Fertility article

The Times 05/03/2002


Some complementary therapists claim they can aid conception. Suzy Greaves investigates

One in seven women seeks medical help to aid conception. Inevitably, given this demand and the low success rates of conventional treatments for infertility (the IVF rate is 14 per cent) alternative practitioners have not been slow to offer therapies that they claim will increase fertility.

Dr Elizabeth Muir, a clinical psychologist who has specialised in treating infertility for seven years, uses hypnotherapy to help couples for whom there is no apparent medical reason why they should not have a child. Muir believes that the psychological issues surrounding pregnancy are not sufficiently well addressed for many women with fertility problems, and she claims a success rate of 45 per cent for her clients.

“Hypnotherapy works on the premise that the conscious and subconscious minds may be at odds with each other,” she says. “I believe that while a woman might consciously want a baby, her subconscious may be stopping her from getting pregnant. Most women I see have psychosomatic infertility related to conflicts or unresolved issues about having a baby. A combination of counselling and hypnotherapy can remove these problems.”

As with much alternative practice, there is no clinical evidence to support her claims. Lord (Robert) Winston, Professor of Fertility at the University of London and the director of the Infertility Unit at Hammersmith Hospital, is incensed by what he calls “wild claims of success”.

“I have nothing against alternative or complementary therapy,” he says. “Many of them will make you feel better, more confident, more relaxed. But there is no clinical evidence to show that they work as an effective treatment for infertility.”

Muir explains that hypnosis affects the hypothalamus, the neural centre at the base of the brain linked to the pituitary gland and controls the flow of hormones in the body. The hypothalamus is sensitive to stress and acts as a bridge between the emotional and physical, turning emotional messages into physical responses that affect hormone levels.

A study by John Gruzelier, Professor of Psychology at Imperial College School of Medicine, revealed that self-hypnosis could strengthen the immune system by 48 per cent in six weeks. Muir’s theory is also supported in studies by Dr Alice Domar, director of the Beth Israel Deaconess Behavioural Medicine Programme for Infertility in Boston, who examined the relationship between stress and infertility. Her studies documented the success of her mind/body fertility programme, which taught people how to relax and reduce tension.

In the first study, published in 1999 in the Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association, 42 per cent of the 132 infertile women in the programme conceived within six months of completing it. In the second study, published in 2000 in the journal Fertility and Sterility, 55 per cent of the previously infertile women who met regularly in a mind-body programme conceived, compared with 20 per cent of the control group, who used no mind-body techniques and did not attend meetings.

Niravi Payne, a psychotherapist and pioneer of mind-body fertility therapy in America, believes that stress is only one of the factors that can prevent conception. “Our endocrine, immune and nervous systems are all intimately connected and influenced by every thought we think and every emotion we feel,” she says. “When something significant happens in our lives, the emotionally charged experience gets stored in our brain. Memories and experiences are also simultaneously stored biochemically and electromagnetically in various organ systems. Negative emotional experiences can throw off the finely tuned hormonal balance necessary for ovulation and sperm production.”

After four years of infertility, the actress Alex Kingston had a child after having IVF treatment. During the treatment, Kingston also worked with Payne. “One of my sisters is physically and mentally handicapped and I realised that I was holding on to a lot of fear about that,” says Kingston. “With Niravi, I was able to release a huge amount of stuff I’d been holding on to without realising it.”

Professor Winston is not impressed. “It is unthinkable that you could come to me as a patient only for me to offer you a treatment that wasn’t proven. I’d be struck off,” he says. He is also concerned that if women rely on an unproved therapy and don’t get pregnant, they are losing time during which, with orthodox medical help, they might conceive. Fertility decreases after the age of 35, he points out.

Doctors agree that people who try for a baby for a year or more without conceiving must seek medical advice. Complementary therapists make no claims to help with specific conditions such as damaged Fallopian tubes.


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