There has been a lot of research into stress and fertility. We’ve all heard about the negative effects of stress on our fertility. However, being told to just relax is not as simple as it sounds. And then we start to stress about the fact that we are stressing. And so the vicious cycle of stress and our fertility perpetuates.
What can we do about it? It’s not like we can just quit or jobs (often a great cause of stress) because then we’ll just stress about the rent or mortgage payments we need to make as well as everything else!
Then there’s also the stress of infertility, which builds up and becomes even worse over time. The confusion and disappointment of cycle after cycle of either not falling pregnant or recurrent miscarriages takes a toll on our physical body as well as our mental health. There is a lot of emphasis on preparing our body for fertility – eating well, exercising appropriately, not drinking alcohol or smoking etc.
However, our mental and emotional health needs to be taken into account as well. In this article we’ll look at the effects of stress and steps you can do to support your fertility journey to reduce the effects that stress has on your body and mind.
Let’s first begin looking at the mechanisms behind how stress affects our fertility and then what steps we can do to change this.
Stress and fertility: how it affects our nervous system
Stress is a nervous system response. We all know about the fight, flight, freeze response of stress. It is an innate response that kicks in the cortisol in our body to protect our life when we’re in danger. We get the surge of cortisol and release it through fighting or running. Both physical activities then use up the cortisol circulating in our bodies.
When cortisol is released into our system, the changes that occur include rapid heart rate, tense muscles in preparation of fighting or running, and shallow breathing.
However, in our modern day lives, we don’t often have this response running away from a sabre tooth tiger! Instead, we are in a chronic state of this stress response from coping with the pressures of our daily life. Cortisol continues to surge, even though we are not in danger and running for our life.
In this case, we remain in the sympathetic nervous system response. This creates an imbalance between the two nervous systems. Rather than experiencing the calming effect of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) we remain in a heightened awareness of danger with cortisol circulating in our system and in a state of chronic stress. The PNS is the nervous system for rest, digest and reproduction. Can you see where we’re going with this?
Our body needs to keep making this cortisol that is circulating in our system. And this is where the impact of stress starts to affect our fertility.
When the body runs out of cortisol, it needs to replenish its stores by making more. Cortisol is made from pregnenolone, a pre hormone that is used to make not only cortisol, but also progesterone and estrogen.
To make more cortisol, the body steals the pregnenolone which can impact the amount of estrogen and progesterone – the hormones we need for a healthy menstrual cycle and pregnancy. This is how our hormones lose balance and it’s called the ‘pregnenolone steal’. Estrogen and progesterone levels can drop, impacting our fertility.
If there’s not enough pregnenolone to create estrogen and progesterone, we have a hormonal imbalance in our reproductive hormones. A lack of progesterone for example, creates estrogen dominance. We’ll experience symptoms such as pre-menstrual tension, insomnia, sore breasts, irritability, mood swings and fertility issues to mention just a few. We also need a good supply of progesterone for pregnancy. This is how chronic stress can cause hormonal imbalance.
Effects of stress on our menstrual cycle
We can see now, why stress affects our menstrual cycle. Our menstrual cycle is a stress sensitive system, and when we experience stress, it disrupts the natural balance of hormones as outlined above. An imbalance in the nervous system can create an imbalance in the reproductive system. There is research about how stress disrupts our menstrual cycles. Stress can cause us to have period pain. You may have experienced this if you’re not used to experiencing pain with your period, for example, and you have a stressful life event and then experience period pain.
Stress does affect our reproductive hormones. However, stress may be a byproduct of not falling pregnant and not the cause. There are many factors that contribute to infertility. What we are addressing here is what you can do to ease the effect stress is having on your body and mind.
The first we can do is reduce the things in our life that create stress – if possible. There are many things that are not in our control. But some may be – and this is what you can address.
Next, we want to become stress literate. This is about learning how to manage the way we react to stress. The first step is the awareness of how stress is affecting our body and our emotions. This begins with observation. What is your habitual pattern of dealing with stressors? For example, it may be anger; it may be overeating or overexercising. It could be having a few too many drinks at the end of the week. Whatever it is, the first step is noticing the impact of these stressors on your life and our go to habit of dealing with it. Once you’re aware of it, you can do something about it.
How do we reduce or manage the impact of stress? This is something you need to find that works for you. My go to, for example, after a particularly stressful week and my reserves are very low, is going for a walk in the rainforest. However, let’s have a look at a couple of examples that can reduce stress for you:
What to do to balance our stress and hormonal levels
1. Honour your menstrual cycle
Our society is often all about go go go. Achievement is highly valued. Work long, hard hours! Socialise at the right events! Exercise strenuously! However, our menstrual cycle has a rhythm and often, we’re not aware of it. There are times that we have lots of energy when our cycle is in balance. But there are also times where resting is more appropriate for our body. Menstruation is one of these times. Allow yourself time to rest and relax during menstruation. This might mean saying no to a social engagement, or precooking meals that you just need to reheat. It might mean replacing vigorous exercise with a more restorative exercise regime during menstruation. This will support your fertility.
2. Make your mental health a priority
Struggling with fertility is so hard. The statistics overwhelmingly show anxiety and depression are common when struggling to have a baby. Whether it’s finding support from a professional or friends and family, put your mental health first.
3. Spend time in nature
Being in nature helps relax us. Being in a green environment, around trees reduces the effect of the sympathetic nervous system (flight and fight response). It helps promote relaxation and even improves sleep.
4. Acupuncture or acupressure
Acupuncture is an ancient system that promotes relaxation. While science has not been able to explain why, many people feel positive benefits after receiving acupuncture. You can also practice acupressure on a daily basis.
There’s a lot of research on how yoga can help us manage stress. There are many forms of yoga and you need to find one that resonates with you. It also requires consistency. One yoga session may reduce the feelings of stress for a time, however to achieve change in our ability to manage stress, we should try to do a little bit every day. This does not need to be hour long sessions everyday. Even ten minutes a day will help promote your wellbeing.
6. Breathing, meditation or mindfulness practices
Breathing practices, meditation and mindfulness practices are also tools often used to reduce stress. The respiratory system is often affected by our emotions. For example, when we are anxious, our breathing becomes rapid and shallow. We have control over the breath. We can promote long, gentle breaths which can calm and relax our body. Meditation and mindfulness often start with focusing on breath.
There are many forms of meditation. Self-compassion meditation can help us respond to stressful situations with gentleness and kindness towards ourselves, as we would a friend. It can make us more resilient to life’s stressors.
By shifting focus from what you can do to help improve your fertility, to also looking after your physical, mental and emotional health, will support your fertility. This can be done in little steps. Rest a little during menstruation, plan short walks in nature, whatever small steps you can take to bring balance in your life during your fertility journey.
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