The sun shimmered over the Atlantic as I folded my toes into the sugary soft sand and leaned back into my padded beach chair. My body relaxed, my muscles liquid after a morning massage at the spa. The waves lapping the shore lulled me into a drowsy trance, until I was aware of nothing but the breeze caressing my hair and the warmth of the sun melting into my skin like butter. But I wasn’t there just to escape my hectic life as a work-at-home mom to a 2-year-old son. I was there to get pregnant.
In fact, my husband and I were experiencing the “nocturnal nesting” package at the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort and Spa in Fort Lauderdale, Florida — a new trend in “procreation vacations” designed to help couples conceive in style.
We booked the getaway after my doctor suggested stress might be interfering with our efforts to get pregnant with a second child. After eight months of trying, we thought several days of indulgence and pampering might be just the prescription we needed to hasten the pitter-patter of little feet.
Our suite on the eleventh floor boasted beautiful views of the manicured grounds, platinum sand beach and the undulating waves of the blue-green ocean. To entice us further, the three-day package also included a romantic couple’s massage and aphrodisiac drinks with gourmet chocolates delivered to our room. Fittingly, during sea turtle nesting season (May through October), couples get a chance to take a guided night stroll, search for sea turtle nests and watch the hatchlings journey to the sea … then work on fertilizing an egg of their own.
For those who are already parents, a procreation vacation can be especially appealing. Busy days of juggling kids, careers and social responsibilities can take its toll on a relationship, making it difficult for couples to carve out time for each other and focus on the goal of conception.
As the months pass and the pregnancy tests continue to be negative, frustration and tension levels rise as couples begin to wonder if something is wrong. Just because a couple has conceived before, doesn’t mean the process will be easy the second time around. Even for healthy partners, conception can take awhile. “As a species, we are biologically inefficient at reproducing,” says Dr. Walid Salah, a fertility expert and medical director of the Sher Institute for Reproductive Health in Dallas. “We as humans only have a 20 percent chance of conception per month.” An estimated 3 million couples a year experience trouble conceiving their second child, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
“Secondary infertility is usually caused by ovulation issues,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Caruth, an OB/GYN at Plano’s Midway Medical Center. According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, ovulation dysfunction accounts for about 40 percent of female infertility. This type of sterility is most influenced by lifestyle factors, including stress.
The Worry Factor
While the link between stress and fertility is not as clear as smoking and lung cancer, many experts agree that anxiety is a mitigating factor. “Stress affects the pituitary gland, which in turn affects hormone balance,” says Caruth. “There is a miscommunication between the brain and the ovaries, which interferes with ovulation.”
Tension also stimulates the release of cortisol, which affects the menstrual cycle and ovulation, as well.
“When ovulation is affected, then stress is affecting fertility,” adds Salah.
Research supports this theory. Several studies examining stress and depression levels in women undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) found that women with elevated anxiety and high cortisol levels in their blood had a 20-percent lower success rate than women who did not report feelings of anxiety and depression.
And, don’t think dads are off the hook. Stress can interfere with male fertility, as well. In a study conducted by Northwestern University Medical School, men experiencing high-pressure lifestyles had lower sperm quality and reduced sperm counts.
A Trip Can’t Hurt
If you’ve been trying to conceive for less than a year and have no history of infertility, then a procreation vacation is a great way to reduce stress, reconnect with your partner and celebrate your decision to add to your family. “Going on vacation is always a good thing in that it can allow couples to spend time together,” says Dr. Jerald Goldstein, a reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas and a member of the Fertility Specialists of Dallas. “To say that procreation vacations actually increase fertility is difficult to say. Intuitively it makes sense to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.”
But for partners who struggle with true infertility, the advice to “just relax” or “take a vacation” can be hurtful and frustrating. Even a year of massages and afternoons spent sipping virgin margaritas on the beach won’t magically fix a medical issue.
“Reducing stress will not correct blocked tubes, advanced age or very low sperm counts,” says Linda Huston, RNC, IVF nurse coordinator for the Fertility Specialists of Dallas and founder of www.infertilitymindbody.com, a local Web site addressing the issue of stress and its effect on infertility. However, when ovulation is the culprit, high anxiety adds to what Huston calls a “vicious circle.” Learning relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation, or finding a support group can sustain you through the long haul. “And I’m always in favor of a vacation for all the obvious reasons,” Huston adds.
Pumpkin Soup, Anyone?
Not only are procreation vacations supposed to speed up the baby-making process by lowering stress, but the resorts also offer special amenities that they claim will boost fertility. The Westin on Grand Bahama Island provides unlimited sea moss elixirs and bowls of pumpkin soup, while the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort pampers couples with chasteberry aromatherapy massages.
But do they work?
Caribbean lore suggests that the beta-carotene and vitamin A in pumpkin soup promote fertility and successful pregnancies, while sea moss is a supposed aphrodisiac. “We have pumpkin pie every Thanksgiving and have not seen anything different,” says Salah. “The fact that it is a soup rather than a pie makes no difference.” Healthy individuals who eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and take a multivitamin don’t need mega-doses of nutrients. Although the soup and sea moss smoothies may not help, they’re good for you — so enjoy the fun and drink up.
At the Harbor Beach Resort, my chasteberry aromatherapy massage felt heavenly, but I have my doubts about its touted abilities to balance my hormones and help regulate my cycle. There are a few limited studies on the benefits of chasteberry, but only when it’s taken by mouth.
However, the massage itself could be beneficial. While research on lowering infertility-related stress specifically hasn’t been conducted, numerous studies conclude that massage combined with aromatherapy reduces overall anxiety.
So, did the getaway work? It’s too soon to tell. But we both feel more relaxed, reenergized and ready to face whatever comes next.