If you are battling infertility, it is no secret that people telling you to, “Just relax” or “Let it happen,” is not helpful. Period. However, the reality is that stress can impact fertility. Studies have shown that anxiety and stress over an inability to get pregnant can make it that much harder. Totally unfair, we know, but it’s the unfortunate truth. So how exactly does stress impact fertility? Let’s dive in!
The Research Behind Stress and Fertility
While researchers don’t totally understand all the ways stress can impact fertility, it is clear that the body senses its environment (diet, stress, exercise, chemicals) and can adjust the ability to get pregnant in response. “It makes sense when you think about it through evolution,” states Shannon Whirledge, PhD, Assistant Professor at Yale School of Medicine. Periods of high stress aren’t good times to have a baby. “You can imagine that during a period of famine that the body would limit the ability to have a baby to save energy and resources,” says Whirledge. Unfortunately, the same system recognizes the long-term stress associated with battling infertility.
Researchers have long been trying to determine exactly how stress limits fertility. A study published in Fertility and Sterility found that women with high levels of alpha-amylase, an enzyme that correlates with stress, have a harder time getting pregnant.
In this study, saliva samples were taken from 274 women over six menstrual cycles (or until they got pregnant). It revealed that the women with the highest concentrations of alpha-amylase during their first cycle were 12% less likely to conceive than women with lower levels of the enzyme.
Another study from the Emory School of Medicine conducted by Sarah Berga, MD, found that women who had stopped ovulating for more than 6 months had high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. The same regions of the brain that can regulate the hormones required for ovulation also respond to stress hormones, like cortisol. Of these women, seven out of the eight participants who received stress management therapy began ovulating again, compared to only two out of eight participants who did not receive therapy. This same link between stress and fertility occurs in men, where high levels of stress can reduce testosterone production, meaning both partners can be impacted by stress.
Finally, a study in Taiwan found that 40% of participants seeking infertility treatment were diagnosed with depression or anxiety. Other researchers have found that women struggling with infertility have the same levels of anxiety and depression as women diagnosed with HIV or cancer. Since infertility is a real medical condition with major implications to one’s life, it’s no surprise that it can cause the same levels of anxiety that other serious medical challenges can.
Many researchers have also pointed out that most women who cannot get pregnant have physical explanation--but this is not always the case. Regardless, as time passes, the woman feels more and more stress. So even if a physical cause is treated medically, it is possible that high stress levels can make it more difficult to conceive.
Progesterone and Stress
Stress and cortisol production also directly impact the production of progesterone. Since progesterone and cortisol follow the same steroid hormone pathway, they are connected.
In the hormone pathway, progesterone is used to produce cortisol. So, if you are under a lot of stress and your body needs more cortisol, then your body sometimes “steals” progesterone from your reproductive system to create more cortisol. Since progesterone is essential for conception, stress-stealing cortisol can create a real problem when it comes to trying to conceive.
Proov progesterone tests can help women understand their progesterone levels quickly, easily, and at home. This is important in two ways. First, Proov tests can help you understand if your body is working properly such that it can support conception. If not, you can bring this information to your doctor to discuss potential solutions. Second, as we’ve heard from people who have used Proov in the past, the reassurance of being able to test progesterone at home in 5 minutes can actually reduce stress! Many times, anxiety comes from lack of knowledge and control. With Proov, women are empowered to track their progesterone levels themselves, at home, which can lead to a sense of more control over what can feel like an unfair and out of control situation.
What does this mean for me?
If you are currently struggling with infertility, or just stress in general, there are many ways to reduce stress! Give one of the following options a try:
Enlist your partner: You and your partner are probably dealing with the stress on infertility in different ways--women often seek social support, while men lean towards problem-solving. This can create a divide in your relationship, so try to seek out some special, one-on-one time. Maybe go see a movie, go out to dinner, or even take a dance class!
Try journaling: Writing emotions and feelings on paper can help take some pressure off. You can get things off your chest without having to share with others.
Stay active/exercise: Doing activities you enjoy or exercising lightly can help release endorphins and serotonin, both of which improve your mood. Try moderate exercises such as swimming or walking. Even just setting aside time do your favorite activities can relieve stress. (Note that heavy or strenuous exercise can cause the creation of more cortisol, which will not improve stress.)
Meditation or yoga: Meditating can help clear your mind and relax your body. Not into sitting still? Try doing an hour of yoga a few times a week. Hatha yoga specifically focuses on breath and movement, without concentrating on mediation specifically. Both meditation and yoga can reduce stress hormones.
Get emotional support: In times of great uncertainty, it’s critical to consider resources that address your emotional needs as individuals and as a couple. The way in which you are processing (versus suppressing) what is happening to you can directly impact your reproductive health. Counseling and group support are great places to share feelings and emotions and helps women feel less isolated during their infertility journeys. Organic Conceptions is another great resource to check out. They are the first organization to research, map, and bring to life the emotional stages from couples who overcame infertility. Their online course will help couples to identify, name, address, and overcome the suffering involved when struggling to conceive, resulting in healthier patients and better outcomes.