One of the most overlooked roadblocks to conceiving is psychological stress. Infertility is aggravated by lifestyle factors, but stress itself can interfere with the balanced release of hormones required for the production and release of a mature egg. Male fertility is affected by stress as well. Although studies have not examined the effect of stress on sperm production and sperm count, it is known that impotence and difficulty ejaculating can be caused by emotional distress.
Unlike other causes of infertility, stress is like a ball rolling downhill – it gains momentum over time. The inability to conceive causes more stress among couples, which in turn aggravates infertility, and so on, resulting in a vicious cycle. This is why managing stress should take just as much priority as finding ways to treat your infertility, as the two factors are integral.
The science behind stress and infertility
Existing research on the relationship between stress and infertility presents a lot of compelling evidence.
When you are confronted by a “fight or flight” situation, your body produces a hormone called cortisol as a response to stress. Small doses of cortisol can actually bring some positive effects – it heightens your memory, makes you less sensitive to pain, and gives you a quick burst of energy for your survival. If the source of stress is constant, levels of cortisol keep on climbing, interfering with functions of the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that produces sex hormones.
Until recently, the effect of stress hormones on fertility was only a theory. But, in June 2009, researchers from the University of California Berkeley found new evidence showing how cortisol interferes with the function of the sex hormone gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH). When there are low levels of GnRH, low sperm count, irregular ovulation, and sexual dysfunction occur. According to the findings, cortisol has a double-whammy effect on fertility. Not only does it inhibit the effects of GnRH; cortisol also increases the levels of another hormone called gonadotropin-inhibitory hormone (GnIH). As you can tell by the name, GnIH aggravates infertility by preventing the release of gonadotropins. Although these findings were based on experiments in rats, the conclusions have opened the door to further research on the subject and new ways of thinking about infertility.
Boost your fertility with stress management programs
The effects of stress on fertility may vary from couple to couple, but studies seem unanimous on their conclusion that it’s easier to conceive when you’re under less stress. A paper in the journal Human Reproduction provides evidence that pregnancy is unlikely during months when the couples report feeling anxious or stressed. Conversely, the likelihood of pregnancy increased during months when couples reported feeling happy.
Stress can also affect the success rates of artificial reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilization. In a study published in Fertility and Sterility, researchers observed that women with high stress levels released 20% less eggs during ovulation than women with low stress levels. Those who were more stressed were also less likely to have a successful pregnancy.
So when you are trying to become pregnant, you have nothing to lose by spending more time relaxing. Unwind after work with a massage, sign up for a yoga class, or attend a stress management program. Harvard Medical School’s Mind-Body Institute shows that 57% of infertile women became pregnant 6 months after taking a 10-week mind-body program.