One of the questions I am frequently asked is "does stress impact on fertility?" Increasingly patients complain of being 'stressed about being stressed!"
A recent study from America studying 501 couples for up to 12 months found there was a 29 % reduction in fertility and a 2 fold increase risk of infertility in the couples who demonstrated high levels of stress (Lynch et al, 2014).
Actually stress in moderate amounts can improve our performance and keeps us focused on a goal However, when this is sustained over a period of time our bodies adopt a 'fight or flight" response, which prompts the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol (stress hormone) and adrenaline into the blood stream. This is a survival reflex. It is essential that our bodies are allowed to fall back into a relaxed state after 'fight or flight' so that basic functions such as heart rate, blood pressure and digestion can return to normal. This is what I see very frequently in clinic; the body is not able to resume its normal state because we are trying to 'fight' on too many fronts. Increasingly people are running insanely busy lives and trying to juggle too much and it can lead to burnout and yes inability to conceive.
Look at it this way; fertility is a peripheral need for the body it is not essential for its survival. Of course as a species we need to be able to conceive but not as an individual. So if the body is under stress the message goes to the brain that this is not the optimal time to conceive and that you are in danger. We know that extreme stress can stop women from ovulating, but more and more pregnancies are failing to implant despite excellent embryo quality.
Stress can ruin your love life too; reducing libido and causing performance anxiety all of which can become divisive in a relationship. Despite both men and women deciding to become parents together, it is often the woman who is highly motivated to drive this (even if the man is on side it is still generally driven by the woman). There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, she will carry the baby and therefore in the short term at least the pregnancy will impact most on all aspects of her life. Two, women are more use to thinking about their bodies and getting regular checks from doctors and are more likely to seek advise, more quickly if pregnancy does not occur. Thirdly, fertility specialists are Gynecologists who are trained in treating women and not men, so the medical process is designed towards addressing female issues and not male ones.
At The Fertility Show in Olympia this year; there were many stands promoting their approach and services to the public and many professionals taking. Of course people really want information in the hope that they will find the right way forward for themselves. But too much information can be both part of the solution and the problem. I over heard a woman saying to her husband that she felt more confused than ever with all the (often conflicting) information on offer. Information overload is a cause of mush of the stress I witness in clinic. This leads only one way- obsession and anxiety
What I see is there are two main sources of stress; external stress that we often cannot avoid, that is usually at the hands of other people. And, internal stress that is emotional and is of our own making or from past conflicts that have not be addressed. There are many different emotions that can cause a disturbance in the bodies energetic system; anger, resentment, jealously, shame, guilt, obsession, anxiety, fear need to be acknowledged. Women today have become expert at doing and being; our lives are full and hectic and we are overly committed in all directions; none of which is conducive to conception. Fertility is a receptive act and our bodies need to be in the right place to receive a pregnancy. You can have a great quality egg but the body and mind need to be willing and open.
TIPS ON MANAGING FERTILITY STRESS
1) Make a plan. 3 months, 6 months 12 months. It's amazing how much time can be eroded and time is of the essence here so make it count.
2) Set time aside everyday to focus on your health and fertility in a positive way. So instead of obsessing and feeling anxious think about all the 'why's' to wanting a baby. When we come from the why's we are actually coming from our heart and not our heads.
3) Take up yoga (not too hot or extreme) chose a more gentle restorative form.
4) Acupuncture releases endorphins which are the bodies natural response to stress. Regular acupuncture will off set some of the effects of stress hormones.
5) Have counseling for and emotional issues that maybe under mining your happiness.
6) Control your time on Dr. Google; there is so much anxiety and obsession generated by too much information
7) Don't turn your sex life into another schedule of things to do - and don't reply on devices to tell you when to make-love. Our research revealed that couples who routinely use ovulation predictors have less sex than those who don't
8) Find good people to work with and stick with it; if you ask 10 people the same question you are likely to get 10 different answers. So pick your team and trust them.
9) When faced with a stressful situation; ask yourself 'what's more important my health or this stress' - chose health
10) Everyday think about being more receptive; this requires letting go of control and learning to be more open and even vulnerable. It's scary but it is very important to let go of achieving and focus on receiving.
Lynch, CD, Sundaram, R, Maisog, JM, Sweeney, AM, & Louis, B. (2014).Preconception stress increases the risk of infertility: results from a couple-based prospective cohort study - the LIFE study. Hum. Reprod. Vol 0 No O. 1-9 Advance access.