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Feeling Stressed? It May Be Contributing to Your Fertility Struggles

Special thanks to Joanne Verkuilen from Circle + Bloom for today's post!

Almost everyone we know has high levels of stress. It is such a powerful force in our society that the American Psychological Association (APA) has published an annual “Stress in America” study for the past decade to look at how high levels of stress are affecting our lives.

Stress impacts our body’s hormones and function. It is not the sole cause of infertility, but for some of us, stress can be a contributing factor. 

Fight or Flight: How Stress Affects Our Bodies

We stress about money, work, the economy, our relationships, illness — and woah does infertility create stress of its own. The “Stress in America” study found that more than 60 percent of Americans are experiencing “significant” stress, leading the APA to categorize stress as a public health crisis.

Stress can trigger a rush of hormones in the body that is also known as the “fight or flight” response. This evolutionary tool historically helped people react quickly to life-threatening situations. Under significant stress, the body releases adrenaline and norepinephrine, triggering increases in heart rate and breathing, constricting blood vessels and tightening muscles.

Unfortunately, the body can also overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as traffic jams, work pressure, and family difficulties.

5 Ways That Stress Affects Fertility

Our bodies are equipped to prevent conception from occurring during times of extreme stress. The presence of adrenalin signals to our body that conditions are not ideal for conception.

While women certainly become pregnant during periods of extreme stress, such as during war, the presence of the stress hormones can inhibit the body’s primary sex hormone, GnRH (gonadotropin releasing hormone). GnRH signals the release of luteinizing hormone and follicle stimulating hormone, which then stimulate the ovaries in women (testes in men) to release sex hormones.

When GnRH is disrupted, it can negatively impact a number of reproductive functions, including:

  1. Suppressing ovulation
  2. Reducing sperm count
  3. Lowering libido
  4. Reducing egg quality
  5. Inhibiting implantation of a fertilised egg

Recent research seems to reinforce a link between stress, anxiety, depression, and infertility. For example:

  • Stress management can help resume ovulation: Researcher Sarah Berga at Emory University School of Medicine published a small study of women who had stopped ovulating for more than six months. She found that the women had high levels of cortisol. When the participants were given stress management therapy, seven out of eight women began ovulating again. Only two out of eight who got no intervention resumed ovulation.
  • Stress can lower the probability of conception: For 274 women aged 18 to 40 years who were attempting pregnancy, a study in the United Kingdom found that stress significantly reduced the probability of conception each day during the fertile window.
  • Stress can influence IVF success: One study from the University of California San Diego found that the most stressed women undergoing IVF had less success every step of the way (fewer eggs retrieved and fewer eggs successfully implanted), compared to women who were not as stressed. While another study from Israeli researchers found that women who were entertained by a clown after they received IVF treatment (laughter is a known stress-soother) were more likely to conceive than those who were not.

Many researchers today believe that while stress and fertility are related, it is not a causal relationship. Jacky Boivin, PhD, a senior lecturer at the School of Psychology at Cardiff University in Wales, explains that “Stress could disrupt fertility, but it very rarely–if ever–causes people never to conceive.”

However, removing or reducing stress as a factor in infertility may make it easier for doctors and patients to successfully overcome infertility.

Feel Less Stressed: Here’s How

Everyone’s different. What makes you feel stressed is incredibly individual, and often changes over time. So, the solution to releasing your stress will be individual too. Many people find that getting more sleep helps reduce stress, while others relax with yoga, journaling, prayer, talking to others, or going for a walk in nature. Guided meditation has been shown to help many people lower their stress and improve their outlook on life. Meditation can make a big difference in only 15 to 20 minutes a day, and making it a daily practice can help adjust your perspective and change the way you experience life on a daily basis.

Try one of our free guided meditations to help improve your stress and fertility!

Joanne Verkuilen is the founder of Circle + Bloom, which aims to share the incredible power of the mind-body connection with a meditation program for both infertility and cancer. Today, it has helped over 50,000 women worldwide. Joanne's various programs and guided meditations are designed to empower anyone on their journey. You can find more about Joanne Verkuilen at her website and by following her on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook.

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