The effect of stress can be different for each of us and just because you don’t feel stressed doesn’t mean that you may not be affected; the very busyness of our daily routines can result in constantly raised stress hormones such as cortisol.
In the busyness of life, often juggling home and work pressures, we can spend more and more time in the ‘fight or flight’ mode of being. This means our circulation and energy is being directed to our brain and muscles and away from our non-essential organs like the reproductive system. The effects of stress on the regulation of hormones, blood sugar and adrenal functions are well established and this means that reproduction is compromised, especially when experienced long term.
Research (1) has shown that ovulation can be impacted and in some cases periods can stop for a while when women have profound levels of stress. More commonly it may just hamper ovulation from time to time and make us less fertile in other ways such as impairing progesterone production (the main pregnancy hormone), affecting the optimal development of the endometrium by reducing blood flow, essential nutrients and impacting implantation. Men are also affected by compromised sperm production and sperm quality and we know how we can all be affected by a drop in our sex drive when feeling under pressure.
Under stress, the innate intelligence of the mind and body directs the focus of our physiology towards other aspects of keeping our bodies working and the reproductive function gets pushed low down on the priority list.
So although it’s a cliche about couples finally conceiving a child after going on holiday, time out from the day to day can help refresh in many ways including refocussing on your relationship. A good habit to form is one where you take an hour a day for yourself, a night a week for you and your partner to connect, a weekend a month away together, and book in that well deserved holiday once or twice a year.
If you are feeling under the pump then the message is don’t get stressed about being stressed. Current research shows if we welcome stress into our body and recognise it’s there for a reason then the negative impact of stress can be turned to a positive with the release of hormones such as oxytocin. This ‘cuddle’ hormone helps us to reach out to others and ask for help and share our problems. This very act reduces our stress hormones and is a good coping mechanism.
Finally we can also take the advice from Health Psychologist and researcher Alice Domar who has done a series of studies on the impact of psychological interventions on pregnancy rates. Participants doing 10-sessions of mind-body cognitive behaviour stress reduction had a 42% spontaneous conception rate compared to only 11-20% of women in the support and control groups. These were women who had been trying to conceive for 1 to 2 years. She has had similar results on groups of women undergoing IVF with pregnancy rates more than double for the mind-body groups. (2)
The mind-body connection can be a key to some people unlocking their fertility. Instead of feeling drained by the antics of our mind, the latest in brain research shows that the brain has great capacity to change (neuroplasticity) and we can retrain the way we react and behave.
By switching on the ‘relaxation response’ and switching off the ‘fight or flight’ response we are allowing the body to be more receptive to conception.
Pregnancy is a state of relaxation when the message from the brain is saying everything is ‘safe’ in our world. The body’s innate intelligence perceives physical or emotional stress or worrying as an unsafe time for pregnancy. It benefits us all, whether trying to conceive or not, to take 15-20 minutes a day to meditate or listen to a guided relaxation.
The three stress reducing tips are
Take action by taking time out for yourself and as a couple
Accept if you are stressed and reach out to a friend
Take time each day to listen to a mindfulness or other guided relaxation.
1 Stress and the female reproductive system”, Kalantaridou SN, Makrigiannakis A, et al (Journal of Reproductive Immunology, 2004)
2 Impact of group psychological interventions on pregnancy rates in infertile women”, Domar,AD, Clapp, D et al (Fertility and Sterility 2000)