Stress and its Effect of Fertility

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If you are trying to conceive, the last thing you want to hear from your friends is “Just relax, and it’ll happen!”. Facing infertility is stressful enough without Vague implications of fault. According to this Harvard study, the stress levels for these women matches that suffered by people in treatment for major life-threatening diseases such as Cancer and HIV. It’s tricky to find the balance between “this is not your fault” and “there are things you could do differently” when you’re trying to conceive, especially when it comes to stress.

There are two lingering questions in my mind: What is the mechanism and What can you do about it?

Firstly, what are the mechanisms at work with stress and how it affects your fertility?

The link between stress and infertility is rooted in physiology. A hormone called GnRH is secreted by specialized cells in your brain, and it stimulates the release of the gonadotropins FSH and LH. GnRH release kicks the whole fertile cycle into action, and without it, there would be no menstruation, ovulation, or pregnancy. Needless to say it is of utmost importance, particularly if you’re trying to conceive. According to this study, however, the amplitute of GnRH production is reduced in the presence of the stress hormone cortisol.

This makes perfect sense in evolutionary terms, as you don’t need to ovulate when you’re running from a predator. In times of high stress, your body is hardwired for survival, and will regulate according to that environment. When safety is reached, the brain comes back to a state of rest and your nervous system will reach homeostasis. This is a normal survival response, and humans wouldn’t still be alive today if we didn’t have it.

However, in a state of continual ongoing stress, when cortisol levels are high, and the production of GnRH is inhibited long term, fertility can be negatively affected. Believe it or not, you don’t need to be fighting for your life to experience this. Remember the last time you were late for a meeting? A class? The bus? Or Brunch, even?

And this is no one’s fault. Our culture is unfortunately set up this way. The urgency of our perpetual over-scheduling can cause considerable anxiety and stress in everyday life, and your ancient nervous system responds as though in danger, as it is hard-wired to do.

So What can you do about it?

  1. Daily meditation practice. The link between mindfulness and increased fertility has been clearly delineated in research. If you want to work out your body, you’d go to the gym, but how do you “work-out” your mind? Mindfulness practice means sitting in a quiet, meditative state for as little as 10 minutes per day. Here’s a link to Headspace, a fantastic meditation app that can help you get started.

  2. Exercise: The psychological effects of regular exercise have been extensively studied over many decades. Some studies have shown that exercise can reduce symptoms in mild to moderate depression better than pharmaceutical intervention. This does not mean triathlons. As little as 30 mins of walking per day can have the desired effect.

  3. Social Connectedness: This colloquial wisdom has been proven in research over and over again. People who have strong social connections enjoy better  health outcomes and, in fact, longer lifespans. A new angle on this idea has appeared since the advent of social media, too, as many good studies have shown a correlation between hours spent on social media, and experience of depression and anxiety. Nurturing real, live social connections can have a profound impact on your ability to handle stress. Set aside time to connect/reconnect with loved ones: spouse, friends, family. These hours are worth their weight in gold.

  4. Counselling: If I had it my way, weekly counselling would be standard issue in our culture. A skilled counsellor can be an excellent neutral party to help you navigate the ups and downs of the fertility journey. Counselling can be more effective than pharmaceutical. I have two counsellors in Vancouver who I recommend, both of whom are caring, skilled and experienced clinicians. Erica Collyer Beauchamp at Counsel Me Vancouver, and Jennifer Hollinshead at Peak Resilience.

  5. Acupuncture: One of the effects of acupuncture is its ability to reduce sympathetic nervous system stimulation. When your body is in a state of sympathetic nervous response (fight or flight), all the resources of your body are recruited in the effort to survive, thus redirecting blood flow away from your reproductive organs. Acupuncture has the effect of stimulating the parasympathetics, thus dis-inhibiting this mechanism.

If you have any questions about your specific situation, call Acubalance and book a 15 phone consultation. I’m always available for a chat.

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