Stress and fertility – what’s the connection?
October 14, 2022
Whether your journey to parenthood is smooth-sailing or you encounter challenges along the way, stress is often a big factor when it comes to planning a family and fertility treatment – no matter your circumstance. But there’s good news – following a balanced lifestyle may help boost your fertility, says Peppy’s Emotional Support Mentor, Kelly Da Silva.
- Stress can have an influence on how your reproductive system works which in turn may affect your fertility.
- Fertility treatment can affect your mood, while stress may have a negative effect on how successful your fertility treatment is.
- You might be able to limit your stress levels by improving your sleep patterns, adopting a healthier diet and practising self-care.
Demands at work. Relationship struggles. Pressure at home. There are many aspects that can make you feel stressed out, and this may affect your fertility.
Aside from the common hardships of everyday life, the topic of conception – particularly infertility – can also play a part in the stability of your mental state.
Taking on simple methods to control your stress more efficiently may not only increase your chances of conception, but will also improve your health on a whole.
What do we know about the link between stress and fertility?
The fertility journey is an all-consuming process and can be extremely challenging for everyone involved. Some people may find getting pregnant uncomplicated, while for others, their journey to starting a new life isn’t as easy.
Researchers previously found that the central stress response system – the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis – can actually hinder the performance of the female reproductive system, particularly its two main hormones, oestrogen and progesterone.
Stress may have an influence on fertility in men too. According to a past study, life stress is associated with abnormally shaped sperm and reduced sperm concentration and sperm.
While there is growing evidence of an association between stress and issues surrounding reproduction, it is still unclear whether this lifestyle factor can directly cause infertility.
What is the impact of fertility treatment on your stress levels?
In the UK, one in six couples will have trouble conceiving. If you choose to go through fertility treatment, it’ll be one of the most distressing and challenging periods in your (and your partner’s) life.
A recent study found that rates of stress, anxiety and depression among IVF patients were higher than those who are not on fertility treatment. The researchers also picked up on a negative correlation between infertility-related stress and IVF success.
You may find your sense of self is affected, and the experience can often leave a lasting impact on relationships. It’s not uncommon to also feel very lonely at this time.
Stress can often come across as impatience, anxiety, fear, worry, loneliness, poor appetite, tearfulness and restlessness. Fertility nurses report that those undergoing fertility treatment often display many of these signs, and they can intensify at each stage of treatment.
These triggers can affect you in many ways, including:
- too much sleep or too little
- loss of appetite or overeating
- lack of concentration
- pulling away from family and friends.
- inability to focus on work.
How can you reduce your stress before trying to conceive (TTC)?
Minimising your stress levels for your general health, in preparation for when you’re ready to start a family is massively helpful.
You may want to ask yourself the following questions:
Are there any areas in your life that are causing you tension?
Pinpointing stressful aspects of your life, whether it be how demanding your career is or strains in your relationship, can direct you to tackling those issues head-on.
Are you getting enough leisure and relaxation time?
Regulating the balance between work and your downtime is paramount when it comes to lowering your stress levels.
How is your diet?
Your food intake is linked to how well your body systems work, and this includes your reproductive system.
Research has shown that cortisol – the ‘stress hormone’ – can spike when you have a high intake of added sugar and saturated fats.
A high sugar intake in particular can affect both male and female fertility by interfering and damaging your reproductive hormones and lowering the quality of sperm. Past studies have also highlighted a link between high levels of perceived stress and cortisol, and infertility.
Adopting a balanced diet consisting of Mediterranean foods, a variety of fruit and vegetables and healthy fats can help regulate your hormones and up your chances of conception.
Are you getting enough sleep?
A good night’s rest goes hand-in-hand with fertility as reproductive hormones and melatonin – a sleep-wake hormone and antioxidant – are managed by the same part of the brain as sleep.
Several nights of poor rest can cause your stress levels to spike, and vice versa. Aim for eight hours of sleep every night.
Are you exercising?
Being active is not only good for your physical health, it also serves as a mood pick-me-up by releasing feel-good endorphins in the brain.
Do you know your cycle?
Getting clued-up about the patterns of your natural menstrual cycle will allow you to work out when your fertile window is. This may take the load off stresses associated with getting pregnant.
If you have any concerns about your cycle – particularly, if you’ve been on the contraception pill for a long time it is worth speaking to a GP to discuss any concerns you have.
6 ways to manage your stress when TTC
While a stress-free life may be fairly unrealistic, there are tools you can use to handle those feelings as you navigate through your fertility journey.
Talking to someone – Communication is key. Whether you’re looking for general advice about getting pregnant, or are struggling to conceive, being able to chat to ‘safe’ friends, family members and your partner is ultra-important.
Embracing your emotions – Feelings are simply ‘energy in motion’ so allow them to flow.
Practising self-care – Be mindful of any negative thoughts and support yourself like you would a close friend. Relaxation methods such as meditation, listening to music, listening to guided imagery, yoga and Tai Chi, are useful ways to bring your emotions into balance.
Keeping an eye on your social media activity – Online presence is often best filtered and rationed. If this is an issue for you, limit your time. Stay away from any posts which you may find triggering.
Having permission to say ‘no’ – Whether you’re not up for attending a specific event, or you can’t meet a deadline, it is vital that you maintain a certain level of ‘healthy selfishness’ if you want to manage the uncertainties that can come with your fertility journey.
Connecting – It may be worth reaching out to others who are in a similar position to help you understand that you’re not alone and your thoughts and feelings are being listened to.
Adding these practical steps to your life can really make the difference. Focus on what you can take hold of and consider trying these tips to optimise your fertility.
Healthy Minds Lead Practitioner, Linda Gillham also shares three simple techniques you can try to help you cope with anxiety and stop an anxiety attack in its tracks.
This first technique is really good to use before you do something that you are maybe not looking forward to, or feel nervous about.
How to do it:
Before starting this exercise, pay attention to your breathing.
Slow, deep, long breaths can help you maintain a sense of calm or if you are feeling anxious. It can help you to return to a calmer state.
Once you find your breath, put both feet onto the floor and go through the following steps to help ground yourself:
- Acknowledge five things you see around you. It could be your computer, a bird in the garden, anything that is nearby.
- Acknowledge four things you can touch around you. It could be your pen, a cushion, or the ground under your feet.
- Acknowledge three things you hear. This could be anything from the radio, birds singing to a plane going overhead.
- Acknowledge two things you can smell. Maybe you are in your kitchen and smell your favourite fruit tea. You could take a brief walk to find a scent. You could choose to smell your perfume, aftershave, or you may prefer to go outside into nature.
- Acknowledge one thing you can taste. What does the inside of your mouth taste like—toothpaste, coffee, or the sandwich you had at lunchtime?
Deep breathing is a simple technique that’s excellent for managing anxiety. It’s effective, discreet and easy to use at any time or in any place.
How to do it:
- Sit comfortably and place one hand on your abdomen.
- Breathe in through your nose, deeply enough that the hand on your abdomen rises.
- Hold the air in your lungs, and then exhale slowly through your mouth, with your lips puckered as if you are blowing through a straw.
- Go slow, time the inhalation for four seconds, pause for four seconds and then exhale for six seconds.
- Practice for three to five minutes.
Progressive muscle relaxation
By tensing and relaxing the muscles throughout your body, you can achieve a powerful feeling of relaxation. Progressive muscle relaxation will help you spot anxiety by teaching you to recognise feelings of muscle tension.
How to do it:
- Sit back or lie down in a comfortable position.
- For each area of the body listed below, you will tense your muscles tightly, but not to the point of strain.
- Hold the tension for 10 seconds and pay close attention to how it feels. Then, release the tension, and notice how the feeling of relaxation differs from the feeling of tension.
Feet: curl your toes tightly into your feet, then release them.
Calves: point or flex your feet, then let them relax.
Thighs: squeeze your thighs together tightly, then let them relax.
Torso: suck in your abdomen, then release the tension and let it fall.
Back: squeeze your shoulder blades together, then release them
Shoulders: lift and squeeze your shoulders towards your ears, then let them drop.
Arms/hands: make fists and squeeze them towards your shoulders, then let them drop; make a fist and curl your fingers into your palm, then relax your fingers.
Face: scrunch your facial features to the centre of your face, then relax.
Full body: squeeze all muscles together, then release all tension.