If you are struggling with infertility, you’ll know that people telling you to, “relax” or “it’ll happen,” is not helpful. Ever. But, the reality is that stress can impact fertility. Studies have shown that anxiety and stress over an inability to get pregnant can make it that much harder. It’s so unfair, we know, but it’s the truth.  So how does stress impact fertility? Keep reading to find out!

What does the research around stress and fertility say?

While researchers don’t fully understand all the ways that stress can impact fertility, it’s clear that the body senses its environment (diet, stress, exercise, chemicals). From those signals it can adjust the ability to get pregnant. “It makes sense when you think about it through evolution,” says Shannon Whirledge, Assistant Professor at Yale School of Medicine. Periods of high stress are not good times to have a baby. “You can imagine that during a period of famine that the body would limit the ability to have a baby to save energy and resources,” says Whirledge. Unfortunately, the same system recognises the long-term stress associated with battling infertility. 

Alpha-amylase, an enzyme that’s linked to stress

Researchers have long been trying to determine exactly how stress limits fertility.  A study in the journal Fertility and Sterility found that women with high levels of alpha-amylase, an enzyme that’s linked with stress, have a harder time getting pregnant.

In this study, saliva samples were taken from 274 women over six menstrual cycles (or until they got pregnant). It revealed that the women with the highest concentrations of alpha-amylase during their first cycle were 12% less likely to conceive than women with lower levels of the enzyme.

High levels of cortisol reduced ovulation

Another study from the Emory School of Medicine, found that women who had stopped ovulating for more than 6 months had high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. The same regions of the brain that can regulate the hormones required for ovulation also respond to stress hormones, like cortisol. Of these women, seven out of the eight participants who received stress management therapy began ovulating again, compared to only two out of eight participants who did not receive therapy. This same link between stress and fertility occurs in men, where high levels of stress can reduce testosterone production. This shows that both partners can be impacted by stress.

Link between poor mental health and infertility

Many researchers have also pointed out that most women who can’t get pregnant have physical reasons for this. But this isn’t always the case. Either way, as time passes, the woman feels more and more stress. So even if a physical cause is treated medically, it’s possible that high stress levels can make it more difficult to conceive.

In another study in Taiwan, it was found that 40% of participants seeking infertility treatment were diagnosed with depression or anxiety. Other researchers have found that women struggling with infertility have the same levels of anxiety and depression as women diagnosed with HIV or cancer! Since infertility is a real medical condition with major implications to one’s life, it’s no surprise that it can cause the same levels of anxiety that other serious medical challenges can.

Progesterone and Stress

Stress and cortisol production also directly impact the production of progesterone. Since progesterone and cortisol follow the same steroid hormone pathway, they’re connected.

In the hormone pathway, progesterone is used to produce cortisol. So, if you are under a lot of stress and your body needs more cortisol, then your body might “steal” progesterone from your reproductive system to create more cortisol. Since progesterone is essential for conception, stress-stealing cortisol can create a real problem when it comes to trying to conceive.

Proov progesterone tests can help women understand their progesterone levels quickly, easily, and at home. This is important in two ways. First, Proov tests can help you understand if your body is working properly so that it can support conception. If not, you can bring this information to your doctor to discuss potential solutions. Second, as we’ve heard from people who have used Proov in the past, the reassurance of being able to test progesterone at home in 5 minutes can actually reduce stress! Many times, anxiety comes from lack of knowledge and control. With Proov, women are empowered to track their progesterone levels themselves, at home, which can lead to a sense of more control over what can feel like an unfair and out of control situation. 

What does this mean for me?

If you are currently struggling with infertility, or just stress in general, there are many ways to reduce stress! Give one of the following options a try:

Enlist your partner

You and your partner are probably dealing with the stress of infertility in different ways – women typically seek social support, while men lean towards problem-solving. This can create a divide in your relationship, so try to seek out some special, one-on-one time. Maybe go see a movie, go out to dinner, or even take a dance class!

Try journaling

Writing emotions and feelings on paper can help take some pressure off. You can get things off your chest without having to share with others.

Stay active/exercise

Doing activities you enjoy or exercising lightly can help release endorphins and serotonin, both of which improve your mood. Try moderate exercises such as swimming or walking. Even just setting aside time to do your favorite activities can relieve stress. (Note that heavy or strenuous exercise can cause the creation of more cortisol, which will not improve stress.)

Meditation or yoga

Meditating can help clear your mind and relax your body. Not into sitting still? Try doing an hour of yoga a few times a week. Hatha yoga specifically focuses on breath and movement, without concentrating on mediation per se. Both meditation and yoga can reduce stress hormones.

Get emotional support 

In times of uncertainty, it’s important to consider resources that address your emotional needs as individuals and as a couple. The way that you are processing (versus suppressing) what’s happening to you can directly impact your reproductive health. Counseling and group support are great places to share feelings and emotions and help women feel less isolated during their infertility journeys. Organic Conceptions is another great resource to check out. They are the first organisation to research, map, and bring to life the emotional stages from couples who overcame infertility. Their online course aims to help couples to identify, name, address, and overcome the suffering involved when struggling to conceive, resulting in healthier patients and better outcomes.  

This blog was reposted with permission and minor edits from Proov.