Can you remember the last time that you felt truly relaxed? How long ago was it? When faced with the demands of your job, social life, and whatever else you have going on (on top of trying to conceive), you may have gotten used to carrying your stress around with you every day. In that environment, it’s easy to focus on the sources of your stress and not take into account the variety of physiological effects that stress may have on your body.
Most of us have heard the story about the couple who tried to get pregnant for years, then gave up or decided to adopt, only to become pregnant soon after. Reduced stress is typically given the credit for those cases. Is there any science behind it? In this post, we examine the question that many concerned women are asking — does stress make it harder to get pregnant?
Stress is an unavoidable part of being human. Though we may talk about it with exacerbated sighs, it’s not always a bad thing. Aside from more serious situations in which your fight-or-flight response is crucial, the physiological changes caused by stress may also give you the mental boost you need to ace a test or nail a job presentation.
When you get stressed, a few things start to happen. You begin to breathe faster, your pulse speeds up, your muscles tense, and your brain goes into overdrive (1). This reaction occurs almost instantaneously. Your brain sends signals through your autonomic nervous system, telling your adrenal glands to release the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream (2).
Epinephrine causes your heart to beat faster, which increases blood circulation and temporarily raises your pulse and blood pressure. It also tells your body to release glucose and stored fat into your bloodstream, delivering energy to all parts of your body. While this is going on, your breathing quickens and airways in your lungs open wider, allowing you to take in more oxygen with each breath. The extra oxygen in your brain helps it work faster, increasing your alertness and sharpening your senses (2).
However, our bodies aren’t able to handle the stress-induced physiological changes for extended periods. If you are exposed to stress hormones regularly, it can start to take a toll on your physical wellbeing. Long-term stress can make it difficult for your immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep, and reproductive systems to function normally (1).
For example, muscle tension, over time, may lead to tension headaches and migraines, as well as musculoskeletal pain (3). A continually elevated heart rate may increase your risk of hypertension, heart attack, and stroke (3). Possible effects of chronic stress also include high blood pressure, diabetes, and mental disorders, such as depression or anxiety (1).
On the surface, it makes sense that stress may impact your ability to get pregnant. For example, stress may affect your menstrual cycles and make it harder to pinpoint your fertile windows accurately (3). It may also decrease sexual desire and change how often you have intercourse with your partner (3). However, some researchers think that the effects of stress go even deeper. Is it possible that stress can actually affect your fertility?
A 2016 study looked at the daily stress levels of 400 sexually-active women under 40 years old who were trying to conceive (TTC). The researchers found that women who experienced high levels of stress during their ovulatory window were 40% less likely to conceive than women who reported lower stress levels (4).
Though the study doesn’t discuss which biological mechanisms are behind the decreased chances of conception, the authors group stress with other risk factors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and obesity. They suggest that women who are trying to get pregnant may benefit from taking a more active role in stress reduction (5).
About one-fourth of women of reproductive age experience daily stress (6). One study looked at the relationship between this stress and a couple’s chances of getting pregnant. They found that women that reported themselves as highly stressed were 25% less likely to conceive than women with less stress (6).
More research is still needed to figure out exactly why and how much stress affects fertility. One theory is that stress may delay or inhibit the luteinizing hormone (LH) surge that triggers ovulation. Other ideas are that it may reduce the ovarian reserve or make it more difficult for a fertilized egg to implant itself in the uterine lining (6).
Scientists are still trying to find the most accurate way to measure stress. Everybody perceives stress differently, making it difficult to compare self-reported stress levels objectively. This is probably one reason why studies that use self-reported stress levels have found differing relationships between stress and fertility (7).
Studies that use biomarkers such as cortisol and alpha-amylase as measures of stress levels seem to be more in agreement that stress has a real and measurable impact on a woman’s chances of conception (7).
Before you start getting stressed out by your stress, remember that your chances of conception are determined by a vast range of genetic and environmental factors. The existence of stress is just one of them. It is also a very natural part of life, one that’s almost impossible to avoid. However, finding ways to reduce your daily stress is always a good idea. Click here to read one woman’s journey of coping with stress and anxiety while trying to conceive.
The journey to conception is an inherently stressful one for many women. That doesn’t mean that you’re doing it wrong or making things harder for yourself. It’s just a fact. Regardless of whether stress is impacting your chances of getting pregnant, you may benefit from finding new ways to reduce stress while trying to conceive. Here are a few to get you started:
Finding a community of people who understand what you’re going through can be a life-changing experience. Whether you do it online or in-person, connecting with others who have walked in your shoes can help with feelings of isolation or inadequacy, open doors to resources that you may not know about, and introduce you to lifelong friends.
Virtually any exercise has the potential to decrease your stress, whether it’s yoga, dancing, biking, or hitting the gym. Getting your body moving can be a meditative process that releases endorphins and boosts your mood (8). Try finding an exercise routine that you enjoy (it’s always easier to find time to work out when we actually want to do it). Click here to learn how exercise may help with fertility.
How often do you stop and concentrate on your breathing? For most people, the answer is probably “never.” However, deep, focused breathing may help decrease the physical toll of chronic stress (9). You can practice deep breathing while lying on your back, or during yoga, tai chi, prayer, or meditation.
When you’re focused on TTC, it can be too easy to let hobbies and interests fall to the wayside. Instead of putting the rest of your life on hold, try finding a new hobby, such as writing, painting, or learning to play an instrument. You don’t have to be any good at it. That’s not the point. Let yourself experience something as a beginner. Let yourself make mistakes. Who knows? It may turn into a lifelong passion.
What parts of your life start to slip when stress takes over? Whether it is skimping on sleep, turning to greasy comfort foods, shutting out loved ones, or overbooking your schedule, unhealthy coping mechanisms may increase stress levels further. Learn to recognize these and stop them in their tracks. Prioritize yourself and your mental and physical health.
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