When we feel stressed, whether real or perceived, our body has cleverly evolved to initiate a collection of physiological changes to assist us in evading imminent danger like being chased by a lion - this is known as the fight-or-flight response or the stress response. This is a totally natural, instinctual mechanism in which your body focuses all its attention on basic survival.
When we experience stress our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA Axis) is triggered, and our sympathetic nervous system is activated, initially stimulating our adrenal glands to release adrenaline and noradrenaline, around 20 minutes later glucocorticoids (cortisol and cortisone) are released and non essential functions like fertility are bypassed. Once activated, this central stress response system regulates digestion, immunity, fertility, sexual function, blood sugar balance, energy storage and expenditure such as the conversion of macro nutrients to glucose and fat storage to help us get the hell away from that lion!!
Stress directly impacts both male and female reproductive health. When our bodies are in the fight or flight state fertility is considered a non essential function to prolong life and evade that lion and so is not prioritised. It is important to note that the stressor or lion does not only have to represent your psychological stress. It could be caused by physical stress like marathon training, a gut or parasitic infection, prolonged toxic exposure and load, a long term processed diet or consistently compromised sleep.
Research shows that stress is the common risk factor of 75%–90% diseases. Chronically triggering the stress response and staying in such a high state of physiological alert is deeply taxing and damaging for all systems in the body. System wide communication within your body is thought to be disrupted by stress. The messages your body sends via the endocrine system (hormones), nervous system (neurotransmitters) and the immune system (cytokines) could be disrupted and cause dysfunction in your body. This is thought to be perpetuated by a separate system called the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Gonadal (HPG) Axis.
The HPG Axis is an important control mechanism involved in the development and regulation the reproductive system and immune system. The HPA and HPG axis function in tandem, they are in constant bi-directional communication, meaning the activation of one affects the function of the other.
Recent research shows that stress can talk to and disrupt hormone balance impacting fertility. Women with higher-than-average stress scores were shown to be 13% less likely to conceive than women who didn’t. This number increased for women who had been trying to conceive for 3 or more menstrual cycles and women over 35 were also more likely to struggle with conception.
When looking at couples, if one member in a couple had a higher than average stress score and the other did not they were about 25% less likely to conceive. In other words, the study suggests that when one person is more stressed than the other (also known as "stress discordance"), getting pregnant could be difficult.
It is vital to regulate stress to keep an appropriate balance of hormones as they are essential for initiating ovulation and sustaining pregnancy.
1.The word progesterone means “for gestation,”. It nourishes the uterine lining in preparation for the implanted fertilised egg, continuing to nourish the uterus throughout pregnancy. Prolonged stress disrupts the production of progesterone.
2.Changing levels of oestrogen and progesterone reduces the activity of serotonin (happy hormone) in the brain potentially leading to anxiety/aggression/depression .
3.Research shows women with higher cortisol levels are less likely to achieve pregnancy with IVF.
4.Cortisol is thought to interfere with Gonadotropin-Releasing Hormone (GnRH) which talks to the brain causing the pituitary to release FSH (Follicle Stimulating Hormone) and LH (Luteinising Hormone)
5.GnRH is needed to stimulate the ovaries to produce and release eggs.
FSH works on a feedback loop with oestrogen telling the eggs in your ovaries to grow, the eggs release oestrogen in response.
Tips to reduce stress:
Try relaxing essential oils in a vaporiser to trigger your sense of smell which in turn will send messages to your brain to relax. If you don’t have a vaporiser rub a few drops between the palms of your hands and cover your nose and take 3 deep inhales or try rubbing a few drops onto your wrists or on your pillow. (Try: Lavender, Ylang Ylang, Lemon Balm, Immortelle or Clary Sage).
Enjoy an Epsom salt bath. Magnesium is known as ‘natures tranquiliser’ and will help to calm the nervous system. A bath isn’t only a calm place to relax, you also absorb the salts through your skin and increase your magnesium levels.
Get some good quality rest (7-9 hours per night) as during sleep your body repairs and rebalances (please see sleep module). Disruption of circadian rhythm (your sleep pattern) has been shown to have a negative bearing on ovarian function.
Exercise (3/4x per week)
Mental -stimulate & use your mind during the day. Try reading or do mindfulness exercises/colouring at night.
Physical – its ok whether that’s in the morning to get the endorphins flowing for the day ahead or in the evening with some deep stretching and unwinding yoga poses. A 20 minute walk every day is perfect and the added bonus of exercising outside is topping up your Vitamin D levels which helps to regulate hormone balance. Whatever feels good for you is ok, just get your body moving.
Share your concerns with friends, family or your partner if you can. If not seeking specialist help is a power move and not a sign of weakness so know you are always armed with this option.
Try journaling before bed or keep a pen and paper next to the bed so that you can write down things that are troubling you in the night & you can revisit them in the morning with fresh eyes.
Schedule and plan your day as sometimes looking at your week in usable hours as opposed to days allows you to free up time which you can use to relax. (Book recommendation: Laura Vanderkam 168 Hours)
Meditation to help you combat stress, increase self-awareness/ self-esteem and promote hormone balance.
Yoga promotes physical and mental health.
Consider trying positive affirmations or positive self talk to raise confidence “I am not broken, I am enough. I can do this.”
Counselling to explore and resolve any underlying drivers of stress.
Deep breathing exercises to reduce stress and aid good quality sleep e.g.
Breath in through your nose for the count of 4, hold for the count of 2, breath out for the count of 6 (more on Balance or Calm App).
Watch your favourite comedy to boost happy hormones or listen to your favourite empowering podcast (Try Berne Brown).
Playing with worry beads or bands to distract and disrupt any repetitive negative thoughts.
Try guided muscle relaxation techniques at times of anxiety or to help you fall asleep
Play music which makes you feel relaxed, this is unique to you and what resonates with your calm.
Drink some warming, relaxing and calming tea chamomile, passionflower, or valerian teas each have a sedating effect at night.
Ideally no blue light exposure1hr before bed - Phone/tv/laptop/tablet
Reduce alcohol consumption to x1 day per week.
Avoid smoking totally
Reduce caffeine consumption, ideally x1 cup a day before lunch. Try swapping coffee for Green tea to get catechins which are antioxidant rich. Be aware green tea is still a stimulant so can aggravate the HPA AXIS and shouldn’t be consumed at night.
Reduce sugar and processed foods to support your liver detoxification and hormone balance and regulate your blood glucose.
Stress can lead to erratic eating behaviours such as comfort and binge eating. Fat is metabolically active and disrupts communication within the body and hormone balance. Obesity is negatively associated with fertility and so maintaining a healthy weight is vital when trying to conceive.