Stress can have a profound effect on your health. It plays a role in conditions ranging from headaches and insomnia to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, asthma, depression, anxiety and diabetes. Doctors even believe it may be responsible for up to 30 percent of all cases of infertility.
Studies have repeatedly shown that women and couples who are stress-free and happy are more likely to get pregnant than those who are under stress. Stress causes hormonal changes in the female body that can interfere with ovulation. Some doctors even believe that the escalating pressures of modern life are partially to blame for increasing infertility rates over the past few decades.
Scientists Find Clues Linking Stress and Infertility
Scientists are still unraveling the complex relationship between stress and infertility in women. While more research is needed to fully understand how stress affects fertility, it’s clear that stress can make it harder to get pregnant. Allen Morgan, MD, director of the Shore Institute for Reproductive Medicine, believes that the increase in hormones like epinephrine and cortisol that often accompanies lasting stress plays a central role in making conception difficult for women. He believes that these hormones may affect the protein composition of the uterine lining and restrict blood flow to the uterus, both of which could have a negative impact on fertility.
In one study published in the journal Human Reproduction, doctors compared fertility rates among couples who self-reported high levels of stress and couples who did not. They found that couples who self-reported feeling relaxed and happy were much more likely to become pregnant during a given month than those who self-reported feeling stressed and frazzled.
A 2005 study published in the journal Fertility and Sterility found that stress can affect whether or not in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments are successful. Researchers quizzed women going through IVF on their stress levels, and found that those who reported the highest stress levels ovulated less often than those who reported less stress. In fact, researchers found that the stressed-out women released 20 percent fewer eggs than the women who were not stressed. Among those women who did produce eggs, the most stressed were also 20 percent less likely to successfully conceive through IVF.
In more recent study published in Human Reproduction takes a closer look at the hormonal responses of women under stress, and how those hormonal responses affect their chances of getting pregnant. Researchers followed 401 women over a four-year period as they stopped using birth control and started trying to have a baby. The researchers collected saliva samples from the women at the beginning of the study, and again when they had their first menstrual period, with the exception of those participants who became pregnant during the first month of the study period.
The researchers analyzed the samples for two stress-related hormones, cortisol and alpha-amylase, to see if they could find a link between high levels of one or both of these stress hormones and infertility. As the researchers followed the women over the study period, they found no link between infertility — defined as a lack of conception after 12 months of trying — and high levels of cortisol. However, the researchers did find a strong link between high levels of alpha-amylase and infertility among the women. High alpha-amylase levels are a sign of longstanding, chronic stress.
Over the course of the four-year study period, 347 of the women got pregnant and 54 did not. The researchers found that those women who were in the highest third for alpha-amylase levels were more than twice as likely to experience infertility as those in the lowest third. The researchers controlled for other factors known to influence fertility, including age, income, race, socioeconomic status and other health problems.
Combating Stress-Related Infertility
Even if you don’t have any other sources of chronic stress in your life, the frustration of not being able to conceive when you want to have a baby can be stressful enough. If you’re having trouble getting pregnant, stress management techniques have been found to increase fertility in women with unexplained fertility problems. If you’re receiving treatments at Austin Fertility/Westlake IVF, stress management techniques could improve your odds of getting pregnant. Psychotherapy, meditation, yoga, acupuncture or massage therapy can all lower your stress levels and improve your chances of conception. Even if you’re juggling a busy lifestyle, look for short windows of me-time in which you can decompress. A little stress relief could make all the difference.
If you’re having trouble getting pregnant, stress could be the culprit. Multiple studies have linked stress, especially of the chronic variety, with unexplained infertility. But there’s good news — making relaxation a part of your daily routine can go a long way toward helping nature take its course.