I would imagine that many of you that are currently struggling with fertility issues, or have done so in the past, could name several occasions where someone has told you to ‘relax’ or ‘stop stressing’ and you will then get pregnant. I know I was given this helpful advice many times over and it started to grate a little. Of course I was finding our situation stressful and the further we went down the path of fertility investigations, tests and eventually IVF treatment, the more stressed I became. But this in itself raises an important question: does stress cause infertility, or does infertility cause stress? I certainly had periods in my life prior to trying for a baby where I experienced heightened stress; I was a primary school teacher, which was a full-on job, and we had the usual family wrangles from time to time but I wouldn’t have said I was under immense stress. But were these factors enough to affect my hormone levels and contribute towards preventing me becoming pregnant? Or was the sheer fact that we were failing to conceive month after month causing enough stress to inhibit our chances even further?
A link between everyday life stresses and infertility has long been suspected but there has been little hard evidence connecting the two. There have been many studies in this area however the results are inconclusive to date. What we cannot deny is the overall negative effect that stress has on our physical and mental wellbeing and how this could then impact on our reproductive health. When we experience higher levels of stress, our body releases stress hormones which include adrenaline, cortisol and epinephrine. These can increase heart rate and blood pressure as well as affecting the release of other hormones that are associated with a female’s menstrual cycle. Stress can also directly impact the production of progesterone – a hugely important hormone for reproduction! When you are experiencing higher levels of stress, your adrenal glands will produce additional cortisol and adrenaline and in order to do this, your adrenal glands need progesterone. This causes your progesterone to be used in making your stress hormones, as opposed to what it is designed to do! Progesterone helps to regulate your cycle but its main job is to get your uterus ready for pregnancy. After you ovulate each month, progesterone helps thicken the lining of the uterus to prepare for a fertilized egg. If a fertilized egg implants in the uterine wall, progesterone helps maintain the uterine lining throughout pregnancy particularly in early pregnancy before the placenta takes over. In men, stress hormones can disrupt testosterone and sperm production, as well as potentially making it more difficult to get an erection.
It is also worth considering how stress can lead to behaviours that might cause fertility problems. For example, individuals may try to relax by drinking alcohol in greater quantities, smoking or taking recreational drugs as well as making poor diet choices. It may also lead to a lack of sleep or a reduced libido - none of which are good for your body and mind and, in turn, for conception.
So, how do you prevent stress from having such a potentially damaging effect on your ability to conceive? If it was as easy as “just relax” then we would have nothing to be concerned about, right? Thankfully there are a wealth of options available to help reduce our stress levels such as:
- regular, moderate exercise including yoga
- support groups both on and offline
- get plenty of sleep
The Natural Fertility Clinic team do not underestimate the stress caused by infertility and how it can significantly impact your fertility journey. We are here to support you and take your fertility as seriously as you do. Our expert team of therapists are skilfully trained in traditional Chinese acupuncture and reflexology – both of which are scientifically proven to reduce stress through targeting specific pressure points.
We also believe that emotional support is hugely important to help reduce the associated stress of subfertility and so we run a free face to face support group every couple of months to provide a safe and comforting environment where people can discuss their issues but only if they want to. Some people come just to listen, others come to feel less alone. We often provide guest speakers to give useful and practical advice, such as nutritionists or mindfulness experts. We teach relaxation exercises and positive visualizations. We find that both sexes really benefit from having a place to talk openly without the fear of judgement or pity. In our experience we have found that men may not open up at all to friends and family, the support group provides an ideal environment to allow them to express feelings and emotions. With the stress of fertility issues being likened to that of severe depression, heart disease or cancer, online and face to face support groups can be a lifeline for many. Being with a group of people that understand what you are going through can be of great comfort, and for some, it’s the only time they will discuss fertility issues openly without the fear of judgement from others.
Experiencing infertility can be a highly emotional and challenging time for any couple and the associated stress is inevitable. But you shouldn’t let this define you and succumb to it. Take positive steps, such as those outlined in this article, to reduce the amount of stress you are feeling as much as possible.
By Suzanne Higgins