Neuroscientist, author, and expert in nutrition, diet, and addiction, Dr. Nicole Avena used her 5-year fertility journey to create tools and resources to inspire a new generation of moms-to-be to nourish their bodies as they prepare for baby.
We sat down with Nicole to discuss how mindset can impact fertility. — She draws on her expertise in neuroscience, psychology, food addiction, and nutrition to shed light on how this often-overlooked factor can have a dramatic impact on your chances of conceiving.
I have two daughters, seven years apart. When my husband and I wanted to try to have our first daughter, Stella, it was easy. No problem getting pregnant. But then, when we decided to have another child, things weren't so easy. We struggled with secondary infertility.
During the process, I felt like I had very little control over what was happening. I felt like things were happening at me — like I wasn’t even a part of the process. Wanting to gain control over my own fertility, I dove into every piece of research I could find on fertility + nutrition. After successfully having my second baby, I decided to write my newest book, What to Eat When You Want to Get Pregnant, as well as my other books What to Eat When You're Pregnant and What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler to help empower new parents and parents-to-be to take charge of their health.
Can you speak to our relationships with food and how shame can impact our ability to nourish ourselves properly?
Shame and self-blame are two of the worst things we can do to ourselves regarding food and nutrition. When people feel shame over their eating behaviors or blame themselves for not having the "willpower" to change their eating, it can cripple someone's efforts. We need to work together to encourage and help those who are struggling with a healthy diet. It takes a village, and support is vital.
Is this something that you have seen a lot of in your work?
I see this much more than I would like. I see patients who have very narrow support systems and who are struggling with self-blame and doubt as a result. It is essential, especially for those who are TTC, to turn away from shame and doubt. It leads to added stress (which isn't good for fertility). And step one is taking toward improving their nutrition, no matter how small, is an important step in the right direction. We need to be proud of ourselves and not let setbacks be roadblocks.
If someone is experiencing food shame or lacks confidence in what they are eating, what tools or resources would you recommend for them?
First, if you aren't confident in what you are eating, seek out help. There are incredible resources and experts who can support you in building confidence in your nutrition. Dietitians, nutrition experts, and psychologists are great resources to help you feel more comfortable and confident with your diet and what you want to eat.
Second, surround yourself with a system of people who support you. If you find certain social circles leave you feeling shamed, consider adjusting accordingly! I see this a lot with patients who are TTC and are overweight--they often think that their body weight is to blame for difficulties conceiving. Your body weight is a number----forget about it. The best course of action is to focus on fueling your body with the nutrients that it needs to have a baby and avoiding those that can harm your fertility — supporting your whole system so that you can, in turn, support theirs.
How did your fertility (and secondary infertility) journey change your mindset and beliefs about yourself?
This experience changed me profoundly. I have always been a Type-A person (admittedly!) and very focused on doing what I need to do to get what I want. This was the first time in my life that I did everything that I was supposed to, and I wasn't getting what I wanted. I learned that things aren't always going to go to "my" plan and that I needed to be adaptable in my life to be happy. I honestly think that this experience of secondary infertility has made me a better parent, spouse, and friend.
What do you wish for others on a similar journey?
I wish that no one had to struggle with infertility, but it is an inevitable thing that some people must face, and as time goes on, science is telling us that more and more people will have to struggle with it. My advice to people would be that they can control more than they think. Infertility is often a place of loneliness and loss of control over your body, life, and dreams. But it doesn't have to look like that. You can adapt your mindset and trust the process and give it time. You can control your nutrition, so start there and focus on the positive things in your life.
For more about Nicole’s fertility journey, click here to watch her interview with our CEO + Co-Founder, Astrid.