Stress Could Be Affecting Your Fertility in More Ways Than You Think
Stress is a common reaction to life's experiences—we have all experienced it at some point. However, it's not healthy to keep our bodies under continual duress. Chronic stress can significantly influence the body, creating physical, cognitive and behavioral symptoms. Anxiety, cardiovascular disease and eating problems are easily identifiable as products of stress. But what about its effect on women's fertility? With stress having the ability to influence multiple aspects of our health, it's important to consider its impact on our reproductive system.
Fertility issues are more common than we realize, and it only adds extra pressure and frustration when attempting to conceive. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 12 percent of women in the United States ages 15 to 44 have difficulty getting pregnant or staying pregnant.
However, understanding stress' role in fertility is extremely complex.
A complicated correlation
This has been a debatable topic within the scientific community for years. As it stands, there isn't a consensus on stress' overall role in fertility. Boston University School of Public Health's 2018 study showed women who experienced higher stress levels had lower conception rates. In contrast, the University of Utah School of Medicine's 2019 study found no statistical difference in the conception rates for women at different stress levels.
It's difficult to definitively correlate stress to infertility because stress is multifaceted and affects individuals differently. Two people could go through the same stimuli but have different stress levels, making it more challenging to categorize. Stress also influences other unhealthy behaviors that directly affect fertility.
Regardless, there's no denying stress' influence on our bodies in a biological manner. Despite conflicting studies, there's ample research that supports definitive links between the effect of extreme stress and stress-related factors on fertility in some women.
The biology behind stress
Stress must be managed in our daily lives because it can create hormonal changes. Our bodies experience a fight-or-flight response when we're stressed—releasing hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine—to shut down what isn't necessary during extremely stressful situations.
Chronic stress increases the presence of these stress hormones, which negatively affects our reproductive system by inhibiting our hypothalamus, the part of our brain that controls our cycles. Progesterone, estrogen and the other reproductive hormones become imbalanced as a result, leading to irregular or missed periods. Your chances of becoming pregnant significantly decrease, as skipped periods or changes in your cycle length make it harder to keep track of your ovulation and menstruation.
A 2010 study by the National Institutes of Health and the University of Oxford showed a connection between elevated stress levels and fertility issues. Women with higher alpha-amylase levels, an enzyme that marks stress, had a much harder time conceiving than women with low levels. You would expect to see higher levels of alpha-amylase in women who experience more stress over prolonged periods.
Diving into stress-related factors
Stress influences the likelihood of engaging in unhealthy behaviors that negatively affect fertility. These factors include:
- Losing interest in sex/engaging in less sex
- Drinking a lot of alcohol and caffeine
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Overeating or not eating enough
- Exercising too hard or not exercising enough
These stress-related factors are all coping behaviors that develop in response to stressful situations. It can be a way to keep our anxiety at bay or a way to deal with the frustrations of stress. However, they all physically and mentally impact the bodies, making conception much more difficult.
The body has the easiest time becoming pregnant when we engage in healthier behaviors and lifestyles. But when we aren't sleeping, eating well or taking care of our bodies properly, problems arise, creating imbalances in our ovulation and menstruation cycles.
The mental fatigue that stress places on our bodies can make becoming pregnant more difficult as well.
Putting it all together
Our minds are powerful and play a vital role in regulating and maintaining our health. Starting a family can be stressful, especially if fertility issues are present. However, it's important to remember there is no definitive link between stress and infertility.
Stress can certainly disrupt or temporarily alter your body's normal reproductive functions, especially when it develops into a chronic issue. Engaging in unhealthy coping behaviors will only add to your fertility issues. It may become harder to conceive when you're experiencing higher levels of stress, but it is not impossible.
If you find you're struggling to conceive, talk with your doctor. They'll be able to rule out any other possible inhibiting factors and offer recommendations to help increase fertility.
Find ways to implement more self-care and relaxation practices into your regimen as a way to relieve tension in your life. And most important, be easy on yourself. Our bodies are delicate, so treating them with care and tending to their needs is the best way to keep them running in optimal shape.