Stress and Infertility: Could the Two Be Related?

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“Just relax.”

If you’re trying to figure out something to say to someone struggling with infertility, these two words are NOT it. After all, placing the responsibility for a person’s infertility on their inability to “just relax” is, er, less than helpful. And it sort of blames them for the problem when it’s totally not their fault. Learn what to say to someone struggling with infertility.

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That being said, hopeful parents sometimes wonder whether there’s any validity to the phrase they hear oh so often.

Could relaxing make a difference in whether or not you can conceive a child?

While I’m a firm believer that a day by the pool is no quick fix for infertility (honestly, who would think that?), it begs the question, could there be a connection between stress and infertility?

If you’re wondering whether stress and ovulation, implantation, or egg quality relate to one another, you might be surprised to learn that while “just relax” is a phrase you’d rather not hear, they actually do.

But stick with us. That does not make any of this your fault.

We repeat: this is not your fault!

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Can Stress Affect Infertility?

When my husband and I decided to grow a family, my default emotion was stress.

young woman is the focus in the middle of a crowded sidewalk while she hides her face in her hands
The stress we feel in daily life can have certain negative impacts on fertility.

Since I knew from the start that we would have to use in vitro fertilization (IVF) to have a baby because I suffer from polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), I became consumed with learning everything I could about the process.

You can read all about my journey with PCOS and infertility, as that’s a whole other kettle of fish.

After we decided to try to conceive, I developed spiraling negative thoughts about all the ways my IVF cycles could get messed up.

Day after day, the stress consumed me, and I couldn’t help but wonder: could all of this stress decrease my chances of getting pregnant?

Yep, you guessed it. This fear made me stress even more.

Eventually, I took to my computer and started prowling through Google machine for more information about the connection between stress and fertility issues.

I needed to know how to manage that pesky “just relax” problem.

Stress and Infertility: Just How Closely Connected Are They?

For decades, researchers have debated the idea that stress or anxiety could play a role in a woman’s ability to get pregnant. This research was largely spearheaded by Alice Domar in 1987, and she has since published numerous books on the subject.

In recent years, research has proven a connection between stress and fertility problems.

Note: Most infertility problems are grounded in physical issues, such as blocked fallopian tubes or PCOS infertility.

But research has proven that stress can impact menstrual cycles and other important aspects of fertility for both women and men.

While there is still a lot unknown about the connection between stress and infertility, research has shown that certain physical responses to stress can lead to infertility or prolong the time it takes to get pregnant.

From disruptions in ovulation to lengthy conception times, it’s important to understand how excess stress can interrupt your reproductive cycles.

Is There a Connection Between Stress and Ovulation?

A 2016 study conducted on the effects of stress during the periconceptional phase determined that women who experience high levels of stress and anxiety during their ovulation cycles are 37 – 46% more likely to have trouble conceiving.

But why?

While there are many physical reasons a woman might have a hard time finding ways to track ovulation, such as PCOS or premature ovarian failure, stress, anxiety, and depression can also play a role.

Women who experience chronic issues stress are prone to producing increased amounts of a hormone known as cortisol.

Cortisol then negatively impacts reproductive hormones and causes:

  • More stress
  • Mood swings
  • Decreased sex drive

High cortisol levels can also interfere with a woman’s ability to produce the luteinizing hormones (LH) needed for ovulation. Ovulation is initiated due to an LH surge. If a woman’s body is not producing enough LH, this surge won’t happen.

It’s also been shown that cortisol can affect estrogen and progesterone levels – both of which are essential hormones for conceiving and maintaining a pregnancy.

Can Conception Take Longer because of Stress?

When a couple decides they’re ready to have a baby, Hollywood imagery would have them believe it will happen instantaneously.

After all, don’t movies and tv shows show us time and again that all it takes is ONE TIME?

On the contrary, however, getting pregnant often takes time – especially if you’re trying to conceive while feeling stressed!

In addition to cortisol levels, stress and anxiety can also play a role in the number of alpha-amylase enzymes in a woman’s system. Alpha-amylase enzymes are found in a woman’s saliva and are a biological indicator of stress.

While a certain amount of stress is reasonable, studies suggest that people with the highest number of these enzymes take longer to conceive: a study of 373 American women showed that women with high alpha-amylase levels were approximately 29% less likely to conceive each month.

For many of these women, it also took longer than 12 months to get pregnant.

This is a small study, and certainly does not guarantee efficacy, nor should it make you think your stress is going to prevent you from getting pregnant. But it does provide valuable information as we continue to question the connection between stress and infertility.

Does Stress Affect Egg Quality?

As if an increased presence of stress hormones like cortisol weren’t already creating enough problems, studies have shown they can affect the number of eggs a woman has available, as well as the quality of those eggs.

When cortisol levels rise, this causes a decrease in estradiol, the main sex hormone produced by women.

This occurrence not only negatively impacts a woman’s ovaries and follicles but can deteriorate the quality of her eggs, making it much harder to conceive.

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Can Stress Affect Implantation?

Whether you’re trying naturally to conceive or you’re going through an IUI or IVF cycle, embryo implantation is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Since infertility treatments inherently increase stress in most women, understanding the role stress can play in implantation–and how to mitigate that stress–is essential.

If you’ve managed to escape ovulation problems and egg deterioration, you might think you’re in the clear as far as stress-related infertility problems. But that may or may not be true.

An overabundance of stress hormones can also decrease the good reproductive hormones, estrogen and progesterone, needed to prepare a woman’s uterus for implantation.

When a woman’s body lacks these hormones, this can reduce the blood flow to her uterus and a decline in the quality of her endometrial lining. Both of these are essential components for successful implantation.

Does Stress Affect Male Fertility?

Alright, ladies, you’ll be happy to hear that we’re not the only ones having to deal with this whole stress and infertility conversation.

Men are actually at risk for problems, too!

While research is still underway to better understand why a man’s fertility is affected by stress, it does appear that a connection exists.

A study conducted by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that sperm is profoundly affected by higher levels of stress and anxiety in these ways.

When a man had higher levels of stress hormones, he also had:

  • Fewer sperm in semen samples
  • More misshapen sperm
  • Slower sperm motility than is necessary for conception

Stress and Sex Drive

Let’s face it: when many women are stressed and anxious, sex is the last thing on their minds.

While this might not be a biological explanation of the relationship between stress and infertility, it’s no less important. After all, until you enter the walls of a fertility clinic, babies can’t get made if you’re not getting between the sheets.

Sure, you might be more concerned about whether a connection between stress and ovulation exists, or you might be asking yourself things like “Does stress affect egg quality?”

At the end of the day, though, these aren’t the only things to worry about.

If you’re struggling with a decreased sex drive, don’t hold back from talking to your doctor. This type of situation is just as important to the process as ovulation and egg quality!

How to Relax While Trying to Get Pregnant

If you’re hoping to figure out how to reduce stress when trying to conceive, there are lots of good options beyond spa days and vacations!

We’re here to help with 6 tips to get you to slow down and enjoy the process a little more with 6 stress-relieving ideas. 

(1) Develop a Better Diet & Exercise Routine

Our bodies are extraordinary vessels built around several intricate systems that help keep us going. When we’re not treating these systems correctly, this can cause problems with the way we feel.

By implementing a healthier diet, such as a PCOS fertility diet, and exercise routine into your day-to-day life, you’ll feel better all-around – including feeling less stressed!

(2) Avoid Stimulants

As a mother of two, I understand the importance of caffeine.

My morning without a cup of coffee is not a pretty sight to behold.

That being said, too many stimulating substances, such as caffeine and alcohol, can actually raise stress levels. I’m not saying you need to go cold turkey, but moderation is key.

(3) Acupuncture & Meditation

Acupuncture and meditation are popular practices within Eastern medicine – and for a good reason!

They can positively impact many different aspects of our lives, including stress relief! What’s even better, however, is that studies have proven that acupuncture can help treat infertility.

Activities like mindfulness, meditation, massage, and acupuncture stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which basically helps us calm down.

(4) Take Up a New Hobby

From journaling to playing the piano, having hobbies we care about helps to preoccupy our minds.

When you’re able to transfer some of the mental space you’ve given to stress and anxiety into something else, it can help alleviate some of the hardships you’re facing.

(5) Plan a Date Night with Your Partner

I know what you’re probably thinking – date night!? Doesn’t she realize we’re in the middle of a global pandemic?

Trust me, we get it; right now might not be the best time to plan a big night out on the town. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a simple at-home date night, though!

Need some ideas? Ask trusted friends and family in your bubble to take care of any older children you might have, and:

  • Have a game night at home 
  • Have a fun fondue night
  • Cook a special meal you both enjoy
  • Eat a candle-lit “takeout” dinner
  • Make smores by the fire
  • Create a list of all the things you want to do when COVID is a distant memory
  • Listen to your favorite album while looking through photos
  • Watch your wedding video while eating cake from your favorite bakery
  • Watch a good movie you’ve both been wanting to see
  • Read a good book out loud
  • Order some essential oils and have a DIY massage night

Find something you enjoy doing together that’s easy and stress-free. Who knows, maybe the home alone activities will lead to a little extra baby-making time later!

The evening shouldn’t be centered on that, though. You don’t want that expectation getting in the way of your connection and down time.

(6) Seek Professional Help

Often, people make the mistake of thinking stress and anxiety are the same thing. It’s critical to realize that they’re vastly different.

When you’re trying to learn how to relax while trying to get pregnant, any of the suggestions above will probably work for normal stress.

Anxiety, on the other hand, might not be so easily treated.

If you’re concerned about the way you’re feeling emotionally, it’s crucial to seek a doctor’s or therapist’s professional opinion. They can help better direct you on the best ways to overcome your anxiety.

If you’re trying to decide whether you could be suffering from more than just stress, you should consider the following common symptoms of anxiety:

  • Excessive worrying about everyday situations
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability and Mood Swings
  • Irrational fears or intrusive thoughts
  • Panic attacks

Overcoming the Cycle of Stress and Infertility

When it comes to trying to have a baby, the process can be naturally stressful. That commonplace stress, however, can be compounded by an array of questions, such as:

  • Is there a connection between stress and ovulation?
  • Can stress prevent implantation?
  • Does stress affect my egg quality?

As the vicious cycle begins to spin out of control, it can be hard to disassociate yourself and your partner from the mounting stress.

Unfortunately, this everyday stress can quickly become an even bigger infertility problem, so it’s important to address it head-on.

If you’re concerned that the relationship between stress and infertility could be affecting you and your family, it’s essential to find ways to combat the problem.

Whether you take up painting or find a certified acupuncturist, finding the right stress-relief solution for your unique circumstances is key.

And remember, if you’re concerned there’s something bigger than just stress at play, don’t hesitate to seek out the professional help you deserve.

What are some of your favorite stress-relief techniques when struggling with stress and infertility?

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