The IVF Diet – Zita West: my top 10 take-aways

Categories Gennet (Prague), Misc, My IVF, Pregnancy one - MMC, Surviving IVF
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While on sick leave from our recent missed miscarriage and subsequent ERPC procedure, I went to the library (it’s one of my favourite places) and took The IVF Diet – Zita West out.

The book was a pleasant surprise. I’m not normally interested in cooking or recipes, and generally find books like this a bit pointless. Who has time to cook elaborate meals from scratch during the week when you work full time?

But this is more than just a recipe book (although there are 60 here if that’s your bag). It’s more an overview of all the important factors to consider when undergoing IVF, including work-life balance, relationships, exercise, nutrition and gut health.

I found myself reading the entire book, back to back, in a couple of sittings. And while I would say I’ve not learned a huge amount – much of it is common sense – it has definitely given me food for thought (excuse the pun).

So here are my top takeaways.

  1. The age that your mom went through the menopause matters 

This point is only made briefly, but the book recommends asking your mom when she had her last period. You should take away 10 years from that number and this is the age your fertility is likely to nosedive. 

I texted my mom to ask her this rather personal question (cringe). She told me she was 52, although reminded me that her own mother got pregnant at 44 and gave birth to my uncle at 45. Which is almost unheard of naturally, isn’t it? So that feels promising.

But all I keep reading is how your fertility falls off a cliff at 37 (although this interesting article claims there is no ‘cliff’). 42 doesn’t sound too alarming for me, though, being currently 37 years (and four months) and five years off that age. 

I guess I’ll soon find out. My husband and I are now thinking of doing a fresh round in the summer, despite having four frozen embryos in Prague. The reason? I’m petrified those won’t work, that I might have more miscarriages, and be left with nothing. And then I’ll be into 2020, 38 years old, and my fertility will have dropped off some more. Time feels like it’s slipping away, quickly…

But perhaps my mom’s menopausal age and my grandma’s late pregnancy can give me some hope?

2. Living a stress-free lifestyle is vital

I can’t blame my work for the miscarriage. There’s no evidence to suggest my 50-hour plus weeks and high stress levels contributed to our loss. But it certainly won’t have helped.

These last two weeks, while on sick leave, I have felt a huge weight of responsibility fall from my shoulders. Sure, this fortnight off hasn’t been a holiday. I’m still bleeding from the procedure, for goodness sake. But the break has given me some much needed headspace away from a workplace that was grinding me down.

But I was semi-OK with working like an automaton when I was pregnant. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel or, more specifically, the 12-month maternity leave I have been working towards. Fast forward to today, the day before I go back, and I am dreading slipping back into that relentless grind again.

Zita West’s book makes it clear that, if you’re stressed, your hormones go out of whack, your nutrient absorption is hampered and your body goes into high alert. She emphasises this throughout the book and, by the end, I was in no doubt about the importance of worklife balance.

But I have struggled with this since I started my new job last October. It’s been six months of daily deadlines, new ‘challenges’ and being forced out of my comfort zone on a regular basis. In some respects it’s meant time has passed quickly (the holy grail as you wait between cycles). In reality, however, I’ve been the first one in the office, last one out in the evening, in constant meetings, taking no lunch breaks… etc. 

This new year I made my resolution to always leave work by 5pm no matter what, even if it meant taking my laptop home with me and logging on later. That lasted less than a week. 

But I have to start taking responsibility for myself. I need to put my foot down and prioritise my health and happiness over a company that wouldn’t hesitate in making me redundant given half a chance (and that possibility is a total reality at the moment.)

So again, a few months late, I am going to try and get into better habits with work. That means taking lunch breaks (even if it’s 20 minutes walking round the block), getting back to fitness (by leaving the office earlier, I can go running and cook better meals) and giving less of myself to my job.

3. Caffeine and alcohol are no-nos

I really struggle with this. Two of life’s pleasures for me are a nice glass of wine on a Friday night (which goes hand in hand with de-stressing after a manic week in the office). And a nice cup of tea in the morning, and one in the afternoon. 

I’ve definitely got into bad habits with coffee. I never really used to drink it before, but if ever I’m getting the train, or if it’s the weekend or I’m in need of a serious pick-me-up at work, I get a flat white. That’s a seriously strong and milky coffee I’m drinking every other day, and I know it’s no good for me. 

So I can give up the flat whites. I don’t love coffee as much as many people do. But the two cups of tea… Zita West is effectively saying that stimulants like caffeine place stress on the body and deplete your body’s nutrient supply. Bottom line? You should cut it out in the three months before IVF starts.

She says alternatives like hot water and lemon and green tea are great options, which I’m going to definitely give a whirl. But can I give up tea and coffee all together? It’d certainly be an interesting experiment. Maybe I’ll try it as one of my new IVF one-month challenges* and see how I get on.

As for booze… it’s my biggest vice. I didn’t have anything this year up until mid-February in between egg collection and egg transfer. After that, I only had a tiny, weeny amount in my first trimester (I know you shouldn’t have any, but I literally had a thimble of red wine and a tiny glass of fizz to celebrate – SOB – our eight-week scan. And yes, I do wonder if that caused the miscarriage. But I know it’s highly unlikely.) 

Since the MMC news two weeks ago, I’ve drunk quite a lot. I’d say maybe six nights out of 14 I’ve had several glasses of wine (sounds awful now I put it into writing). My excuse is I’m getting it out of my system before the next IVF cycle, but I feel horribly guilty I’m ruining my egg quality in one fell swoop. 

So, as of tomorrow, I’m changing my ways. I think I’ll allow myself a small drink at the weekends. But I want to knock white wine on the head (which I’ve heard is particularly not good) and maybe limit myself to one or two G&Ts on a Saturday night.

But let’s see. All the above is starting to make me feel like I’m giving up everything that I enjoy, and I don’t want to live a joyless life. I’m running out of pleasures at the moment.

4. Spend 20 minutes a day reflecting/relaxing

This bit of advice is about meditation, something I’m interested in but never quite manage to do.

I sometimes listen to the podcast 10% Happier, which is all about meditation. And I even downloaded and subscribed to Headspace, the meditation app, but couldn’t get it to work and cancelled it after three months. This is typical me.

When I have tried meditating, I’ve squeezed it into my morning routine. I managed six minutes a day for a few weeks before I started my last IVF cycle, which I found reasonably easy enough and I suppose a bit beneficial. But then it fell by the wayside, like so many of my good intentions.

You have to meditate regularly to really feel the benefit – I know that. So perhaps this is another thing I should try and incorporate into my lifestyle.

But now I’m looking at all the things I ‘should’ be doing, according to the book – giving up caffeine and alcohol, exercising regularly, cooking from scratch, limiting work… I’m getting a bit overwhelmed. 

But then I think, come on girl. This is six minutes in the morning to sit somewhere quiet, focus on your breath and empty your mind. Surely even you could give that a whirl for a month… another IVF one-month challenge*, perhaps?

5. Identify the major stresses in your life outside of IVF and eliminate them

I found this piece of advice quite useful, although I feel quite conflicted by it. 

The book says you should limit other stressors outside of IVF in your life. So, in our case, we want to get our kitchen and bathroom replaced, as well as our boiler. 

On one hand, getting the work done on the house would be a major stress and financial drain. And now we have to pay for IVF for the fourth time in a year, it’s another cost we could really do without.

Yet on the other, I don’t want to put our lives any more on hold than they already are. And our boiler… we basically have no hot water unless the boiler is on. And if the boiler’s on, our heating’s on. This means we have no hot water unless you have a shower or the heating on at full pelt. 

This is really no way to live, which is what my husband was saying yesterday. Every time I wash up the dishes, I have to boil a kettle. It’s ridiculous that we exist this way! 

So do we continue to live our lives in limbo, i.e. putting all the big house jobs off until we finally get pregnant (and sustain it) or do we make hay while the sun shines i.e. while we’re earning decent money, and get on with it now, baby or no baby?

I still don’t know what to do. It’d be lovely to have a new kitchen, bathroom and boiler. We could have it all done by the end of the summer, then be able to enjoy it – a sense of achievement and progression.

Or do we tighten our belts accordingly, knowing that money will be tight in the next six months, and limit the short-term stress levels like Zita West recommends? If anyone has any suggestions on this front, please email me as I don’t know what to do!

6. Many deodorants are full of crap

I read ‘It Starts With the Egg’ by Rebecca Fett a few months ago, which was full of advice about avoiding chemical nasties. Things like not wearing nail varnish and perfume (the latter of which I’d started wearing again in the last few weeks of my pregnancy… again, another reason to blame myself) and suchlike. 

But what I didn’t get from her book was that certain deodorants include a group of chemicals called phthalates, which can affect egg quality and increase the likelihood of miscarriage. Not just deodorants, but all sorts of beauty products. (By the way, I’m sure her book says this but for some reason I chose to ignore it!)

If I was me a year ago, I’d think: yeah yeah, whatever. Your miscarriage was caused by chromosomal abnormality, not because you used Mitchum deodorant and wore a bit of Jo Malone Cologne.

But a year is a long time, and if you’ve done three rounds of IVF and are thinking about embarking on another like me, you’ll take this information and likely run with it. So I found a new deodorant in Superdrug, although I’ve since discovered it’s not an antipersperant so I’m not sure how long that’ll last! 

7. Stop eating loads of sugar

I am not a massive sweet fan. But my husband is. He would eat a big bar of chocolate a day, left to his own devices. And we’ve got into a really bad habit over the last year of having chocolate every night with a cup of herbal tea before bed. Which I complain about, but continue to throw handfuls of confectionary into my wide open mouth. 

When this habit first started, it’d be a square of high-quality chocolate. But it quickly descended. In the run up to Easter, it was Mini Eggs. Before then, whatever was on offer at Waitrose. Our favourite? Lindt chilli or sea salt chocolate. Good quality, but hardly full of the antioxidants that 90% dark chocolate would have.

While I was pregnant, I was constantly hungry. Unfortunately all I wanted was junk food, bread and sweet things. Out of the window was eating fruit, and in was pasta, fried egg sandwiches and McDonald’s French fries. 

All of this on top of absolutely no exercise, whatsoever. As you can imagine, I now feel like a fat blob, even though I know I haven’t put on much weight. (This was the only silver lining from the ERPC procedure, when the nurse weighed me and I was about the same as before I started, unbelievably.) 

Since the procedure, I’ve been on two runs, both of which were excruciatingly humiliating. The first I huffed and puffed as I jogged at a snail’s pace with my husband around a route I would have completed with ease in January. I was absolutely furious as a inched up a hill, almost on my hands and knees, while my husband desperately tried to slow his pace to match mine. I was seething inside and felt utterly useless, despite what my body had been through only a week before.

My second run was a short jaunt round the block, a run I wouldn’t have even got out of bed for at any point in the last 10 years because of its short distance. I managed to get to the top of a gentle hill – about a mile away from my house – and I had such a massive stitch, I was forced to stop running for the first time in I cannot remember. Again, I felt so angry with myself for ‘letting myself go’, despite the fact that little over a week ago I was experiencing one of the worst days of my whole life.

Back to sugar. I cannot continue eating crap the way I have, and Zita West’s book inevitably talks about limiting unnecessary sugars and fats. Unfortunately my husband and I have six big Easter eggs in the cupboard…

8. Protein powder is your friend

Zita West’s book talks about the importance of protein, so eating lots of fish, eggs and dairy, pulses and legumes (we don’t eat meat). But one thing I noted was her recommendation of using a good quality protein powder in recipes.

I used to put vanilla protein powder in smoothies for breakfast, and I enjoyed them a lot. So I’m considering buying some more, and using them in banana and fruit smoothies as an alternative to the fruit, muesli and yogurt we usually have. 

9. Digestive health is the cornerstone of your wellbeing

At the moment, I do not have good gut health. It’s probably unsurprising. If you’ve been pregnant, you’ll probably have experienced constipation in the first few weeks. Unfortunately, I am still rather bunged up. My latest strategy is having a strong coffee in the morning to get things moving, which I am pleased to report is having the desired effect!

But generally, I suffer a bit from IBS and get tummy aches if I have too many carbs. The book recommends increasing the amount of fermented foods, like kefir, and drinking warm water and lemon first thing in the morning. So that’s what I’ve been doing. Kefir is especially rather nice if you like funny-tasting milk (I do!), and is full of protein to fill you up between meals.

10. Get a lymphatic drainage massage

At work, we have a lovely lady who comes in and does massages, including lymphatic massages. This can help remove toxins and ‘excess’ (like excess hormones) to detoxify the body before beginning an IVF protocol. The book recommends this treatment, which I will definitely do before the next round. I just need to get myself in better shape before I let anyone near my stomach (which is currently bloated and tender to touch). But I’m lucky to have that service at my disposal when the time is right.

So these are my top 10 take aways from Zita West. They’re not the most important messages from the book, by any means. Nutrition, I’d say, is the main factor that she says makes the biggest difference in an IVF cycle. But the above points are my key learns. I hope some of the above has been helpful for you too :-).

*IVF one-month challenges are coming… including: 10 press-ups a day; three things to be grateful for gratitude jar; one thing I love about my husband a day list…

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