My ‘Woman of Substance’ for March is known as the “fairy godmother of fertility”. Zita West, leading fertility and pregnancy expert, has helped thousands of couples to conceive and helped many during their pregnancy. Zita is a practicing midwife, acupuncturist, nutritional advisor and author of ten fertility and pregnancy books. She set up her own private clinic, The Zita West Clinic, in 1992 and an IVF clinic five years ago. In the press it has been mentioned that Kate Winslet, Sophie Wessex, Cate Blanchett, Stella McCartney and Davina McCall have all had holistic support from Zita during their pregnancies.
Zita is acknowledged as one of Europe’s leading experts on how we can improve our prospects at each key stage of the reproductive process through natural means or, if necessary, through medical intervention, and the clinic is renowed for its holistic approach to fertility and pregnancy.
She lives between London and the Cotswolds with her architect husband, Robert. They have two children: a son, Jack, and daughter, Sofie, who recently gave birth to her first child, a son, Rafferty.
Zita and I met at The Chiltern Firehouse, around the corner from Zita’s Marylebone clinic for a cup of tea and a chat.
Zita, your expertise and success rate in this field is impressive – what would you say is the most important thing for couples who are finding it challenging to focus on when trying for a baby?
The difficulty for women is they spend so much of their lives trying NOT to get pregnant - that is what we are taught in sex education at school. So many women I see are very bright but have no knowledge of their cycles each month or fertile time mainly because they have been on the Pill for up to 15 years before they start trying. They don’t know the signs their body gives them when they are experiencing their fertility window. We need to educate, support and advise women both in this and in managing their own expectations. It can take 8 months to a year to get pregnant and they start to panic when it doesn't happen straight away.
You are said to be the perfect combination of empathetic and practical. How did you develop this style, was it natural or good training?
Well that’s nice to hear. I see myself more as providing that vital balance between the medical and the holistic, and I guess the practical and empathetic comes into that. Fertility management in this country for couples trying naturally is frustrating. We have this whole idea that you have to try for a year before you can access tests and investigations, or any support at all. Yet there is a lot that can be done in the lead up to that year through diet, sex education, fertility awareness and stress management techniques. Our first step with our couples is to make a plan. Women especially want a plan of action and a time frame to work within. They want to feel they are making changes that will enable them to fall pregnant naturally before going down the route of IVF. We try to offer a middle ground for women struggling to conceive naturally before they make a decision about IVF.
Your own birth stories are interesting – you’ve shared with me that you suffered with postnatal depression after Jack’s birth. What did you learn from each of your two births that has helped in your work with other women?
Like most women, each of my births was different. At the time I had Sofie, my eldest, I was working as a midwife in Muscat, Oman. It wasn't the glitzy magazine images you see now, it was 32 years ago. I decided to stay out there to give birth as I would have had to come back to the UK three months beforehand or I couldn’t have travelled. It was very basic but I had been delivering babies there myself so I couldn’t exactly feel this wasn’t good enough for me. I worked up until I delivered and the two women I had delivered the day before were in the beds opposite. I learnt a lot in the Middle East about labouring naturally as we didn't have the fancy equipment that we had in the UK at the time. Jack was born back here in the UK, and I had a great labour but I’d been very sick throughout my pregnancy with him, to the extent that I’d lost weight in pregnancy. I found it hard to nourish myself after his birth. I only managed to breastfeed for three weeks as I had no milk and I became very down. My GP was amazing but there was no ‘Dr Google’ then so I had to research nutrition in order to build back my own reserve. What I learned lead me to formulate my own pregnancy vitamins. I also tried acupuncture to help me get through the depression and as a result trained as an acupuncturist, which is one of the pillar-stones of what we offer at the clinic. So this negative time shaped my future.
George Ndukwe joined your practice 5 years ago. He has a fantastic reputation as one of the most experienced IVF doctors and as a world leader in the investigation and treatment of recurrent IVF failure. Would you explain why you working together is beneficial for your clients?
It is thanks to Dr George that we were able to add on the IVF side to our natural pregnancy offer. Some women need IVF, and I was sick of referring them to other IVF clinics when I felt I wanted to continue working with them and could do a better job if we kept it all in one place.
So Dr George joined us. It’s always been our goal to offer something different than just conveyor belt IVF. So looking at the holistic side too works well, and we also have a smaller number of cycles than other clinics so we can give really good care we include nutrition and lifestyle as part of our package.
I have known George for a long time and have always admired his work and used to see the success he was getting with IVF in women who were failing at other clinics because of the work he was doing in the field of reproductive immunology in a small select group of women. This work is often debated by doctors because of the lack of evidence with RCT but so many of the women we see have had failed cycles and we believe the work we do makes the difference.
Your day job must be stressful and emotional at times. How do you balance this to maintain your own health?
I think the older you get the better you are at managing the day to day stress. Yes, it is emotional sitting in my clinic everyday listening to the stories and histories - you hear both happy and sad - but I have been doing this a long time, so you become wise. Sometimes for younger members of the team it can be tough as emotions run high for so many women trying for a baby and it’s especially hard seeing women having miscarriages. We all focus on the moment women come back with their babies. They look like different people, it's as if a weight has been lifted.
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