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Stress and your fertility


In our Western societies, stress has become a daily occurrence.  In fact it is almost expected that our working days should be stressful if we are to be successful efficient people.  The symptoms associated with stress however may not sound so glamorous:  Stress symptoms commonly include a state of alarm and adrenaline production, short-term resistance as a coping mechanism, and exhaustion, as well as irritability, muscular tension, inability to concentrate and a variety of physiological reactions such as headache and elevated heart rate. When stress becomes a chronic state rather than a sporadic occurrence, it will have a real impact on our physical and psychological states.  When we look at fertility, the impact of stress in today’s society is very real, although still often understated.

How can stress affect your fertility?

Believe it or not, our bodies are equipped to prevent conception from occurring during times of stress. Adrenalin, the hormone that is released by our bodies during stressful times, signals to our body that conditions are not ideal for conception, and inhibits the use of the hormone progesterone, which is essential for fertility. It can also cause the pituitary gland to release higher levels of prolactin, also linked to fertility problems.

Recent research has shown that stress boosts the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, a hormone that inhibits the body’s main sex hormones GnRH (gonadotropin releasing hormone) (*).  GnRH is responsible for the release of Luteinizing hormones and follicle-stimulating hormones by the pituitary, the suppression of testosterone, estrogens, and sexual behaviour. Subsequently an inhibition of GnRH can suppress ovulation, sexual activity and sperm count. 

We already know that stress is generally linked to poorer health, nervous tension and general tiredness, and we now know that stress can directly impair your fertility.  If you have been trying to conceive with no result, it should certainly be a factor to consider, whether or not medical tests have found a medical reason for your infertility, and whether you are trying to conceive naturally or through assisted conception treatments.

How to Reduce Stress for Fertility

1. What causes stress in your life?

It may not be easy to remove all causes of stress in your life of course, but any change in that direction can only contribute to better fertility.  If you work long hours, have too little sleep, have a stressful job, you may want to consider whether any of these factors can be changed.  If not, you may want to find ways to better cope with stress in your life.

2. Coping better with stress

You may or may not be able to take the stress out of your life, but you certainly can control how you react to stressful situations that may arise.  So, do you think about things over and over, sometimes unable to sleep because of it (lack of sleep and tiredness can also cause stress!)?  Do you get angry and frustrated, unable to let go of what happened?

Looking at how stress affects you and how your react to it and trying to improve and change it can also make a big difference.  Whether it is adopting lifestyle habits that reduce stress or using alternative therapies, there are a variety of options available.

a.     Eat regular meals

If you are constantly feeling tired and running on adrenalin, make sure you eat regular meals and favour low GI foods, avoid coffee and sugar (both lead to high variation in your glucose levels and stimulate the production of adrenalin and cortisol).

b.     Make sure you get enough sleep

Many of us know what it is like to go without sleep and how it can affect our mood and stress level. Adequate sleep is crucial to proper brain function – no less so than air, water, and food.

c.     Get regular exercise

Regular exercise is useful in removing the byproducts of the stress response by providing the opportunity to simulate the fighting or running dictated by the fight or flight phenomenon. As such, regular exercise allows the body to return to homeostasis faster and reduce the physical impact of psycho-social stress.

d.     Make time to relax

Beyond developing a positive attitude, you can reduce stress in your life by taking scheduled breaks to relax and rejuvenate your mind and body. Try to refresh your body and mind through one or more of the following:

Go for a walk. Spend time in nature. Call a good friend. Sweat out tension with a good workout. Write in your journal. Take a long bath. Light scented candlesTry yoga, taichi or qigong Play with a pet. Work in your garden. Get a massage. Curl up with a good book. Listen to music. Watch a comedy

e.     Have acupuncture

Acupuncture triggers a relaxation response with decreased heart rate, lowered BP, stress reduction and increased energy and tissue regeneration. It has been shown to produce a calming or tranquilizing action that is of particular interest to people in states of stress. Acupuncture can relieve feelings of anxiety and depression, which may be serious handicaps for people trying to cope with difficult domestic, social and work problems.

f.       Use calming herbs and supplements

Taking nervine herbs helps the body to deal with stress better. These herbs are safe to take on a daily basis and have an immediate effect as well as long term on the nervous system. These are great to use in conjunction with a stress reducing habit from above.

Herbs that help with a stressed out body
Lemon Balm

g.    Meditation

The benefits of meditation are manifold. When practicing meditation, your heart rate and breathing slow down, your blood pressure normalizes, you use oxygen more efficiently, and you sweat less. Also, your adrenal glands produce less cortisol, your mind ages at a slower rate, and your immune function improves. Meditation affects the body in exactly the opposite ways that stress does, restoring the body to a calm state, helping the body to repair itself, and preventing new damage due to the physical effects of stress.

h.    Moving meditation

Certain forms of exercise (jogging, cross country skiing, swimming, hiking, bicycling) require a fairly consistent repetitive motion that can alter one’s state of consciousness.  Described by some as moving meditation, the physiological effects of regular participation in these activities is very similar to what happens when one practices meditation.  Breathing and movement, act as a mantra and may in part be responsible for the feelings of calmness and tranquility claimed by some in response to exercise.

(*) Effect of stress on the expression of GnRH and GnRH receptor (GnRH-R) genes in the preoptic area-hypothalamus and GnRH-R gene in the stalk/median eminence and anterior pituitary gland in ewes during follicular phase of the estrous cycle. Ciechanowska M, Lapot M, Malewski T, Misztal T, Mateusiak K, Przekop F – Acta Neurobiol Exp (Wars). 2007;67(1):1-12.