April is Stress Awareness Month and although most of us can manage small amounts of stress – which can even help you focus on achieving short-term goals – chronic stress can eventually affect how you cope with daily life. And, the longer stress lasts, it can even become a threat to your health and wellbeing.
Long-term stimulation of the stress response system means we’re overexposed to cortisol and other stress hormones, and this can lead to mental health problems, insomnia, digestive issues, muscle tension, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and cognitive impairment.
It is not fully understood how stress affects fertility. Some studies have shown adverse effects, while others don’t, and most are only small-scale studies at this stage. We certainly know that the reverse is true and struggling to conceive can be very stressful. One study published in the Fertility and Sterility Journal surveyed 352 women seeking treatment for infertility and found that more than half of them showed signs of depression and three in four showed signs of anxiety.
So, whether your stress is related to your struggles conceiving or other factors, how does it affect your fertility and pregnancy outcomes?
Stress and your fertility
Stress triggers the body’s fight or flight response. In short, this means releasing stress hormones like cortisol which have an immediate physical impact such as increased heart rate, shallow breathing, high blood pressure and stress headaches.
When you are experiencing a prolonged period of extreme stress, the body will shut down any systems that it does not deem necessary for survival. This is why you can experience hair thinning a few months after a very stressful situation – telogen effluvium is a type of hair loss that results from an interruption in the normal hair growth cycle. In terms of your fertility, this can cause delayed or absent ovulation and irregular or missed periods.
In one small-scale study from 2015, women in the high stress group based on perceived stress assessments were found to have lower levels of oestrogen, progesterone and luteinising hormone. They also had higher levels of follicle-stimulating hormone during a particular stage of their cycles which meant an increased chance of anovulation which is when an egg is released from the ovary during your menstrual cycle. Chronic anovulation is a common cause of infertility.
Another key stress hormone, CRH or corticotrophin-releasing hormone, is present in diseases that cause inflammation. Abnormal levels of CRH can affect the uterine lining and placenta and therefore could adversely affect implantation.
However, not every study has found a link and 2019 investigation found no difference in conception rates in women based on their daily reported perceived stress levels and a 2017 study of women undergoing IVF concluded that perceived stress and high cortisol levels “were not associated with IVF cycle outcomes”.
Managing stress during IVF
At Aria Fertility, we know how important it is to find ways to manage your stress throughout your fertility journey. Our doctors, nurses and embryology team provide comprehensive patient care combined with a wealth of medical experience and expertise, so you know you are in the best possible hands.
In our Support Hub, we have brought together organisations and individuals that offer fertility support, advice and information. Methods for managing stress encompass counselling, acupuncture, reflexology, and nutritional support.
For more advice on managing stress during your fertility journey, call +44 (0) 203 263 6025 to arrange a consultation.