Pleasure and Nervous System Regulation for Increasing Fertility

embodiment fertility sexuality

When it comes to the fertility conversation, where my interest really lies is in embodied fertility, re-wilding fertility so to speak, so that you can use it as you’d like and experience it day to day regardless of what medical diagnosis you might have or if you even want children. Fertility is power, and yes creating a baby is powerful, but this power can be wielded in many ways. 

With that said, what I’ll be speaking to here does positively impact fertility directly on a physiological level! Which is great news if you’re needing a new take on struggling with infertility. 

My approach to embodied fertility care is multi-faceted, including lots of education, home care practices, lifestyle support and exploring sexuality, along with acupuncture and herbal medicine. Many of these methods are gaining awareness and acceptance on a bigger scale, even among specialists in assisted reproductive technology. However, pleasure is still hanging on the fringe. 

Defining Pleasure

The most basic definition of pleasure is a feeling of happiness, enjoyment or satisfaction. To take that definition a step further in the direction of women’s sexual health, according to Emily Nagoski Ph.D., pleasure is the combination of enjoying, expecting and eagerness being interpreted in the midbrain. All of these functions are context dependent. This concept is key, because it essentially means that women may only find stimulation pleasurable in certain contexts. This is going to vary from woman to woman and even from one experience to another or day to day for the same woman.

While orgasm or climax are most definitely included on the pleasure spectrum, I’m also speaking to pleasure in a larger context of day to day access to experiencing pleasure in the body. 

Why pleasure?

In this way, considering that pleasure is context dependent and varies greatly in perception and experience, it is challenging, if not impossible, to study in modern clinical trials. Maybe it’s possible to study the concept of climax in certain contexts and how that affects blood flow to pelvic organs and hormonal regulation; however, pleasure in its larger context is hard to nail down in a lab setting with clear parameters and measurable outcomes.

Of course, this doesn’t keep scientists from coming up with theories around the female orgasm (really climax) and its evolutionary contribution. A recent New York Times article contains opposing views from a number of scientists. Some saying that the female orgasm plays no role, while others argue that the clitoris was once placed inside the vaginal wall and would signal the brain to release an egg when stimulated. According to this theory, as females had access to regular intercourse with men (that assumedly led to orgasm), the need for orgasm to signal the brain to release an egg was no longer necessary. Therefore, the clitoris slowly moved away from its original location.

While this is an interesting proposal, it really fails to recognize the fact that the clitoral legs are still in very close contact with the inner walls of the vagina to this day. So, one can only assume that when they use the word clitoris here they are speaking to the clitoral head. Ultimately, what this reveals is how little we do know about the evolutionary role of the female orgasm and how poor education is around anatomy of arousal! 

So, what do we really know about pleasure and how it affects a woman’s body?  

Let’s start with the wise words of Sheri Winston and her view on sexual pleasure specifically related to the pelvic organs: “The impressive and powerful movements of the uterus during arousal and orgasm function to support and maximize fertility. A physical and energetic circuit runs from the vaginal opening in and along the canal, up through the uterus, up along the round ligaments, over the pubic bone and back to the vaginal opening.” She goes on to explain the role of hormones that are present in both childbirth and sex: oxytocin, endorphins and more that facilitate trance like states of pleasure and ecstasy. Now we’re getting somewhere!

Sexual pleasure in the female body increases blood flow to the pelvic organs and erectile tissue in the pelvic floor, surrounding the vaginal opening. When these tissues are engorged it helps to keep sperm closer to the opening of the cervix to promote fertilization. The increased blood flow also has lasting effects of better supplied tissue throughout the pelvic cavity, resulting in greater reproductive health overall. 

What does the nervous system have to do with it?

While sexual specific pleasure may have more time in the spotlight when it comes to fertility, we can also expand this same concept into other sensory pleasures: touch, taste, smell, sound and sight. These all have potential to create a pleasure cascade in the brain and affect the body in a positive way for increasing the chance of conception. 

How the brain responds to pleasurable stimulus is closely tied to the activation or deactivation of different branches of the nervous system. While the sympathetic nervous system is often activated during higher states of arousal, without feeling safe and relaxed, which is guided by the parasympathetic nervous system, most women will not be able to access pleasure. 

When the parasympathetic nervous system (more specifically the ventral vagal portion of that branch) is activated blood flow moves to the internal organs to promote digestion, healing and rejuvenation. This is essentially the opposite of a stress response, during which blood flow is diverted to the limbs and large muscle groups as the body prepares to discharge in some way (fleeing, fighting). Through ventral vagal activation, blood flow, carrying rich oxygen supply and nutrients, also moves to the pelvic bowl and reproductive organs. This alone can be very healing for a woman’s fertility cycle. 

Both pleasure and ventral vagal activation send a very important and primal message to the brain: “I am safe and out of danger.” Without this primal knowledge, the reproductive system fails to thrive. After all, why create offspring if one is in a perilous situation? 

Our bodies are inherently wise and able of making decisions that support survival. This is often forgotten in modern medicine and approaches that manipulate a woman’s hormonal system to produce a particular outcome. Then, women are left thinking that their bodies are broken, when actually they are working perfectly by not reproducing during a time of stress and turmoil. 

Start increasing your fertility potential now

The question then becomes how can you cultivate states of pleasure for yourself to positively influence fertility? The ways are infinite; however, there are a few worth highlighting. Starting a self-pleasure practice and committing to it regularly is a great place to start. This could look a variety of ways: masterbation, self massage, taking a hot bath, eating a favorite meal, interacting with nature, and so on. 

The key is to be in relationship with your own pleasure and make it a priority. A practice that is quite potent for nervous system regulation, especially when chronic stress is an issue, is yoga nidra, which is a guided relaxation technique that facilitates deep healing awareness in the body.  I also think somatic experiencing or booking a mapping session with me are great ways to move towards nervous system regulation.

Good news, most of these practices and ways of improving fertility are very accessible. There is no need for pelvic exams or expensive medication. You can claim this embodied wisdom for yourself starting now. 

Together we can change the course of fertility treatments by embracing embodiment and pleasure. I long for a time when pleasure is seen as a legit “intervention” for infertility. That might take a while but you don’t have to wait for the evidence from an outer authority. Follow your pleasure thread and you will be the evidence. 

Need support along the way? Check out my workshop specifically about Restoring Fertility and Ovarian Vitality.

Resources for further exploration

Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. 

Women’s Anatomy of Arousal: Secret Maps to Buried Pleasure by Sheri Winston CNM, RN, BSN, LMT 

Scientists Ponder an Evolutionary Mystery: The Female Orgasm by Carl Zimmer in The New York Times August 1st, 2016

The pace of modern life versus our cavewoman biochemistry by Dr Libby Weaver at TEDxQueenstown 2014

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