February 3rd 2020
Stress, sex and sperm: what a fertility expert wants you to know
February 14th 2018 / 0 comment
Emma Cannon has been helping women to conceive for over 20 years. Here are the main issues she comes across, some of which may surprise you…
From IVF support to acupuncture and nutritional advice, Emma Cannon’s Chelsea clinic has developed a reputation of excellence since its founding, but it’s not just Londoners that fertility expert Emma has helped over the duration of her career. A TEDX speaker and author of five fertility and women’s health books to date (her newest title, Fertile, was published yesterday), Emma is best known for her holistic approach to fertility and wellness, fusing western medicine with complementary therapies to get to root of fertility problems.
A member of The British Acupuncture Council and The College of Medicine, Emma holds a Bachelor of Science and is experienced in supporting women from preconception to the menopause. Here she tells us how fertility issues have changed since she first set up her clinic, and in an extract from Fertile, she explains how stress and burnout could be impacting our chances of conception...
Get The Gloss: What are the questions that you get asked the most in clinic?
Emma Cannon: “What should I eat? How much can I drink? How long will it take?”
“People want a quick fix, but fertility isn't about quick fixes. Most people are impatient and not infertile.”
GTG: What one thing do you wish that women and men knew about fertility?
EC: “That it was never meant to be that easy for us conceive. From an evolutionary point of view we spend a long time looking after and nurturing our offspring. Once born survival rates are high compared to other animals. Nature intended us to be in optimal health to fulfil this responsibility and to nurture and care for our offspring for many years after they are born. Unlike a fish who has hundreds of offspring, most of which will die and she will swim away and leave them to it anyway. Modern couples are used to trying hard to achieve their goals and they go about baby-making in the same mind set. This creates frustration, anxiety and obsession. Sex is vital; it's amazing how often I have to point this out.”
GTG: What's the most noticeable change in the field of fertility since you began practising?
EC: “In the past 20 years I have seen an increase in the speed at which couples turn to IVF."
"I have also seen changes in men’s sperm. I would say that sperm quality is decreasing at least in my practice which is in central London. This may be a London centric problem but I do believe that male infertility or subfertility is on the increase.”
GTG: How can couples make the experience of conception a positive, rather than stressful, one?
EC: “By not putting so much pressure on themselves and their partners to 'achieve' at it. It takes time and I see that couples set about it like a wedding project or a house project. It really takes the joy and sexiness out of it. Keep a bit of mystery, however game your partner may seem to be on the surface or at the outset. It is actually very off-putting to be asked to perform baby-making sex at a given time of the month. Keep some things sacred - like ovulation for example. Be playful and keep a sense of fun and enjoyment. Don't panic if you don't fall pregnant immediately, don't compare yourselves to other people and don't turn to Dr Google for your information - you are likely to make yourself even more anxious.”
GTG: Where do you see the future of fertility?
EC: “I can only see it getting worse with more intervention. People are accruing more and more debt earlier in life, it is harder to get on the housing ladder, young couple are struggling financially to start their life together and this only makes them delay parenting for longer. It's so tough and I am not sure what the solution is.”
“I do think more and more women will freeze their eggs, but this is best done earlier in life; in your 20s or early 30s. This may offer some fertility insurance but there is more to fertility than just eggs and it is important to take a holistic view of your fertility. There is a danger that the next generation may delay fertility having frozen their eggs and to find out that this is not a fertility cure-all, as has been the case with the current generation and IVF. That IVF does not eliminate all fertility problems and actually the chances of it being successful in late 30s and early 40s are not much different from natural sex.”
Here, in an extract from her book Fertile (£20, Vermillion) Emma highlights the impact of stress on conception:
Are you too stressed to conceive?
Stress is all around us; my observation is that in the past ten years we have become more stressed and more tired than previous generations, despite all of our marvellous time-saving devices! Research studies demonstrate that the likelihood of becoming pregnant is reduced when stress levels are high. A recent American study of 501 couples over 12 months found a 29 per cent reduction in fertility and a two-fold increase in risk of infertility in couples demonstrating high levels of stress.
There are many ways that stress can become an issue in our lives. Some of these are out of our control, but many are within our control. Some of the stress we experience is what I term ‘stress of our own making’. In other words, we create or attract stress in our life by our own actions, thought processes or by our unconscious behaviour.
In clinic I observe that patients who become obsessed with their fertility tend to be less happy, engage less socially and have reduced libido. The higher the stress levels are, the longer it takes couples to conceive. I want to encourage you to develop self-awareness rather than being ultra-vigilant, which creates rigidity.
Lowering stress levels brings many benefits to couples trying to conceive. It is really important for you to find ways to live a calmer life. Sometimes it is simply a matter of acknowledging how much noise there is in your mind and deciding to switch off. Women often get worried after one month of trying that there is something wrong. It is completely normal for it to take several months to get pregnant; it is perfectly normal for it to take up to a year. Most couples are not infertile, but subfertile, so improving your diet and lifestyle and living a more fertile life will improve the chances every month of conceiving. Stressing about how long it is taking will not help anything.
Many couples I see are impatient and not infertile. We are so used to getting what we want by working harder and doing, it can be hard to accept that things are not always within our control.
The more out of control we feel, the more controlling we become. It is a vicious cycle. I always say, ‘What is so good about control anyway? All the best things happen when we let go of control – like LOVE, for example.’
Overwork is a growing problem in society and will likely continue to impact both male and female health and fertility. The effects of overwork on fertility are not well covered by current research, although I see it as a huge problem and one that shows no sign of abating. Working long hours without taking adequate rest, the pressure of moving up the career ladder, over-exercising at the end of a long day, over-communication, social media, smartphones, using computers before bed, not recuperating after illness, miscarriage; all these and more take their toll on our bodies and on our energy systems. In order to preserve and optimise fertility, it is vital to take adequate rest and not to exhaust your energy.