If you’re going through an IVF (in-vitro fertilization) journey or considering one, you know just how badly you want everything to go well. With the expense of the procedure, the toll it takes on the body, and – of course – the desire for a baby, no one wants to have to go through it twice.
Unfortunately, as with most really important things in life, results are not guaranteed. Despite all the precision efforts of scanning ovaries, perfectly timing stims, and making sure uterine lining is just right, you never know how many eggs will mature on time, how many will fertilize, how many will develop to blasts, or what quality those blasts will be. In an effort to control everything 100%, it is amazing how powerless you can feel.
While there are a number of aspects of the IVF cycle that you can’t control, there are some things that are within your control that can have a significant impact on the outcome of the cycle. Here are a few things that most IVF patients can incorporate to optimize the likelihood of a successful IVF cycle, healthy pregnancy, and healthy birth.
Choose the Right IVF Clinic for Your Needs
Not All IVF clinics are the same. Different clinics use different tests, are guided by different research, offer different protocols, mandate different age cutoffs, etc; not to mention each clinic has a unique style of communication and follow-up. We always recommend doing research on what the different clinics in the area can offer, what kinds of patients they usually work with, and how they will support and communicate with you throughout your cycle.
Officially reported success statistics can be another tool to help you choose an IVF clinic – but it’s important to understand the shortcoming of statistics before getting too attached to the numbers. For example, clinics with “better” outcomes might have the practice of turning away patients that they fear might produce a negative outcome (clinics often have age cutoffs or even weight-based cutoffs for who they will and won’t work with) rather than giving the patient a chance to try.
Distance will, of course, play a role in determining which clinic you work with. During the approximately two weeks of stims and retrieval, patients often have to drive to the clinic multiple times a week. Given that, patients often choose a clinic within 30-60 mins of their home. Some patients use a retrieval cycle as an opportunity to go on a two-week-long vacation – working with cheaper clinics in Mexico, Greece, Spain, etc.
Three Months of Clean Living
It takes about 2.5-3 months from when your body starts developing an egg or sperm to when that gamete is released for fertilization. Ideally, you’d take the opportunity to spend this 2.5-3 month window before retrieval taking supplements, eating well, getting exercise, and reducing your exposure to toxins – to maximize the likelihood that any eggs, sperm, embryos, and future babies will be as healthy as possible.
Patients often ask about the best diet during this window leading up to retrieval. From an East Asian medicine perspective, any dietary recommendations would need to be personalized to meet the specific needs of your body. That said, a few generalized best practices include avoiding blood sugar-spiking foods (white flour, white rice, white sugar especially), eating mostly unprocessed foods (especially plenty of veggies and healthy proteins and fats), avoiding highly processed foods (fast food, packaged snack foods, etc.), and loading your body full of antioxidant-rich food.
Appropriate exercise is another topic of interest to many IVF patients. Again, this should be personalized to your body’s specific needs. Generally, aiming for 30-60 minutes of heart-rate-boosting exercise most days of the week is a great way to support circulation, blood sugar regulation, and stress levels – all things that can impact egg/sperm health. That said, excessive exercise can negatively impact the hormones that lead to healthy egg development – so be sure to avoid overdoing it. Our rule of thumb is that you should feel energized, not drained, after your workouts. And a final note on the exercise topic is that your doctor may offer exercise restrictions during IVF stims, so be sure to check in with your doctor about your exercise plans before starting an IVF cycle.
Finally, let’s talk about toxic exposures in those 3 months prior to retrieval. Our environment, and what comes into our bodies from our environment, can have a direct impact on our hormones, as well as on the genetic quality of our eggs and sperm. Avoid smoking, recreational drugs, and moderate to high alcohol use. If you’re exposed to pollutants in the air, consider an air filter or wearing a respirator in those circumstances. Plastics used in the kitchen (plastic implements, plastic food storage or packaging, etc.) can act as hormones in the body, so choose glass, metal, or wood whenever possible. Furthermore, avoiding scented products (hygiene, cleaning, air freshener, etc.) can also help limit your exposure to chemicals that negatively impact a number of fertility factors.
It’s important to understand that while this 3-month window of “clean” living prior to IVF is ideal, it’s not always possible for a number of reasons. Importantly, it’s not ideal to delay treatment if you have diminished ovarian reserve or some indication that your fertile window is closing in a time-sensitive fashion.
Nutritional and/or herbal supplements can help boost this three-month effort to optimize your body for great outcomes. Some of the most common supplements leading up to a retrieval cycle include CoQ10, vitamin D, fish oil/omega 3s, and, crucially, a high-quality prenatal vitamin. There are numerous other supplements that are more specific to each patient that can help optimize against issues such as PCOS, endometriosis, or DOR.
While information is available online about supplementation, it’s always best to work with a licensed healthcare professional to identify the right supplements, dosage, and brands for you. Another reason that this personalized guidance is crucial is that different supplements are appropriate at different times in the lead-up to IVF – certain supplements may not be advisable if you are actively trying to conceive or if you are taking stims, for example.
Once you’re approaching the stims cycle, be sure to let your fertility doctor know the supplements that you’re taking, so they can give final approval or take you off the supplements that might be detrimental to your retrieval cycle.
Don’t Forget About the Sperm
For those individuals or couples conceiving with a known sperm donor or partner, there’s value in also taking this three-month window to improve nutritional status, exercise levels, take supplements, and reduce toxic exposures to improve the likelihood of healthy sperm. The genetic quality of the sperm plays a 50% role in creating a genetically healthy embryo, and low genetic quality sperm (whether due to age or other factors) has been linked to pregnancy loss, as well as “maternal” issues such as gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia.
We counsel our patients to understand that a “normal” semen analysis, while indicative of sperm health, does not actually prove the genetic quality of the sperm. While the genetic quality of an egg can only be guessed at, there is, in fact, a test that can analyze the genetic quality of the sperm – a “DNA fragmentation test”. Not every patient or couple needs to undergo this test, but it’s great to discuss with your doctor as an option if sperm quality could potentially be an issue.
Take Care of Your Mental Health
By the time you’ve started considering IVF, it’s likely that you’ve already been on a long and frustrating fertility journey. As we all know, there is a frustrating snowballing effect that can happen when fertility issues cause stress, which can disrupt hormones further and lead to deeper fertility challenges. In some ways, stims can help overcome this snowballing effect – there is evidence that the heavy stimulation involved in the IVF cycle overrides the effects of stress on hormones.
But even if stress doesn’t affect the outcome of your cycle, it doesn’t mean that the stress of this process doesn’t have a very real impact on YOU. There can be feelings of trauma, self-blame, and shame that come out of any fertility journey, and especially one that involves as much time, physical commitment, and resources as IVF. We strongly encourage all patients to have self-care and mental health support in place – whatever that means to you – while undergoing IVF.
Acupuncture Can Help, Every Step of the Way
Wherever you are in your IVF process, acupuncture can help support you and your goals. Whether you’re still searching for the perfect IVF clinic for you, you’re looking to clean up your lifestyle and identify the best supplements in preparation for a retrieval, or you’ve already started the process and need additional care – we can provide guidance and support.
During an IVF cycle, acupuncture is often recommended as adjunctive care to increase circulation to your ovaries and uterus, manage the side effects of stims, and help you carry the emotional burden of the IVF process. Learn more about how the acupuncturists at Flourish support patients going through an IVF cycle, or book a free 15-minute consultation with one of our licensed acupuncturists.
IVF is a huge financial, physical, and time commitment for anyone that chooses to go through it – no one wants to have to go through multiple rounds of IVF. By putting the plans in place for success by choosing the best clinic, taking good care of your physical and mental health, and calling in adjunctive resources, you can increase your chances of a positive outcome sooner. Acupuncture can be a great support during IVF – we’re here to help you succeed and to make sure you feel good along the way.
First Published: July 5, 2021
Updated: June 15, 2023