When the Student is Ready . . .
As the old saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Thankfully, the teacher, Heather Grzych, has appeared with her book: The Ayurvedic Guide to Fertility. The students are ready, and the need is urgent.
I’ve had many patients come to me for fertility, but one immediately comes to mind: an extremely stressed, high-strung, type-A 39-year-old medical doctor, who demanded she get pregnant within the next three months because after that she had some prescheduled events that she could not miss.
She calculated that she had about a four-week window she could take off work in the next year to deliver the baby and then get back to her 80-hour workweeks. For her plan to work, she had to get pregnant soon. I told her that babies have their own schedule and it is impossible and unwise to try to control their arrival. When I proposed revising her plan to include pregnancy preparation, nesting, and dialing down her workload, it only irritated her.
I have been practicing Ayurveda full-time since 1986. While I do not consider myself a fertility expert, my Ayurvedic practice has attracted scores of fertility patients, most in their late thirties or early forties. In some cases, infertility requires Western medical intervention. Ayurveda, however, addresses this issue from a truly holistic perspective: it considers the mind, the body, and the spirit.
The number of childless women has doubled since the 1970s. In a study of more than 8,800 women and 6,200 men between 2010 and 2012, 57% of women and 53% of men sought help with infertility.
Why are modern women having trouble getting pregnant?
In the West, the first visit to a midwife or obstetrician takes place weeks after the pregnancy has been discovered. In the East, the first visit to an Ayurvedic doctor typically takes place six months to a year before conception. It is understood that the health of both mom and baby during and after pregnancy depends on the practice of time-tested Ayurvedic wisdom.
The first step of pregnancy planning and prep is the nesting process, where the mother and father prepare a safe environment in which to bring the new baby into the world. Studies support the ancient wisdom of pregnancy preparation, linking prenatal stress to issues related to maternal health, fetal health, and human development across the life span. Unfortunately, as Heather Grzych eloquently points out, we live in an extremely fast-paced, stressful time, and women have been forced to live up to unrealistic standards. While being a mom was once a full-time job, many mothers today must serve as the chauffeur, soccer fan, cook, school liaison, social coordinator, and travel planner, all while holding down a pressure-ridden job. Many start out by trying to get pregnant, deliver, and care for an infant while already having a full plate of other responsibilities outside the home.
Trying to conceive in these conditions is as impossible as a doe getting pregnant while being chased by a mountain lion. Getting pregnant requires a parasympathetic dominance in the nervous system that delivers a feeling of safety and security, according to Ayurveda. Stress has been argued to be a cause of infertility since ancient times, and today’s studies back this up. In one study, 40 percent of infertile women were shown to experience chronic stress, anxiety, or depression prior to their first infertility clinic visit.
Let us take female doctors as an example. In a study of six hundred female physicians, 24 percent of those who had attempted conception were diagnosed with infertility—nearly double the national average—another example linking prenatal stress with infertility.
Of course, this does not suggest that all infertility is due to chronic stress, depression, or anxiety. In fact, not all studies conclusively link prenatal stress to infertility. However, there is overwhelming evidence that once a woman is diagnosed with infertility, her levels of stress, anxiety, and depression all go up, further complicating fertility. Counseling to reduce infertility-related stress and anxiety has been shown in a handful of studies to successfully boost pregnancy rates.
How does Ayurveda address fertility issues?
Pregnancy preparation is not a simple matter of changing a work or travel schedule; it is a process of slowing down in all areas of both parents’ life. According to Ayurveda, the father’s job is to fulfill the desires of the mother, including those wild cravings at 2am. The dad is in charge of ensuring the mother’s comfort, happiness, and joy by creating a calm, safe, peaceful environment, called sattva in Ayurveda. Peaceful, sattvic, supportive actions, such as touch, kindness, and caregiving between adults have been shown to boost oxytocin, a birthing, bonding, and longevity hormone.
According to Ayurveda, pregnancy and delivery can be the most rejuvenating experiences of a woman’s life. Every cell of her body can be transformed. Traditionally, new mothers did not leave their bed for a week after delivery and did not leave the bedroom for two weeks. The extended family provided meals, baths, and massages for both mother and child. Unfortunately, in the West, we did not get this memo, and mothers often pay dearly after pregnancy with further exhaustion, added stress, and other health concerns.
During pregnancy, downward-moving energy called apana vata supports development of the fetus, and upward-moving energy called prana vata supports mom’s sattva, energy, and mood stability. In cases of chronic stress, both prana and apana can become depleted. In the battle for energy during pregnancy, the baby always wins, drawing both prana and apana to the fetus and leaving mom even more vulnerable to stress.
During the preconception period, these two energies must be restored in both mom and dad by creating sattva in both parents. Depleted prana (mental energy) and apana (adrenal energy) not only impact the mom’s chances to conceive, but can also deplete the quality and quantity of dad’s sperm. Many studies link lack of sattva (aka a stressful lifestyle) to decreased fertility in men.
Rasayana for Pregnancy
For thousands of years, future moms and dads have turned toward a branch of Ayurveda called rasayana: the study of rejuvenation, aging, and longevity. There are four main types of rasayana used traditionally to boost sattva and support pre-pregnancy rejuvenation:
1. Ahara rasayana pertains to food and digestion
2. Vihara rasayana pertains to lifestyle
3. Acharya rasayana pertains to behavior
4. Aushadha rasayana pertains to herbs
These four types of rasayana focus on bringing sattva into the food, lifestyle, behavior, and herbs you consume. Sattva for pregnancy suggests that mom and dad be content, loving, kind, generous, grateful, compassionate, and joyful prior to conception.
Prior to conception, Ayurveda suggests bringing the body into balance. This starts with a thorough evaluation of the digestive system, followed by appropriate therapies to restore ideal digestive function. According to Ayurveda, good digestion is linked to the ability to detoxify and support a healthy immune response. During pregnancy, mom is doing all this for two—so baby’s health starts with the digestive health of mom.
At least three months prior to conception, mom and dad must cleanse physically in order to rid the body of environmental pollutants and toxins as well as to emotionally shed ama (old, unwanted molecules of emotion).
Regular practice of gentle yoga, breathing exercises, meditation, daily walks in nature , and breathing clean air are classic pre-pregnancy tools.
Daily full-body or foot massage with Ayurvedic oils will calm the nervous system and support a sattvic physiology.
Prior to conception, women are encouraged to read uplifting books and be with loved ones, engaging in uplifting conversation, rather than being alone.
Classic behavioral rasayanas also include the practices of truthfulness, devotion to love and compassion, nonviolence, living a pure and simple life, being free from anger and conceit, and being calm, sweet-spoken, positive, and respectful to elders and teachers.
Ayurvedic herbal rasayanas are suggested for three to six months prior to pregnancy.
The Ayurvedic Guide to Fertility is long overdue, and I am honored to write this foreword as this subject is very personal for me. My wife and I have raised six beautiful children using the principles of Ayurveda, and I am so grateful to Heather for writing this book so that many more can have access to this wisdom.