For decades scientists and fertility doctors have questioned the connection between stress and fertility. Now, a group of scientists thinks they may have cracked it. This article explores the link between stress and fertility, and what you can do to manage it and improve natural conception.
What you need to know:
High levels of the stress hormone (cortisol) can trigger a chain reaction in your body that suppresses fertility.
Practicing calming proven techniques to reduce chronic stress and anxiety could be beneficial for reproductive outcomes.
In time, new drugs to block the actions of the RFRP neurons may be developed to help women struggling with infertility.
While it's clear that experiencing infertility or other fertility problems is an inherently stressful experience - and infertile people have high stress scores - it's harder to determine whether chronic stress came later, or could have been part of the problem in the first place.
Now a revolutionary new study has found the so-called missing link between stress levels and infertility and the lead researcher, from the University of Otago in New Zealand, says their findings prove that fertility is suppressed during times of chronic stress.
Professor Greg Anderson, a neuroendocrinologist who has spent a decade examining the connection between stress and fertility says not only does he think a likely link has been found, but that the reaction is more evident in women than men.
Here's what his team of researchers found:
A group of nerve cells near the base of the brain – called RFRP neurons – suppressed the reproductive system when stressed.
When the activity of the RFRP cells is increased due to the stress hormone cortisol, the reproductive hormones were negatively affected.
Hormones functioned normally when the RFRP neurons were silenced, even when in stressful situations.
"RFRP neurons are a critical piece of the puzzle in stress-induced suppression of reproduction," according to Professor Anderson.
"We have now shown that the RFRP neurons are indeed the missing link between stress and infertility. They become active in stressful situations – perhaps by sensing the increasing levels of cortisol – and they then suppress the reproductive system."
Using cutting-edge transgenic laboratory techniques, Professor Anderson's team was able to study animal models to find the neural pathway that likely also functions in the same way in humans.
Stress is in the brain and the body
Stress is almost exclusively linked with cortisol.
Cortisol is a hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands, which is released into the blood and transported all around the body.
It is most well known for fueling your “fight or flight” instinct in a crisis, but because almost every cell in your body contains receptors for cortisol, too much of it can wreak havoc on your body in all kinds of ways.
Let’s say you’re in Spain at the Running of the Bulls, the shot rings out and the bulls start barreling down the streets towards you.
Cortisol gives you the energy to run by releasing extra insulin (glucose).
It keeps you awake and alert so you can focus on not dying. And it gets your heart rate up so you can cope with the spike in energy.
However, because cortisol is so good at keeping you alive, it shuts or alters a variety of other functions that are less important for survival.
Key things are put on hold until you are back to safety, things like digestion, your immune system, and most notably, your reproductive system.
So while you may not be going to the running of the bulls, cortisol can be triggered by all kinds of everyday events, from a traffic jam to watching the news.
Stress and infertility
When your body consistently creates cortisol it can lead to all kinds of issues that can, directly and indirectly, impact your fertility.
Cortisol ups your blood sugar and insulin levels in order to give you the energy to “fight or flight.”
Repeated elevation of cortisol can lead to weight gain by mobilizing your triglycerides from storage and moving them to fat cells deep in the abdomen in addition to aiding in the maturation of fat cells. This can lead to obesity, which is associated with anovulation, menstrual disorders, infertility, difficulties in assisted reproduction, miscarriage, and adverse pregnancy outcomes.
To cope with stress, people may often smoke drink or overeat, which are all bad for your egg health.
When your body is focused on survival, hormonal mechanisms shut down non-essentials like your reproductive system, which can lead to irregular periods and ovulation.
Your digestive system is also slowed down, which means that your body isn’t properly absorbing the nutrients needed to mature healthy eggs.
The fight of fight response causes blood to be directed to our muscles, so energy reaches the parts of us involved in immediate defense. This is problematic for fertility, as it simultaneously results in reduced blood flow to less critical areas, such as ovaries. Good blood flow to reproductive organs has been linked to better outcomes in almost all aspects of fertility.
The long and the short of it is that the consistent creation of cortisol zaps up all the energy in your body and disrupts the very crucial hormonal balance that is responsible for maturing quality eggs. One study even found that an increase in cortisol leads to a decrease in the hormone estradiol, which can actually damage the quality of your eggs!
Another study measuring the effect of stress on the outcomes of 151 women going through IVF found that both acute and chronic stress resulted in fewer eggs retrieved, fewer eggs successfully fertilized into embryos, fewer successful embryo transfers, a lower rate of live births, and lower birth weight. Inversely, women who ranked highest on the positive mood meter were 93% more likely to have a live birth than those who ranked lowest.
Watch ELANZA Wellness's interview with Professor Greg Anderson:
Chronic stress is a prolonged and constant feeling of stress (we all know that feeling of constantly lurching from task to task, probably over-caffeinated, feeling out of control and with no space in your schedule for calm time).
It’s particularly important to avoid slipping into this state, as it has been found to cause your body to overact n to stimuli compared to a non-stressed person. Basically, when you’re chronically stressed, it increases your fear responses even in situations where they’re not really needed - you’re a ticking time bomb. Studies have shown that chronically stressed rodents had hyperexcitable amygdala. As such, taking this 90-day window to re-evaluate your regular routine, minimize the things that are causing you anxiety, and make space for self-care, is essential.
But... don’t stress, the good news is that you can do something about it!
Retrain your brain
Did you know that you can actually train your brain to be happy?
Remember that stress doesn't come from what's going on in your life. It comes from your thoughts about what's going on in your life. - Andrew J. Bernstein
A 2018 Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study revealed that in North America, 20-25% of women of reproductive age report daily psychological stress.
It seems that no matter where you live in the world, you’re probably dealing with an enormous amount of stress. The American Institute of Stress states that the top sources are:
Job Pressure - Coworker Tension, Bosses, Work Overload
Money - Loss of Job, Reduced Retirement, Medical Expenses
Health - Health Crisis, Terminal or Chronic Illness
Relationships - Divorce, Death of Spouse, Arguments with Friends, Loneliness
Poor Nutrition - Inadequate Nutrition, Caffeine, Processed Foods, Refined Sugars
Media Overload - Television, Radio, Internet, E-Mail, Social Networking
Sleep Deprivation - Inability to release adrenaline and other stress hormones
Consider yourself lucky if you only relate to one of these!
The challenge is that stress has become a completely normal part of our daily lives, so much so that we can’t even identify when we are stressed because it’s happening all the time!
Our brains are naturally wired for stress
Think back to the last employee review you received. Even if the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, your brain most likely zeroed in and fixated on the negative aspects.
This is because humans are wired to focus on the negative rather than the positive. This psychological concept known as the “negativity bias,” has played an important role in our evolution, enabling us to suss out imminent danger.
Great for short term survival, but inappropriate for our day-to-day lives.
One example of this comes from a study by psychologist Roy Baumeister, which found that people pay more attention to angry faces than to happy ones. This illustrates how acutely our brains perceive potential threats - when this happens, it triggers a cascade of hormones.
And while our brains are naturally wired to identify threats, researchers have found that some people react to them much more negatively than others., This phenomenon, on the other hand, is informed partly by genetics and partly by learned behaviors built over time.
This is where psychologists came up with the positivity ratio. They concluded advise that to obtain a healthy mental state, you need to obtain an average ratio of 3:1, positive to negative emotions. People with a 2:1 ratio tend to be dissatisfied with their lives and people with a 1:1 ratio are considered clinically depressed.
Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
People with a healthy response to threats are considered to have a “happy amygdala,” (parts of the limbic system of the brain associated with emotion, survival instinct, and memory) - in layman’s terms: otherwise known as optimists. Optimists believe they have control over their own destinies. They focus on opportunities rather than unchangeable problems. In turn, those positive thoughts fuel their ability to take action and achieve their goals. This positive feedback loop becomes wired into the brain, and the cycle continues.
Conversely, pessimists are considered to have a “sad amygdala.” That is, they tend to perceive problems as being irreversible and out of their control, which generates heightened fear-based reactions like anxiety and anger. Pessimists even record having experienced more negative life events than optimists do. Researchers believe this abundance of negativity and stress is due to their belief that they can’t change anything.
The part of your brain linked to fear emotions is called the amygdala.
Part of the Limbic System, at the end of the hippocampus, these two clusters of neurons are the reason we are afraid of things outside our control.
Studies in which researchers removed/damaged the amygdala of rats resulted in them having no fear of anything, including cats.
People with an overactive amygdala may have increased anxiety in social situations. Sometimes we can experience an ‘amygdala hijack’, for instance in an argument with partners, which is when emotional memory rules our reactions without logic or reason, triggering a 'fight or flight' response.
Much of the pessimistic approach to life is actually a learned behavior that starts to develop in early childhood, mainly from parents and schoolteachers.
One study indicated that helplessness can be produced by giving people a task that’s impossible to fulfill, no matter what they do. It is also these feelings of helplessness that lead to a state of depression.
So according to this theory, depression is not caused simply by loss, defeat, and failure. It is caused by the belief that there is nothing you can do to change the situation.
Things scientifically proven to lower stress:
Rather than trying to eliminate all the stress from your life (a stressful endeavor in and of itself), you can focus on adding positive experiences that tip the scales toward happiness.
Meditation is an ancient Buddhist practice that has been around for thousands of years. It requires deep concentration on the present moment, allowing you to eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be crowding your mind and causing you stress.
Meditation has been shown to produce a deep state of relaxation and a tranquil mind that can help you achieve your 3:1 positivity ratio. This is evidenced in a randomized study of people split into two groups - one that participated in a meditation workshop and the other did not. The meditation group was shown to have a much higher positivity ratio than the one that didn’t attend.
Furthermore, meditation is considered a type of mind-body complementary medicine in which the effects can be seen in physical changes in the brain. It’s shown to reduce activity in the brain that involves negative emotions and increased activity in areas of the brain tied to positive emotions.
Get free meditations for fertility HERE>
2. Keep track of all the situations that made you happy, angry, sad or stressed throughout the day
3. Gratitude diary
4. Calling your parents or old friends
5. Hug it out. Hugging may actually reduce blood pressure and stress levels in adults.
6. Looking through photo albums
8. Regular exercise
10. Cognitive behavioral therapy
11. Spending time in nature
12. Repetitive actions like knitting, or even chores (!) or doing something creative
13. Helping others
14. Healthy eating: many studies have shown that the risk of depression is 25% to 35% lower for those who eat a Japanese or Mediterranean diet vs those who eat a traditional, Western diet.
15. Laughing more: laughter has been shown to actually mitigate the physical effects of stress (like fatigue) on the body. Happiness is a two-way street: our brains are interconnected with our emotions and facial expressions. When we smile or laugh we send a signal to our brain feedback loop that things are ok!
Discover more ways to manage stress and make other beneficial pre-conception lifestyle modifications with the ELANZA Wellness Coach.