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How Stress Can Affect Fertility

Updated: Mar 30, 2023

While there are some studies showing that some level of stress (acute) can be good for our health, there is no doubt that chronic stress can be devastating to our health. The truth is that without stress the human race would had not been able to survive. Our prehistoric ancestors had less than one second to decide what to do when a large predator leaped from behind a bush. In this fight or flight response the body quickly releases a cascade of hormones preparing the body to fight the predator or run away from it. These hormones accelerate our breathing and heart rate, increase blood pressure and muscle tightness, and mobilize blood to our large muscles. At the same time, functions that are not a priority during an episode of survival such as digestion, sleep, conceiving, etc. shut down.

Scientists differentiate between chronic stress (long term) and acute stress (short term). Acute stress being the kind of stress that is short lived – the stress that we experience while being stuck in traffic, for example. This kind of stress is easily handled by our system. Experts believe that we are designed to recover quickly from acute stress – we are resilient to acute stress, meaning we can bounce back and lower our blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, etc. in a few minutes.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is not short lived. It is something that we experience every day, several times a day, and it is difficult to bounce back from. Economic instability, high-pressure jobs or unhealthy relationships are some examples of chronic stress. Because the individual experiences these situations several times a week, stress begins to take a toll on the person’s body and mind.

Scientists have been studying the effect of stress for many decades. A paper published in 2017 by the Journal of Experimental and Clinical Sciences titled “The Impact of Stress on Body Function” cites over 100 studies. One of these studies shows that stress can cause structural changes in the brain with long-term effects on the nervous system. Another study shows that there is an inverse relationship between the level of cortisol and memory such that increasing levels of plasma cortisol following prolonged stress leads to a reduction in memory, which improves when the level of plasma cortisol decreases. In addition, the effect of stress on the immune system has been shown in multiple studies that people who are under stress are more likely to have an impaired immune system and, as a result, suffer from more frequent illnesses.

“Increasing levels of plasma cortisol following prolonged stress leads to a reduction in memory, which improves when the level of plasma cortisol decreases.”

There are also several studies showing the effects of stress on the function of the GI function. One of these studies titled “Stress and Gastrointestinal Tract / Stress and Intestinal Barrier Function” shows how:

“stress affects the absorption process, intestinal permeability, mucus and stomach acid secretion, and GI inflammation.”

When it comes to the effects of stress on fertility, there are plenty of studies. In general, most studies agree that when a woman’s body begins to secrete excessive amounts of stress hormones, these interfere with the secretion of female sex hormones (FSH, LH, Estrogen, Progesterone); disrupting ovulation and menstruation cycles, as well as, uterine receptivity and ovarian function.

A study published in 2015 by the journal of Epidemiology concluded that:

“High levels of stress was associated with lower levels of estradiol and luteinizing hormone (LH), and higher levels of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH).”

The study also showed that high levels of stress is associated with lower levels of luteal progesterone and higher odds of anovulation (when ovaries fail to release an egg during a menstrual cycle).

Anxiety and depression, which are usually a byproduct of stress, have been found to also affect fertility. A study published in 2004 by Human Reproduction concluded that 40% of women who visited an assisted reproduction clinic for a new course of the treatment were diagnosed with depressive and anxiety disorders. It is also interesting to note that the medications used to treat infertility, including clomiphene, leuprolide, and gonadotropins, are associated with causing psychological symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and irritability. In addition, the journal of Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology published in 2018 a study showing that:

“Stress is associated with decreased conception rates and long menstrual cycles.”

What’s even more troubling is that some experts believe that:

“Women struggling with infertility have the same levels of anxiety and depression as women diagnosed with cancer.”

Although acupuncture has been used to treat stress for hundreds of years, it has only been a couple of decades since fertility experts have been using acupuncture to help women relax to increase their chance of conceiving. A study done in 2019 concluded that:

“Women who received this acupuncture regimen achieved pregnancy 64.7%, whereas those without acupuncture achieved pregnancy 42.5%."

In July of 2020 the results of a randomized controlled trial (RCT), known as the AkuRest study, were published. In this study, participants with increased stress levels were randomly allocated to one of three groups: true acupuncture treatment, sham acupuncture, and a waiting control group. The study concluded that:

“There is indicated efficacy of true acupuncture to decrease stress"

In Conclusion

If you have been trying to conceive for a few months and the diagnosis from your OB/GYN has been “unexplained infertility” – meaning all your blood work is normal, your stress level might bee too high. Acupuncture cannot only help you to decrease stress, but it can also help you to balance your hormones which will eventually make conception easier. Walking outside for 45 minutes (not on a treadmill) where you are breathing fresh air and getting some vitamin D, can lower cortisol levels and be very relaxing. Other exercises such as meditation, yoga, QiGong, etc. can also be very beneficial in calming the mind.

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