Everyone trying to conceive for any length of time has heard the obnoxious advice to “just relax and it’ll happen.” The belief that stress plays a major role in infertility is still prevalent, but just how true is it? Can stress make it harder to get pregnant? And how does that work?
What Is Stress?
Stress is defined as a specific response by the body to a stimulus, as fear or pain, that disturbs or interferes with the normal physiological equilibrium of an organism. Stress can happen in response to work, personal relationships, physical experiences (such as a car accident), and even internal functions of the body, such as digestion. Because there are so many causes for stress, it’s very vague to say that “stress” is bad for fertility when we don’t define just what kind of stress we mean. Can emotional stress have the same effect on fertility that digestive or physical stress does?
To understand more of how the body responds to stress, we need to briefly cover how the nervous system deals with stress of any kind. When the brain perceives stress for any reason, it sends a signal to the hypothalamus, which is kind of like a command center. The hypothalamus sends signals to the rest of the body through the autonomic (or automatic) nervous system, which controls involuntary body responses like breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. Half of the autonomic nervous system is in charge of mounting a “fight or flight” response to stress to get out of danger, and the other half is responsible for producing the calm after the storm.
When the brain detects stress, the autonomic nervous system sends more blood to the muscles (in case you need to run from danger), speeds the heart rate, and causes the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline. Adrenaline also causes the release of blood sugar from storage in the body to be used as energy.
The thing is, the body can’t distinguish between stress that is life threatening and stress that stems from emotional or other reasons. When you exist in a constant state of stress, the body stays mobilized to deal with it—which is counteractive to the ideal resting state that is more conducive to fertility.
The Effect of Stress on Fertility
When you consider stress from the standpoint of reproductive health, what happens?
• Reduced blood flow. During the stress response as described above, blood flow is directed to the muscles and away from several organs, including the uterus and other reproductive organs. While they obviously still receive blood, they don’t get the full volume that is ideal for reproduction.
• Adrenaline. The adrenal glands get activated to produce adrenaline and other stress hormones, which means they aren’t focused on producing estrogen and progesterone, which are necessary for reproduction. Again, the body still produces these hormones, but in lesser quantities. People who end up in adrenal fatigue from over-producing stress hormones can also experience luteal phase defects due to insufficient bodily production of progesterone.
• Digestion. Digestion isn’t effective when the body is in a state of “fight or flight” either, so you won’t get the full nutritional benefits of your food or prenatal vitamins. For optimal fertility, you want to make use of all the good stuff which will eventually get passed on to your fetus when you do conceive. Digestive problems that begin during periods of stress can also be ongoing even when the stress has resolved, so it’s important to listen to what your body is telling you. Stomach aches, bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, or intestinal cramping are not normal and can happen as a result of stress on the digestive system.
• Inflammation. Stress can also cause inflammation which can aggravate any chronic conditions that may be present, like irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia or other autoimmune disorders.
• Lack of sleep. Stress affects the body’s ability to rest properly and rejuvenate body cells. Sleep cycles may be interrupted or a stressed person may experience insomnia or constant fatigue. Addressing sleep problems is paramount to achieving optimal fertility.
Ultimately, stress produces more stress. Does that definitively mean you can’t get pregnant when you’re experiencing any kind of stress? No. But it does give a more focused manner to address your stress. Instead of the ambiguous advice “don’t stress,” you can more proactively address your stress by tackling one area at a time. Want to reduce stress by improving digestion? Chew your food more thoroughly, which reduces the amount of work that the digestive system has to do. Want to increase blood flow to your reproductive organs? Practice yoga or Pilates, or try acupuncture. Need to sleep better? Consider making some changes to your sleep environment by adding white noise, blackout curtains, making it a pet-free zone, or using smart alarm technology to wake you when you’re in light sleep.
Stressing about stress only perpetuates the cycle. Since many causes of our stress can be out of our control, it’s important to learn ways to calm your autonomic nervous system’s response to stress to allow your body to repair and rebuild.
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