics now recommend trying acupuncture or reflexology both before and during IVF treatment for both you and your partner. Experienced practitioners will tailor the treatment to suit your needs and will always take into account whereabouts you are in your IVF cycle so that you can relax fully. Whilst there are no guarantees that either treatment will improve your chances, it should certainly help you relax, reduce stress and may help with some of the side effects of the drugs. Do make sure of two things before you book; firstly that you find a practitioner who is aware of the different stages of IVF and how to tailor your sessions accordingly and secondly, that it doesn’t become stressful for you to fit this in amongst everything else in your diary as this greatly devalues the benefits of going at all.
- Nutrition and supplements – There is a wealth of nutritional information available on the internet to do with pregnancy and whilst some things are simply down to common sense, if you feel you need a little help my recommendation would be to find a good nutritionist. They can not only recommend what foods to specifically include before and during IVF but also what supplements you may want to take and/or avoid. If you take any supplements other than Folic Acid, do check with your clinic that it is ok to continue with them.
- Exercise – Studies indicate that if you are physically good shape before pregnancy, your recovery is likely to be easier. It may not increase your chances of success but you may find it beneficial in terms of reducing stress levels and doing something that feels normal. Starting a new exercise regime after treatment begins will be hard, so right now is the time to do it. After eggs have been fertilised and implanted, low impact exercise such as yoga, swimming and walking are recommended and it’s best to avoid anything involving high heat or a risk of falling. If your body is used to a certain level of exercise, you might be completely fine continuing with that during treatment but don’t feel pressured into it. If it feels good, that’s great but if it doesn’t feel right for you, don’t do it.
- Counseling – Hospital and clinic staff treat many patients for IVF and are very used to the process but that may not be the case for you, particularly if this is your first cycle. Fertility problems can be a strain mentally and there is nothing wrong with getting help to deal with it. You may well be offered a few free counseling sessions if you are going through your IVF cycle on the NHS or you may wish to consider private sessions. Not everyone feels they need counseling but it can be a comfort to talk to someone who understands the process, particularly if you choose not to tell friends or family about it. There are also plenty of online forums where you can chat with people going through IVF cycles at the same time if you want something more informal. These can be helpful if you have general questions about symptoms, side effects or just need a little support from someone who is in the same situation as you. Your hospital or clinic will also be available to answer any medical related questions you have and you shouldn’t hesitate to make use of this as they are the experts.
The above is really just an introduction to just a few topics that may come up as you begin thinking about IVF and approaching the start of your cycle. As I mentioned, I will be covering a few of them in more detail in future posts. Above all, remember why you are starting this process. The progress made in IVF in recent years is truly incredible and research is ongoing to improve treatment all the time. It would be unrealistic to say it’s an easy process and even with the best treatment on offer there are no guarantees it will work but it can increase your chances of conceiving.