How Stress Impacts Fertility

woman feeling stressed about her fertility

Stress has been shown to have an impact on fertility outcomes in both males and females. Stress is extremely common for couples that are trying to conceive and studies show that stress increases in proportion to the amount of time that couples are trying to conceive. In this blog, I want to help you understand what stress is, how it impacts our bodies AND how you can help to manage stress to improve your fertility outcomes.

Identifying Stress

It’s important to know that stress is subjective, meaning it is perceived by each individual differently. When we are stressed, we may associate some of the following feelings with it such as:

  • Anxious
  • Easily irritated
  • Overwhelmed
  • Emotional
  • Tired
  • ‘Burnt Out’
  • Out of sync with our usual self

These attributes of stress can be experienced in varying degrees depending on their cause. We refer to these causes as stressors.

As you can guess stressors can come in various forms. They can occur as a result of physical, mental, and emotional circumstances. More commonly we know stressors to occur from everyday life and busyness which can be in the form of deadlines, financial pressure, and personal relationships. All of which causes our body to experience stress which impacts our overall health and thus fertility outcomes.

It’s incredibly common that patients present at our clinic uncertain of what is causing their fertility challenges and when we look into their overall health, we often find significant symptoms of stress syndrome. Some of which you may not realise are an indicator of stress. These symptoms can present as:

  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Digestive issues
  • Period pain
  • Cravings for certain types of food or poor appetite
  • Mood swings and energy fluctuations

Due to the nature of these symptoms, many of us become complacent dealing with these complaints and therefore underestimate the impact stress has on our health, especially when trying to conceive.

woman experiencing digestive issues and period pain impacting her fertility

Understanding Stress And Its Impact On The Body

To put it simply, stress affects our body’s ability to regulate hormones. When we’re dealing with stress our body will experience an increase in both Cortisol and Adrenaline.

These hormones are responsible for our fight or flight response, which is crucial when we face challenging situations. However, experiencing these increases in hormones for long periods of time will have a negative effect on our bodies.

Studies show that when the body experiences excessive amounts of both these hormones, there will be a decrease in the reproductive hormones such as Oestrogen, Progesterone and Testosterone. All of which are crucial hormones in relation to Fertility for both men and women. The reason for this is that when our body goes into survival mode for the perceived immediate danger it prioritises the stress response hormones as a coping mechanism to survive.

Now, this isn’t to say there isn’t a place for stress in our lives, simply like many things, stress in excess is where problems start to occur. In saying so, small or short-term stress can in fact be helpful in driving us to be decisive and proactive in achieving set tasks.

The Ways Stress Affects Your Body

Now that you understand what exactly stress is and how it impacts the body let’s go into detail about exactly how this disruption to our hormones affects our health.

The following are impacts of high Cortisol levels, adrenaline, low Oestrogen, Progesterone, and Testosterone for prolonged periods of time;

Increased blood sugar levels

Insulin which is inhibited by cortisol typically helps the cells convert glucose to energy. As your pancreas struggles to keep up with the high demand for insulin, glucose levels in your blood remain high and your cells don’t get the sugar they need to perform at their best.

Weight gain

Due to your cells crying out for energy, your body will send signals to the brain that you are hungry and need to eat. False hunger signals can lead you to crave high-calorie foods, overeat and gain weight. Unused glucose in the blood is eventually stored as body fat.

Suppressed immune system

Cortisol’s positive effect to reduce inflammation in the body can become problematic if levels are too high for too long. The elevated cortisol levels may actually suppress your immune system leading to increased susceptibility to colds and contagious illnesses. The risk of cancer and autoimmune diseases increases and you may develop food intolerances.

Digestive problems

When your body reacts to a threat, it shuts down other less critical functions, such as digestion. If the high cortisol level is constant, your digestive tract can’t digest or absorb food well. It’s no coincidence that ulcers occur during stressful times and people with colitis or irritable bowel syndrome report better symptom control when stress is more effectively managed.

Heart disease

Constricted arteries and high blood pressure can lead to blood vessel damage and plaque build-up in your arteries. These factors could be setting the stage for a heart attack or stroke.

The Impact Of Stress On Fertility

practitioner educating patient on how stress is impacting her fertility

Problems with Fertility all tend to present in similar ways among men and women. If you’re interested to know what other syndromes affect fertility and how Acupuncture can help, have a read of our other blogs on our website.

Stress may affect a woman’s reproductive system in several ways. For example, high levels of stress have been associated with:

  • Absent or irregular menstrual cycles
  • More painful periods
  • Changes in the length of cycles
  • Anovulation (failure to ovulate)
  • Decreased endometrial thickness necessary for implantation

Stress affecting a man’s reproductive system has been shown to be associated with:

  • Decreased testosterone
  • Lower sperm count
  • Abnormal sperm production
  • Decreased sperm motility, the function that allows sperm to move.
  • For both partners, decreased libido leading to a decreased frequency of intercourse will simply lead to fewer opportunities for sperm and egg to meet.

For couples that are trying to conceive, all of this can negatively affect overall fertility in a significant way.

How To Manage Stress To Improve Fertility Outcomes

It’s important to note that stress is not always the cause of decreased fertility outcomes. However, given the great benefits to the overall quality of life when stress is decreased, it is always recommended that stress is managed appropriately.

Whilst it may sound common, the following are some of the most powerful and underestimated approaches to effectively deal with stress, including:

Addressing potential causes of stress

Take time to improve external factors that may be causing you significant stress. Aim to improve your work-life balance and spend time with the people that you enjoy the company of.

Change your lifestyle to self-manage stress

Regular exercise and mindfulness practices like meditation can help manage stress, contributing to a healthier body and mind. A well-balanced diet is recommended to nourish your body appropriately, and quality sleep plays a critical role in hormonal regulation, which is fundamental for fertility.

Reducing the consumption of substances like alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine is recommended. These substances can disrupt hormonal balance and impair sleep quality, adding unnecessary stress to your body. By minimizing these substances, your body can function optimally, enhancing your health and fertility prospects.

Seek support from a healthcare professional

A 2017 study reports that healthcare interventions such as counselling, psychology or acupuncture dealing with mental health for couples undergoing fertility treatments can reduce cortisol levels and emotional distress, all of which are associated with improving pregnancy outcomes.

Practitioner consulting with patient about treatment for fertility

That’s A Wrap!

Stress is a commonly overlooked and yet remains a significant healthcare issue that can influence the fertility outcomes of couples that are actively trying to conceive.

In order to achieve the best outcomes for your health, as always, we recommend speaking to a healthcare professional. In many cases, there may be multiple issues contributing to infertility and your healthcare professional is the best person to effectively assess and advise the most appropriate course of action for your situation.

I hope that helps shed some light on the topic! If you would like to learn if we can help you, please call our friendly team on (02) 4709 6727.