Have you or some of your clients been trying to get pregnant? You might want to sign up for a yoga, chi kung or meditation class. Leading medical institutions are promoting mind-body programs to assist couples struggling with infertility. In September 2004, Stanford University Hospital and Clinics in Palo Alto, California, launched a stress reduction program for infertile couples that includes lessons in chi kung. In Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, the Mind/Body Medical Institute, founded by Harvard University professor Herbert Benson, MD, has been offering a 10-week infertility program since 1985. The curriculum includes lessons in meditation, yoga and cognitive restructuring, among other techniques.
Recent research suggests that mind-body programs like these can lead to measurable increases in pregnancy rates. In 2000, a Harvard University study reported that 55% of people who completed a mind-body program became pregnant within a year, compared with only 20% in the control group. Study subjects were women who had been trying to get pregnant for 1–2 years.
Jackie Grapa, a 27-year-old participant in the Stanford University program, told The Wall Street Journal that she felt the mind-body sessions were part of the reason she was 8 weeks pregnant. “I was really stressed and anxious all the time. With the program, we learned to relax and breathe and just to take care of ourselves.” Ms. Grapa and her husband, Arie, had been trying to have a child for 3 years and had undergone several infertility treatments. Once enrolled in the mind-body program, Ms. Grapa conceived on her first try using in vitro fertilization.
Most couples do not use only mind-body programs to increase their chances of pregnancy. Instead, they use an integrative approach that combines modern medical interventions with ancient relaxation techniques.
If relaxation techniques can help a woman conceive, they seem to be just as valuable during pregnancy itself. New evidence from a study conducted at the University of Berlin shows that excess stress can contribute to miscarriages. Historically, doctors believed that miscarriages typically resulted from either maternal health problems or abnormal fetuses.
The German researchers found that in response to stress, levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase, whereas levels of progesterone—a hormone essential to a healthy pregnancy—drop, according to a report from United Press International. The progesterone reduction causes the immune system to reject the fetus, leading to miscarriage.
Researcher Petra Arck monitored the pregnancies of 864 women using blood samples and stress tests. The 55 women who miscarried reported feeling under more pressure than the other subjects and had lower progesterone levels. Arck said, “We can clearly say stress has a major impact on pregnancy.” The practice of stress reduction techniques may contribute to healthy pregnancies. Such techniques could include mind-body exercises—like yoga, tai chi or chi kung—that have been modified for prenatal participants.
Even after their babies arrive, new moms may want to continue their activity programs, especially if postpartum depression is a concern. According to a study published in the International Journal of Nursing Practice (2004; 10 , 177–94), a stroller walking program for new mothers reduced depression.
During a 12-week randomized, controlled trial, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology in Queensland, Australia, studied postnatal women who reported experiencing depression. The aim was to determine whether participation in a stroller walking group would reduce depression and improve fitness levels more or less than participation in a nonexercising social support group, similar to a playgroup.
Results showed that mothers in the stroller walking group not only improved their fitness but also reduced their depression levels more than the social support group. The research team found a direct association between the walkers’ fitness boost and their reduction in depression.