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My Month of Extreme Woo
All the weird things infertility made me do
“We have reached the stage in our fertility treatment where it’s time to go EXTREME WOO,” I announced to my husband Seth as I lay on my yoga mat, half-stretching, half-scrolling through my phone researching teas and books and expensive coaches and courses designed to capitalize on my desperation to become a mom.
I had just returned from my latest trip to our fertility clinic 100 miles away, where I’d learned that for the third time in four cycles, I had ovulated early and would not be able to move forward with our planned intrauterine insemination (IUI) procedure. I’d suffered through four cycles of Clomid, a drug designed to trick my ovaries into producing extra follicles by sending my reproductive hormones into overdrive. As someone whose mood disorders have been strongly linked to hormonal changes throughout my life, this was not ideal. Clomid left me tired, bloated, emotional, and with an extremely short fuse. The fact that I had suffered those symptoms in vain for months without a viable pregnancy made me disillusioned and increasingly desperate.
With my recent foray into acupuncture, I had become more and more woo-curious with regards to my fertility. As a trained scientist, I tried to wrap my mind around the idea that inserting needles into energy meridians throughout my body could improve blood flow to my uterus and improve my odds of a viable pregnancy. I began to research traditional Chinese medicine, trying to understand the theory of how it all worked. My acupuncturist Gary recommended some books, including a four-inch-thick tome called Healing with Whole Foods, and I obsessively downloaded fertility podcasts that talked about alternative medicine.
Suddenly, a whole new world of healthcare opened up to me; one in which everything from my gut health and vaginal microbiome to the temperature of the foods I eat could be making it harder for me to get and stay pregnant. After three canceled IUI cycles, I decided I needed to take a break from the fertility drugs and see if I could heal my body naturally.
The success stories on all of the woo websites sounded miraculous: couples who’d had 10 failed IVF cycles got pregnant naturally after one month of drinking these teas! Women who had been turned away from the fertility clinic due to their low odds of success had gone on to conceive twins naturally after a few months of visualizations! A 47-year-old woman became a first-time mom after multiple miscarriages because she worked with a coach to release her fears about motherhood!
With Western medicine failing to offer me any solutions, and with doctors writing me off at 43 as too old to have a baby, these stories offered a glimmer of hope. “Don’t listen to the doctors!” was the mantra of all these websites. “Don’t give up! This one thing could be the key!”
I was willing to try anything, and thanks to my obsessive-compulsive personality, I decided to try everything. All at once.
Several hundred dollars worth of fertility teas arrived in the mail (a one-month supply), along with Womb Healing Massage Oil and the Fertile Mama Soak. I was to drink a rotation of four cups of tea a day at specific times relative to meals, each of which required 15 minutes to steep. I tried to start the first batch of Detox Tea as soon as I woke up, stumbling downstairs and measuring the correct amount of dried herbs in the stainless steel tea infuser that came with the kit. It seemed that by the time I boiled the water, steeped the tea, sat down to drink it, and got up to pee, it was almost time to start making the next tea. On and on this went throughout the day, day after day.
The Fertile Mama Soak was basically a giant tea bag for my bath tub, full of herbs and Epsom salts. I am not a bath person, and my tub is barely big enough to submerge myself, but I dutifully steeped my herbal sachet in the bath water, lit a candle, and pressed play on one of the fertility meditations that I’d added to my order as an upsell. “I am a fertile Earth goddess!” the woman on the recording proclaimed over New-Age background music, as she directed me to envision my egg welcoming my husband’s “jubilant sperm” into her “warm embrace.” I was to listen to these meditations daily, choosing the one that corresponded to the stage of my cycle (menstrual, follicular, ovulatory, or luteal). I also watched a YouTube video to learn the proper technique for womb massage, and I slathered the Womb Healing oil on my lower abdomen in a circular motion several times in the days leading up to ovulation.
After a week or so of adjusting to my new tea schedule, I talked to my acupuncturist Gary about taking the Chinese herbs he had recommended. I had declined to try them initially because my fertility clinic advised against any herbal remedies, but I was desperate for something to help lengthen and regulate my cycles so I wouldn’t keep missing my ovulatory window. In order to determine which herbs I needed and the correct dosage, Gary instructed me to stop brushing my tongue for several days and then send him a picture of it so he could check the color and thickness of the coating. He then started me on one type of herb with a dosage of three pills, three times a day, and he ordered a second concoction of herbs that the compounding pharmacy recommended taking 15 pills, twice a day. Gary suggested that we reduce that dosage to three pills, three times a day along with the other herb, “so there will still be room for food in your stomach.”
I had already been taking a cocktail of fertility pills for the past year that included the usual prenatal vitamin and omega-3s along with various vitamins and supplements that are thought to have antioxidant properties and boost egg quality. So now, on top of the dozen or so pills I was already choking down every night, I added another 18 pills at intervals throughout the day. I also learned that my vitamins needed to be taken at different times relative to meals and relative to each other, so I further refined my supplement schedule to four or five dosings of different pills at different times of day.
By the second week of Extreme Woo, I realized that the rotation of teas and supplements (and timing them with meals) was dominating my daily to-do list. Added to that was the necessity of feeding myself at regular intervals throughout the day so that my herbs and supplements each had the proper absorption. The nutritionist I’d worked with a year earlier had emphasized that I must eat breakfast in the morning, otherwise my body would think I was starving and decide against getting pregnant. She had also advised against eating dinner too late at night (which was a bad habit Seth and I developed during the long summer days), because my body couldn’t do an efficient job digesting all those nutrients while it was asleep. I struggled mightily to follow her advice, as I tend to ignore my bodily cues until I reach a point of desperation. Left to my own devices, I can work all day until 2 or 3pm before I realize I’m starving and grab whatever food is in front of me (as I wrote about in my essay “Treading Water”). But I knew I had to do a better job planning my meals, both for the supplement schedule and so my body could trust me to nourish any babies that might be conceived.
Fertility nutrition was my next level of woo to explore. I’ll call it woo because although much is known about nutrients that support a healthy pregnancy, there is utter disagreement about what kind of diet delivers the proper nutrition in the proper way. Traditional Chinese medicine categorizes different foods as being warming or cooling, and warns against eating anything that could chill the internal organs and make the womb inhospitable. These cooling foods include everything from salad to ice water (and all cold drinks), smoothies, and raw fruits and vegetables—basically everything I’d been eating every day up until then. The Healing with Whole Foods book recommended eating only cooked foods, and it emphasized that these needed to be prepared fresh and not frozen or reheated in a microwave, which it said would somehow damage the cells of the food and make it less healthy.
So now, on top of choking down four cups of herbal tea and 29 pills at carefully scheduled times of the day, I also needed to prepare all three meals from scratch (and not refrigerate or microwave my leftovers). And the most important part was to chew each bite of food at least 32 times to let my mouth’s digestive enzymes do their thing so that my stomach wouldn’t have to work as hard at digestion, thereby freeing up energy for reproduction.
I had also discovered a method of purportedly balancing hormones through diet by eating certain foods that would support estrogen or progesterone production at certain times in the menstrual cycle. The Happy Hormone Guide provided vegan menus that were heavy on estrogen-supporting foods in the first half of the cycle (like tofu and flax seeds), switching to progesterone-supporting foods after ovulation (including sweet potatoes and chickpeas). I presented Seth with the cookbook, since he is our household chef, and we traded in our much-anticipated French Frydays and pizza Sundays for a rotation of stews and stir-fries. By the time I made it through two weeks of sweet-potato dishes, I barely wanted to eat anymore. I asked Gary if the hormone diet jived with Chinese medicine and he informed me that sweet potatoes are tonifying and I shouldn’t be eating them at all. He advised eating beets and other red foods, because Chinese medicine teaches that anything red would help build my blood to support conception and gestation. (One book I read even advised sleeping on red sheets, which seemed a bit of a stretch to me.)
The deeper I got into fertility nutrition, the more I noticed that the cookbooks I found kept their recipes sugar-free and gluten-free. I did some more research and found this was a trend among fertility websites. Sugar and gluten have been proven to cause inflammation (even in people without Celiac disease), and inflammation exacerbates all kinds of health problems, from skin conditions and mood disorders to endometriosis (all of which I have). The theory goes that by stressing the body on so many fronts, inflammation in turn stresses the reproductive system and impacts egg quality. Years ago, I had cut out meat, eggs, and dairy from my diet. Gluten and sugar would be the final frontier.
Armed with The Happy Hormone Guide, I made a trip to the local food co-op and spent two hours scouring the shelves and the bulk food section for raw, sugar-free cashew butter and sunflower seed butter, organic medjool dates, stevia powder, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds, coconut milk, gluten-free crackers and breads, and even gluten-free oats (since regular oats are processed in facilities that may cause contamination). I ordered a variety of dried seaweeds on Amazon that were supposed to be important sources of iodine during the menstrual phase. I spent an afternoon cleaning out a shelf of my refrigerator to store my raw nuts, seeds, and nut-butters, because apparently they go rancid when left unrefrigerated and can do more harm than good. I ordered exotic-sounding powders like Maca root, vegan collagen peptides, and spirulina (a type of algae) that were supposed to boost my immune system. Like the scene from The Simpsons where Marge, Homer, and Lisa visit a health food store, my bill at the checkout counter jumped ten dollars with each scan, and a single reusable-grocery-bag of food cost me over two hundred dollars.
Did you know you can help fund my fertility diet by pledging your support for my writing? 😁
I stuffed the colorful containers of all of the ingredients into my cupboard and stared at them blankly. Now what? What even is a collagen peptide, I wondered?
In order to have a quick and easy breakfast in the morning, I started soaking chia seeds overnight in a mason jar mixed with almond milk, unsweetened coconut, tahini (sesame seed paste), and fresh blueberries. This routine lasted exactly two days, then I started begging Seth to not only make my chia jar at night before bed, but also bring it up to my bedroom in the morning (along with the refrigerated probiotic I was supposed to take 30 minutes before a meal) so I wouldn’t forget to eat it. And while he was at it, I asked, would he mind making my morning tea and leaving it in a thermos beside my bed when he left for work? This was the first crack in my Extreme Woo resolve. Seth did as I requested for exactly three days, then the weekend came and he forgot all about our new routine, so I was stuck making oatmeal and microwaving the leftovers the next day.
To make breakfast easier, Seth made me seed-cycling balls from The Happy Hormone Guide that contained sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, unsweetened coconut, and raw cacao puréed in a food processor and rolled into little energy nuggets. They were barely palatable, and they got covered in fuzzy white mold before I could eat them all. As I grew more and more desperate for something I ate to taste good, I decided to make a batch of date syrup as a natural sweetener. This required soaking a handful of medjool dates in boiling water, then finding all the parts of the blender (which I hadn’t used in ages because I wasn’t allowed to eat smoothies because Chinese medicine says they are too cold) and pulverizing the date-water into a thick syrup. Supposedly fruit sugars are OK as long as you consume them with the fiber of the fruit to slow absorption; juicing the fruit is no good because it separates out the fiber and causes a spike in blood sugar. I poured my date syrup over a batch of buckwheat banana pancakes that had the thickness and consistency of a compact disc and desperately stuffed my face for a deeply unsatisfying pseudo-sugar-carb fix.
By this point, I was obsessing about every bite of food I put in my body, and I spent all my free time listening to podcasts and reading books about fertility nutrition. The contradictory advice made my head spin: Soy is good for fertility! Soy is bad for fertility! Eat only cooked foods! Be sure to eat enough raw foods! Eat spinach to get your calcium and iron! Spinach inhibits absorption of nutrients, so avoid it! Meat products are the worst thing for your fertility! You can’t get pregnant on a plant-based diet; you need to add meat! Eat plenty of raw nuts! Be careful about eating nuts because they go rancid! I even found contradictions in some of the supposed health-food products I ordered: the supplement for egg quality that contained carrageenan, which causes inflammation; the vegan protein powder that contained erythritol, an artificial sweetener linked to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. And food was not the only fertility tool that could be causing unknown harm: I learned that the Fitbit I bought to monitor my heart rate during exercise and track my sleep habits emitted electromagnetic fields (EMFs) that might cause cancer.
Exercise was a whole ‘nother issue for me. As someone who has hiked thousands of miles, climbed hundreds of mountains, and completed several marathons and Olympic-distance triathlons in the past decade, it has been a challenge to follow the advice of my fertility doctor to keep my heart rate under 140 after ovulation (which is barely a brisk walk), or to listen to my acupuncturist, who tells me that intense exercise depletes my yin and I shouldn’t be doing anything beyond a gentle walk. In Chinese medicine, yin is about slowing down and being (the black half of the iconic yin-yang circle), while yang (the white paisley part of the circle) is the more forceful energy of doing. In our modern world, most people overdo the yang side of things and end up with what Gary referred to as liver qi (pronounced “chee”) stagnation. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine are prescribed to get the qi, or life force, moving again. In Western terms, stagnation equates to stress, and stress requires the yin of relaxation to restore balance and health.
I started skipping my normal running workouts and found an app that guided me through yin yoga, but the postures were so uncomfortable that I couldn’t stay in them for the lengthy 2-3 minute poses. When there was still snow on the ground, I thought I could game the system by switching to cross-country skiing instead of running. Surely gliding across the snow wouldn’t elevate my heart rate? I got a season pass to a dog-friendly ski touring place and went every day for a week to ski a lovely 9-mile loop, but my exhaustion at the end of each day revealed that my yin was, in fact, being depleted. Gary disapproved, so I cut back on my skiing. I never felt like walking counted as exercise, so instead I would go days without moving my body at all. My fertility became an excuse for lethargy, and my mood and energy dropped even more without my daily dose of dopamine from working up a good sweat. When I did treat myself to a slow jog or a moderate ski to ease my stress, I felt guilty that I might have just prevented an embryo from implanting in my uterus.
As my dietary and exercise restrictions depleted my energy, I sought out even more Extreme Woo practices to relieve my stress. Gary started adhering ear seeds to specific pressure points in my ears at the end of my acupuncture sessions; these were tiny gold beads stuck to a round adhesive tape that were strategically placed to relieve my anxiety. I could rub them throughout the day to simulate the effects of acupuncture. He also taught me how to do moxibustion: a stick of mugwort charcoal is lit like incense and then moved towards the “stomach-36” point on my lower leg in a circular motion, about one hand’s width beneath a bone in my knee. He said I should do this at home for 15 minutes a day. I practiced it on Seth and he said “This is the most woo thing I’ve ever done.” I also took a course on tapping, also known as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which involves tapping your fingers on different energy meridians of the body while repeating affirmations that release negative thoughts and emotions. I tried it once, then I never remembered to do it again.
My pinnacle of Extreme Woo came after I’d watched an online seminar about ancestral trauma. I signed up for a 2-hour, one-on-one inherited trauma release session with a guy named Jonathan from the UK who had a twisted red mustache like Yosemite Sam. He had successfully treated his lifelong sneaker addiction by releasing his own ancestral trauma, and now he has devoted his life to helping other people unburden themselves from the traumas of their ancestors. The idea is that bad things that happened many generations ago get passed down as inherited trauma, and we take irrational actions in our lives that are in response to these unseen, unknown traumas that our great-great-great grandparents experienced. Jonathan spent three hours on Zoom surrounded by my ancestral spirits in invisible conversation with them, turning his head in different directions and nodding while he maintained stoic silence for minutes at a time. Like a good fortune-teller, he occasionally checked in with me about his prognostications to see if he was on track. At the end of the session, he declared that my traumas were healed and I should feel relaxed and unburdened from now on. If I didn’t, I was to book a follow-up session to clear out the burdens that remained. I left the session feeling surprisingly light and happy for the first time in a while.
With my ancestral wounds released, I started to seek out more and more self-professed experts to help solve my fertility problem. I had a consultation with a functional nutritionist who, for $5,000, would order me a battery of at-home tests that would measure my blood, urine, saliva, and stool for hundreds of different health markers that traditional medicine doesn’t explore (apparently the quality of your poop says a lot about your overall health). She would explore food and chemical sensitivities, uncover hormone and micronutrient imbalances, and determine which species of bacteria inhabit my gut microbiome. For an additional fee, she could measure the levels of bioaccumulated environmental toxins in my body. With all of this information, she would prescribe additional supplements and add or restrict certain foods to restore balance in all of those areas. But when I told her about my vegan diet (no meat, eggs, or dairy), she said that I would have to start eating meat or ingesting meat in pill form because she believed this was essential for conception. Since this contradicted my long-held personal values and much of the health advice I’d read, and since I really couldn’t afford these tests, I opted not to hire her. Besides, even if she did tell me exactly what was wrong with me and how to fix it, at this point I had zero capacity to juggle more supplements and dietary restrictions.
At some point during my month of Extreme Woo, I started tracking my menstrual cycle using my basal body temperature, or BBT. The basal body temperature is the lowest temperature the body reaches in a 24-hour cycle, and it occurs at the end of a good night’s sleep. For people with ovaries, BBT is lower in the first half of the menstrual cycle and rises sharply after ovulation due to the production of progesterone in the ovaries, so it’s a pretty accurate way to know when you’ve ovulated (and time intercourse accordingly).
BBT charting required taking my temperature orally every morning using a specialized thermometer that measures to the hundredths of a degree. It’s important to take the temperature around the same time every day, when you first wake up, and before you talk or sit up or go to the bathroom. The problem is, you have to be asleep for at least three hours before the measurement is taken, so if I woke up to pee at 4am, I would take my temperature in case I wasn’t able to fall asleep for another few hours. The BBT thermometer I purchased made a high-pitched beep when I turned it on, it emitted an extended beep to indicate when it was done with the reading, and another beep when I turned it off. None of this was very amusing to my husband or my dogs at 4am. It also meant that I was anxious every time I rolled over in the middle of the night, checking the clock to determine whether I should take my temperature, sometimes taking several beepy readings over the course of the night and trying to memorize the lowest temperature as I drifted back to sleep so I could enter it into my fertility app in the morning. By this point, I was usually so wide awake that I couldn’t fall back asleep. It was fascinating to track the data in a graph on the app and have new insight into my own body, and I was excited to see that in my first month of Extreme Woo, I had a normal cycle length and normal ovulation for the first time since I’d started fertility treatments! This was definitely more science than woo, but it was another daily commitment that made one more aspect of my life—my sleep—revolve around my fertility, after I’d already altered my diet, exercise, personal care routines, and sex life to be more fertility-friendly.
As I adapted to my new fertility-friendly lifestyle, I was curious how other people had navigated the stresses and structures of the fertility woo. I came across the book Inconceivable by Julia Indichova, a woman who had been diagnosed with secondary infertility in the 1990s after she’d had a healthy pregnancy and birth a few years earlier. Like me, her fertility doctors told her that based on her hormone levels, she wasn’t a candidate for IVF (in-vitro fertilization) and there wasn’t much they could do for her. She embarked on her own Extreme Woo journey of alternative medicine and mindset work, determined to prove the doctors wrong and conceive a child naturally. When her miracle happened and she gave birth to her second daughter in her 40s, she vowed to teach her strategy to others. Over the past two decades, she has refined her work into what she calls the Fertile Heart OVUM practice, outlined in her second book, The Fertile Female, and she teaches her practice via in-person and online workshops.
After reading Julia’s books, I became curious about working with her. Although she’s not trained as a life coach, I noticed that her OVUM model used a similar parts-work approach as they types of coaching I’m certified in, except she describes the different parts of our personalities as Orphans (O) and Visionaries (V), guided by the Ultimate Mother (UM). According to Julia’s model, the Orphans are the young child-like parts of us that are scared and act out of fear. The Visionary is our highest self, the one who intuitively knows the next right action to take. The Ultimate Mom is the feminine spirit that guides the Visionary’s actions. This overlaps with the Internal Family Systems (IFS) parts-work model I’m trained in, but in IFS we call the orphans Exiles, the visionary is called Self, and the Ultimate Mom is what some people call God or Source, that mysterious power that guides us.
I attended Julia’s free webinar, in which she enthusiastically shouted at her Zoom audience of mostly-mid-40s women to “Forget about High FSH! Forget about Low AMH! Forget about Diminished Ovarian Reserve!” and assured us: “There is no such thing as infertility! YOU ARE ALL RESPLENDENTLY FERTILE!” She was referring to the hormone numbers and diagnoses that those of us struggling with infertility are all too familiar with, and telling us that our fertility doctors didn’t really know what they were talking about—they didn’t understand the power of the body and mind to heal itself. She was living proof of it, she said, along with all the people she’d worked with whose subsequent pregnancies defied the odds.
Julia had the energy and certainty of a true evangelist. I left the webinar feeling curious about her OVUM model, refreshed by her assertion that my doctors were wrong and I still could have a baby, and at the same time wary of her approach; the way it dismissed science and proselytized the power of visualization and a practice she called Body Truth. Throughout the webinar she encouraged us to move our bodies in strange ways, “shake it out,” then inhale deeply and exhale with a guttural noise. I only had a few days to decide whether to spend $500 on her online course and group program, which would commit me to 10 hours of video lessons, another 10 hours of group coaching sessions, and daily visualizations and body truth exercises. This would be on top of the other 983 things a day I already had to remember to do to optimize my fertility, from the teas and supplements and cycle-specific diet to the BBT charting, meditations, moxibustion, and more.
I anguished over this decision. In my journey as an online entrepreneur and life/business coach for five years, I had spent all my money on so-called experts and coaches, each one promising to have the magical solution to happiness and success. Most of the time, I wound up disappointed and vowed to never get sucked into an expensive program again, but every time it seemed that the next guru had the REAL answer and I got wooed by their promises and my FOMO (fear of missing out). So deciding whether to invest in a program I was iffy about at a time when I had no money or energy to spare but that felt like truly my last resort left me really stressed. I was anxious about spending the money, but worried this might be my last chance to have a baby.
That night, I was up late reviewing Julia’s books and website and trying to make a decision about her program. I woke up at 12:30am and again at 3am and dutifully took my BBT both times before I realized it was still the middle of the night (if I had rolled over to check the clock first, I might get an inaccurate reading because the movement would elevate my temperature). After the 3am wake-up, I couldn’t fall back asleep. I ruminated about my decision and got myself more and more worked up thinking about everything that was on my fertility plate. The longer I was awake, the hungrier I got, and lately my hunger had been coming on suddenly and painfully. I didn’t want to wake Seth, and I racked my brain to think of something I was allowed to eat that I could make myself. I fumbled my way downstairs in the dark to the kitchen and started rummaging through the cabinets in desperation. I knocked a glass jar off the shelf and it shattered on the counter, slicing into my hand. I collapsed to the floor in tears and started screaming, partly in pain, partly in hunger, but mostly in sheer exhaustion and overwhelm at the stress of keeping up with all my fertility woo. I had reached my breaking point, barely a month into my new sugar-free gluten-free warm-food-only meditation-moxibustion-massage BBT-herbal tea-supplement routine.
Awakened by my screams, Seth rushed downstairs, picked me up off the floor, and bandaged my wound. Still determined to relieve my gnawing hunger, I clawed myself over to the counter and pulled out the blender. Into its glass pitcher I dumped a banana, cashew milk, fresh-ground raw almond butter, organic cacao powder, hemp seed oil, gluten-free oats, vegan collagen peptides, and superseed powder (a blend of ground flax, hemp, pumpkin seeds, chia, sunflower seeds, and barley grass), then blended them together. It tasted so bad, I had to break my month-long sugar-free streak and add maple syrup.
I collapsed and cried for most of the day. I felt exhausted by everything I was doing to try to be fertile, and utterly overwhelmed by all the other things I could be doing. The next time I saw Gary for acupuncture, he told me I should stop overthinking it; that the stress of my efforts was further depleting my qi, and I’d be better off relaxing my routine. I couldn’t help it, though—I registered for Julia’s Visionary Circle at the last minute, convinced that her visualizations might be my last hope of conceiving a baby.
As it turns out, I didn’t listen to Gary, or to Julia. I didn’t slow down, relax, or visualize myself with a child in my arms twice a day. Instead, I tried to push through my Extreme Woo routine. And the more I pushed, the more my body started to rebel.
My lower legs started to feel itchy around the moxibustion points I was stimulating, so I quit doing the moxa. When the itching didn’t go away, I emailed my doctor to ask if there was any chance I could have leukemia (itchy legs is an unusual early sign, which I learned from Suleika Jaouad’s brilliant memoir Between Two Kingdoms). My doctor replied to my portal message saying my labs were normal and I should try some anti-itch cream. I could sense her virtual eye-roll at my paranoia. When the itching spread to my face and neck, I asked Gary if it could have anything to do with the herbs I’d started taking. He didn’t think so, but he advised me to stop taking the herbal pills and teas and see if the rash resolved. (I later concluded that the rash was triggered by some essential oil products I was using, but I never resumed my moxa or herb-taking.)
Meanwhile, I started noticing increasing pain and burning in my abdomen, especially when I got lazy about my supplement schedule and took them right before bedtime, or in the middle of the day on an empty stomach. It took a while for me to connect the discomfort to swallowing a dozen pills at a time. It took even longer for me to realize that the burning was not normal. One night at the end of a really stressful day, it was so bad that I couldn’t fall asleep. A lightbulb went off when I made the connection between my emotional upset and abdominal discomfort. I Googled “ulcer symptoms” and found a precise description of what I was feeling: “a burning or gnawing pain in the center of the abdomen” that—surprise!—is exacerbated by stress and hunger. I sent another late-night portal message to my doctor, who believed me this time and prescribed some over-the-counter medications and scheduled me for a visit. I stopped taking my fertility supplements the next day (except for the essential prenatal vitamin and omega-3s).
In the midst of the mysterious rashes and burning digestive tract, my resolve was slipping on my fertility diet, especially the sugar-free-gluten-free part. I stuck with it through my first camping trip of the year, mixing chia bowls in the back of my Honda Element and cooking a tasty lentil dal from one of my hormone cookbooks. But on my way home from Cape Cod, I visited my parents for my dad’s birthday. My mom had bought me vegan chicken patties, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her they were made of gluten. She also baked a delicious vegan chocolate cake, which I reasoned I had to eat in honor of my dad. Then she sent me home with all the leftovers, and I ate cake every day for a week (in ongoing celebration of my dad’s birthday, of course!).
Since my BBT had shown my ovulation returning to normal after a month off the fertility meds, I decided to try another round of IUI with a different follicle-stimulating medication called Letrizole. In the back of my mind, I knew my resolve for the Extreme Woo was slipping, and I felt like it was now or never to catch a good egg. The day Seth and I traveled to the fertility clinic for our IUI procedure, we had lunch at our favorite crepe place. I ordered a vegan, gluten-free crepe, but overlooked the fact that it contained seitan (made with vital wheat gluten), and I splurged on a sugary lemonade and greasy fries, because I’ve done everything I can for this egg and it’s too late now, right? And don’t I deserve a treat for going through all this?
The following week, I left for my camping trip in Acadia and my diet continued to go off the rails. At my favorite cafe in Bar Harbor, I ordered a smoothie and smoothie bowl in the same meal, forgetting until I ingested them that the frozen fruits were freezing my uterus (which could, at any moment, be trying to implant a fertilized egg). I ordered several veggie wraps for lunch (gluten plus cold, raw vegetables—a double whammy!) because it was easy to grab on the go.
The final straw came after I got my period in Acadia and endured all kinds of logistical gymnastics to get blood work and medications for yet another IUI cycle while I was on the road. I packed up and drove six hours home from my camping trip one day, then set my alarm for 5am the next day to drive two hours to the fertility clinic for the follicular ultrasound that would track my egg development. The nurse said it looked like the follicles were still developing, which was good news—I should be ovulating later in my cycle, giving the eggs more time to mature, and a greater chance of success! Maybe all my egg-quality efforts would pay off, and we’d finally hit the jackpot! The next afternoon, the nurse called back with my lab results and said that in fact, I had already ovulated, and there would be no IUI—our fourth cancellation out of six medicated cycles.
My body had betrayed me. My Extreme Woo had failed me.
“Fuck it,” I told Seth. “We’re having pizza and ice cream for dinner.”
And we did.
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