“It’s hard going after what you want all your life—and getting it—and then encountering this kind of resistance in your body when you’re ready to have a child,” says Cindy Weinbrandt, a striking 45-year-old brunette with a girlish, Melanie Griffith-like lilt to her voice. She chuckles half-heartedly at the irony of coming from such a large family and pulls her cashmere wrap closer. Weinbrandt, a former finance executive at a high-tech company and a self-described Type A, set aside children for a dream job that had her jetting between Paris, Italy, London, and Los Angeles 52 weeks of the year. By the time she met and married her husband, she was 41 and unable to get pregnant.
After three unsuccessful in vitro fertilization treatments in just one year, Weinbrandt has found her way to the Lake Austin Spa Resort in Texas. This top-rated spa, normally the site of celebrity-chef-run Culinary Schools and intensive Bikini Boot Camps, is now offering fertility retreats. Fittingly dubbed The Fertile Soul by founder Randine Lewis, Ph.D., the program is derived from the basic principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), incorporating acupuncture, herbs, diet, exercise, and healing mind/body therapies. The retreats are in keeping with the current wave of interest in alternative, all-natural infertility treatments, but what makes this program so unique is its intimate, luxury spa setting. As part of the package, Weinbrandt and ten other attendees will receive pampering body massages, soaks, scrubs, and facials during their five-day stay. The premise, one supported by clinical trials, is simple: The more relaxed the women are, the more effective fertility treatments are likely to be.
Since its launch in January, The Fertile Soul retreat has been a sell-out, drawing prominent career women—CEOs, fashion execs, and newscasters among them—from as far away as Zimbabwe. The program’s popularity reflects the continuing trend of postponing motherhood: According to The New England Journal of Medicine, since 1991 first births for women 35 to 39 have increased 36 percent; 70 percent for women 40 to 44. Yet these figures hide the all too familiar reality that getting pregnant later in life can often prove to be an emotionally and physically arduous prospect given that a woman’s fertility starts to decline as early as age 27. For most women over 30 who have tried unsuccessfully to conceive, the common scenario includes a hi-tech, high-cost path of hormonal injections, artificial insemination, and ultimately IVF. Weinbrandt and others in the group spent thousands of dollars on hormones and multiple IVF procedures costing $15,000 to $20,000 a try. Lewis is quietly leading the way to change all that. With a pregnancy success rate of 75 percent at her clinic (far higher than the roughly 20 percent success rate attributed to the more aggressive treatments), and “retreat” babies already being born, Lewis has achieved almost mythic status. One patient, who is due this month, refers to Lewis as “the baby whisperer.”
It helps that Lewis’s own story is both relatable and hope inspiring. In 1991, while pursuing a medical degree Lewis, then 34, was unable to get pregnant with a second child. When colleagues suggested she take Clomid, she balked. “It was unsettling to me that they just automatically pushed me toward this drug,” she says. Out of frustration, she investigated alternatives including TCM, which centers on Qi (pronounced chee), the energy thought to balance all systems within the body. In the case of infertility, TCM therapies such as acupuncture and herbal medicines use the body’s Qi to stimulate the production of the endorphins and hormones critical for everything from the formation of eggs to the ovulation process.
Within three months of following a TCM regime, Lewis was pregnant with her second daughter, Kyra; three years later, at 38, she had her son, Lars. Rather than complete her medical degree, Lewis moved to China to study, and in 1998, opened The Eastern Harmony Clinic in Houston, which specializes in fertility treatments. “In China, all infertility patients are treated with acupuncture and herbs. The belief is that if the body has said ‘no’ to pregnancy, it’s due to an imbalance that can be corrected naturally,” says Lewis, who outlines the model in her book, The Infertility Cure (Little, Brown and Company, 2004).
If anyplace could kick-start the wellness process, it is Lake Austin’s cocoon-like resort. Upon arrival, guests are encouraged to schedule “hammock time.” Hawks circle and dip over the redbud-studded hills that rise up from the lake and ducks roam the property, laying their eggs (a harbinger for what’s to come?) in terraced flowerbeds. The walk to the newly renovated spa is dotted with Indian paintbrush and Bluebonnets and a girl incredulously named Breezy Lake accompanies Weinbrandt to an acupuncture treatment. In a slate-blue spa room, Lewis takes acupuncture needles from her rattan Kate Spade “doctors” bag and places them in Weinbrandt’s forehead, hands, feet, and abdomen. According to TCM, the flow of energy in the body can become excessive, deficient, or blocked, which can interfere with the functioning of certain organ systems. By placing needles in Weinbrandt’s feet, Lewis is tapping into the liver meridian, hoping to free up blocked energy she suspects is contributing to Weinbrandt’s hormonal fluctuations. Lewis also hopes to improve Weinbrandt’s circulation because, “blood flow to the ovaries declines as we age, leading to undernourished follicles that are less capable of producing viable eggs, and acupuncture and acupressure are the only known methods of improving it,” she explains. A small pendant studded with black and white diamonds indicating the delicate balance of Yin and Yang energy encircles her neck and glitters as she speaks. Over the half hour, even Weinbrandt’s toes get warm, indicating the treatment is working. Later, for her spa indulgence of the day, Weinbrandt will receive a warm milk bath and a 90-minute aromatherapy massage—both spiked with the heavenly scent of fig, in honor of the fragrant trees scattered about the property.
The retreats are the first of their kind, but the concept echoes a widespread push to view fertility as a mind/body issue. Myriad studies support the fact that lowering stress can enhance the ability to conceive. But tell any woman who desperately wants to have a baby that she must de-stress in order to do so and it may well put her over the edge. Therein lies the beauty of the spa-based fertility retreat—it offers built-in stress management. A large part of the program is helping attendees overcome the ‘my-body-has-failed-me’ mindset which may actually create more stress within the body. “Infertile women often blame themselves and feel an enormous amount of guilt,” says Alice Domar, Ph.D, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School and author of Conquering Infertility (Viking/Penguin, 2002). “Getting healthier psychologically and physically is important.” Domar, who is founder and director of the Mind/Body Center for Women’s Health at Boston IVF, says plenty of evidence supports that a mind/body connection may aid in conceiving. Her own study in 2000 indicated that women who did mind/body work (including yoga, meditation, guided imagery, cognitive restructuring, and self-nurturing techniques) over the course of a year had a 55 percent viable pregnancy rate in that time period, while the rate for the control group was just 20 percent (results that have been repeated in later studies).
Stress, however, is by no means the only issue. Other common causes of infertility are premature ovarian failure, problems with ovulation, and issues with the structure of the pelvis, such as fibroids, endometriosis, or blocked tubes, which may require surgery. At least 40 percent of the time, the problem rests with the man (couples retreats are also being held at Lake Austin), and 10 percent of cases are considered unexplainable. Elevated FSH levels (linked to an increased rate of miscarriage) and drops in progesterone (something Weinbrandt was experiencing) can be due to an age-related decline in reproductive function. Western doctors typically cite diminished egg quality as the leading cause of infertility for women over 35. “By 40, egg quality has decreased even if a woman has really taken care of herself,” says Frederick Liccardi, M.D., associate director of reproductive endocrinology at NYU School of Medicine. Lewis agrees that as women age, they produce fewer viable eggs and even those may be less responsive to hormonal stimulation, but she doesn’t buy into the old-egg theory. “With TCM treatment, more hormonal and nutritional fuel and oxygenation get to the follicle during its growth phase and this results in the production of healthy, fertilizable, implantable eggs, “she says.
To pinpoint the underlying imbalance that could be affecting fertility, Lewis evaluates each attendees’ symptoms, hormonal patterns, fertility history, and recent medical work before drawing up an individualized treatment plan. This includes case-specific acupuncture sessions throughout the five days (referrals are given for continued treatment) and a recipe for a blend of herbs to drink daily once the women leave. All the women learn deep-breathing and massage techniques and practice meditation, yoga, NIA, and Qi Gong—which are thought to enhance circulation. Pilates and sit-ups constrict oxygen and blood flow in the abdominal region and are to be avoided, as are caffeine, dairy, sugar, alcohol, wheat, and meats that contain hormones. The goal is to rid the diet of foods that may contribute to erratic hormonal patterns and blood sugar fluctuations, which Lewis says can affect the body’s ability to respond to estrogen and progesterone.
Weinbrandt, who used to drink a pot of coffee every day, believes that changes she made to her diet months prior to the retreat (per Lewis’s book) have improved her egg quality. “My test showed fewer fragmented eggs after I got strict with my diet,” she says. Thomas Ost, an alternative medicine specialist with Reproductive Healthcare Specialists in Pittsburgh, sees similar improvements in his patients. “Dietary changes play a big role in correcting imbalances in the body and many of the women we treat become pregnant without drugs within three to four months,” he says.
It can sound like the stuff of lore, and that can be a problem, suggests Domar. “Women suffering from infertility are highly vulnerable and I fear that they may believe the retreats can do more for them than we actually know they can,” she says. “Yes, I agree with eating healthy, exercising moderately, lowering stress levels, and doing acupuncture. But I look at the data, and there’s never been a study showing that being ‘in balance’ will increase the odds of getting pregnant. There’s just no way to quantify it.”
New research is, however, looking at the variability of results with acupuncture treatments and suggesting that the level of faith a patient has in it, can influence the outcome. Ost thinks that even a placebo effect can be a great thing. “The Western process often leaves women feeling uncared for and un-nurtured. The retreats help them reconnect with themselves and others like them; they leave with tools to work with,” he says.
Months after leaving the comforting idyll of the spa, Weinbrandt, whose grandmother conceived naturally at age 47, is feeling both hopeful and realistic. She’s maintaining basal temperatures better, her once elevated FSH levels have gone down, and she has more energy—all of which she thinks indicate that she’s on the right path. “This has become as much about my health as about trying to have a baby,” she says. “Before I went to the retreat, I was so desperate and anxious, it felt like a last resort. Now I wish it had been my starting point.”